Learning as the intersection of work and play, Part 2: Run for the race, not the finish line

When I was teaching third grade, students used to beg me to write fiction. I loved their energy and wanted to start our fiction writing unit as much as they did. My reluctance to begin lay in the frustration I knew students would feel during the unit and my own imminent frustration knowing that I couldn’t get them to where they really wanted to go. Their imaginations were so grand, yet their writing skills so limited.

A few authors have helped shift my thinking, about fiction writing, and learning in general. Over the years, I have been fortunate to meet numerous authors who have visited our school. One visited during our fiction writing unit and as my students tussled with storyboards, character drawings, and other planning mechanisms that I forced upon them, he completely changed our thinking. He explained that often, during his writing process, he has no idea where his character is going. It allows the writing to take on the same sense of adventure as the character’s journey. He was playing with his work.

I felt a need to guide each student to some final product, while I should have been focused on creating a classroom setting in which students could enjoy the adventure of writing. From my experience, students that enjoy something are much more likely to find success. The image of our final stories would be the guide, but the writing of the story should be much more valuable.

Just recently, I had the pleasure to meet with Sara Pennypacker, author of the Clementine series and more recently Waylon!, which is a spinoff of Clementine. While discussing her writing, Pennypacker remarked that she just couldn’t keep Clementine out of the story, as if she had a life of her own. It reminded me of Linda Sue Park’s book Project Mulberry – Park has a conversation with the main character in the middle of each chapter of the book, as if the character has somehow snuck from the pages into the real world. This idea of character’s having minds of their own, wanting to go for an adventure made me realize that as writers, we need to make sure we don’t hold them back.

While these are interesting anecdotes, they also tell us about learning. In the same way that these characters need the time and space to find their way, so do learners. Education is a narrative, it is a personal, autobiographical story. No matter how old, students choose to learn what they want to. Consider all that we have forgotten from our school days. We may have learned what was prescribed to us in the short term, but what we truly learned, what we remember, are the skills and ideas that we chose to understand more deeply, that we enjoyed learning. We took pride in that work.

William Pinar was the author that helped me develop my understanding of education as narrative initially. He pointed out that the word curriculum comes from the latin root currere, meaning to run. Curriculum is simply the running of the course, the race. What is not defined in this root word, however, is the most important part of the race. Pinar’s use of currere emphasizes that the running of the race is as important to the finish. In my mind, what we learn on the way to the finish line outweighs the value of the finish itself.

The elements of competition and an end goal are essential in many ways. We often need others to compete against, to push us forward, and we often need a finish line in order to give us direction, but there are many types of races, and many types of running. They aren’t all in straight lines and many take wandering paths through challenging, beautiful landscapes. Sometimes it’s important to run directly and cross the finish line, to test yourself, to gauge where you are. More often, however, it is critical to explore different routes, to try new strategies, review certain courses, to take the adventure where you need it to go.

The truth is that I have not figured out how to make this wandering adventure of learning come to life or work successfully in my classroom all the time. It feels like a wrestling match – the desire to provide students with the time and space to wander their path versus the constant pressure of our daily schedule. That desire to create that sense of adventure for my students is an adventure unto itself. I haven’t crossed a finish line, and I might not ever get there. I do think that my teaching has improved because of that pursuit.

My next post will explore a framework idea that structures learning with the opening for learners to remain adventurous.


Part 1: What is learning? The intersection of work and play


2 thoughts on “Learning as the intersection of work and play, Part 2: Run for the race, not the finish line

  1. “Play with your work” is such an important concept. Our MS Principal often encourages her staff to ‘come play in the sandbox’ during brainstorming sessions and meetings. It has been setting a nice tone in terms of coming with an open mind and letting go of some of the ‘this is how we always have done things…’


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