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One Topic Often Left Out of Discussions About Education: Fun

School improvement is a really complex process. This week, I want to talk about something that is often left out of school reform discussions, and that is fun.
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Last week, I wrote about Wade Carpenter Middle School in Nogales, Ariz., and how its improvement over the past decade holds lessons for all of us. I talked about the role expectations, focus and expertise played in turning the school around.

But school improvement is a really complex process and I only scratched the surface of the topic. This week, I want to talk about something that is often left out of school reform discussions, and that is fun.

The evening I arrived in Nogales, Wade Carpenter was conducting an evening orientation in the cafeteria for incoming fifth graders. I sat unnoticed among the parents and fifth graders while little sisters, brothers and cousins charmingly attempted to distract all of us.

With its talk about tardiness, detentions, grading policies, tests and lockers, the presentation by the counselor and dean of students could have been made in any middle school anywhere. Honestly, I felt a little let down -- I had come all this way to see what I had hoped would be a great school, and the orientation made it seem like just regular school officialdom telling kids that riding the bus "is a privilege, not a right."

But after all the PowerPoint slides had been read -- in English and Spanish -- an extraordinary video was shown. In it, students, teachers, custodians and office staff danced and lip-synced to the pop song "Good Time," which demonstrated vividly that life at Wade Carpenter was a "good time." Disarming and funny, the video broke the tension and the fifth graders clapped and looked more than a little relieved that school would not just be a collection of rules and homework policies.

When I talked with teachers the next day about the video, they told me that students had asked to make it as a welcome to their incoming classmates, and the teachers supported them in fulfilling that desire. Teachers said over and over again that many of their students don't get a lot of fun in their lives -- Nogales can be a pretty grim place -- so they're determined to help make school a place where students have fun as well as work hard and behave -- a place where they want to be.

As I saw at the fifth grade orientation, rules and academics come first, but fun is as close behind as possible.

Schools that improve in the kind of way that Wade Carpenter has, in other words, aren't just attending to academics but are thinking broadly about all the things kids need.

(I was hoping the school had posted the video on You Tube, but I couldn't find it. If you'd like to see an earlier Wade Carpenter video, to the tune of "Call Me Maybe," go here. It's not quite as funny as the "Good Time" video, but it's still completely adorable and features students, teachers, staff members and even the community resource (aka police officer) assigned to the school!)