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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Working Hard, Working Happy’

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 13, 2019 7 min read
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Rita Platt agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom.

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb.

LF: The title of your book, and its contents, connect “effort” and “joy,” and you don’t often see them in that kind of relationship, especially in education circles. What prompted you to write a book focusing on that theme?

Rita Platt:

I am so glad you asked that, Larry! You’re right, we don’t often see effort and joy as connected ideas, but, I think we should! I do not see them as opposites at all. Fun and hard work have a reciprocal relationship in classrooms—the more joy, the more hard work and visa versa. In my experience, the most effective classrooms are those where students and teachers alike are happy and hard-working.

Years ago, when I first read Dan Pink’s great book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it hit me light a bolt of lightning! The main idea is that people are most motivated when they have a sense of purpose, a belief that they can master or accomplish something, and a measure of autonomy (voice and choice) in what they are doing. When these things are present, people tend to be motivated to work hard, and that hard work makes them more joyful about the work.

Pink made solid what I had always suspected to be true, and he did it with a strong research base! Well, once I read that book, I was off and running. I worked to bring purpose, mastery, and autonomy concepts to life in my classrooms. What I found was that high levels of self-efficacy, personal satisfaction, rigor, fun, and an overall joyful climate bred increased student effort. That is to say, when students were joyful, they worked harder, and when students worked hard at meaningful learning tasks, they were more joyful.

Over the years, I have come to believe that you cannot separate joy from effort. They go hand in hand, and when they are nurtured in the classroom, magic can happen. And do you know what else? Teachers and kids spend the better part of their days in the classroom. We should work hard, and it should be fun! We owe that to the students and to ourselves. That’s what the entire book is about.

LF: The book is chock-full of ideas. This is an unfair question: Can you share three of your favorite ideas in it that teachers can apply in their classroom tomorrow?

Rita Platt:

Well, that is an unfair question! But, sure, I’ll try!

1. Use the power of social media or a positive text or phone call to build community in your classroom and beyond. Carry your cellphone in your pocket and share how fabulous your students are. My district uses a Facebook page. When a kid tells a funny joke, I have them do it again on Facebook Live. When a student meets a goal, I call or text their parents on the spot. Sometimes, I just send a selfie (or even better, a “silly-selfie”) to families. It builds common cause in a fun and loving way. When you become a part of students’ wider community, they want to work hard for you. More detail and similar strategies can be found in Chapters 6 and 7.

2. In Chapter 4, one of the big ideas is how to allow students to see themselves as capable and successful learners. One great way to do that is to help your students set goals and teach them to plan and monitor for success. You and I have both written about the power of helping kids use goal-setting. Even working with them to set simple goals will give them a focus, a sense of autonomy, and the opportunity to see themselves be successful. Examples of simple goals are:

      • I will read ___________ books this quarter.
      • I will [learn or study] division math facts for 1s through 10s by January.
      • I will earn an A on all of my social studies quizzes during the first trimester.
      • I will run a nine-minute mile by the end of the semester.

3. Have fun! Make a commitment to bolster positive climate though shared laughter. Tell a joke, show a funny meme or video, play music, tell a quick story, whatever! Just have fun. Joy is infectious, and it makes everything better. Let go of your ego and have good-old-fashioned goofy fun once in a while! Chapter 2 is loaded with ideas to help you mix fun into your classroom.

LF: I particularly liked your chapter on differentiation. Can you mention a few key tips from it?

Rita Platt:

I’m not surprised you liked it, Larry! Much of it mirrors what you have said about differentiation over the years. In fact, I quote from your great video, Differentiating Instruction: It’s Not as Hard as You Think. I agree with that completely!

Most successful teachers differentiate every day and always have. I think that for a while there, the professional development surrounding differentiated instruction made the concept so confounding that teachers had a visceral and negative reaction to just the term! Honestly, that broke my heart a little. We are in the business of helping students learn. Each student is a unique wonder. That means we have to tweak what and how we teach to meet each kiddo’s learning needs. Differentiation shouldn’t be a four-letter word! I want to reclaim it from the consultants, professional- development providers, and administrators who obfuscated to the point that the term darkened the mood of the room.

So a few key tips? Sure.

1.Think of it as nothing more or less than “responsive teaching.” When you’re working with students, the question is “Are they getting it?” If the answer is no, then think about what you will do to help her/him get it. Whatever it is you must do ... well, that’s differentiation. It is as simple as that. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not.

2.Know your learning target (objective, standard, I Can ..., learning intention, what the SWBAT, or whatever term your district requires you to learn and use.) When we know what we want students to know or be able to do, it’s a lot easier to help them get there.

3.Offer a modicum of choice. Even a little bit matters. For example, if you have students doing a worksheet with 20 math problems or writing answers to 20 questions, have them complete only 12. You choose some that they must do and allow them to choose the rest. For students who are easily overwhelmed, cut the sheet up! Give them two problems and have them come see you for the next two.

LF: You share lots of excellent strategies. As we educators all know, it’s not unusual for things not to work the first (or even the second and third) time we try them. What do you say to a teacher who has tried out three activities from your book in a row and they all land with a thud? How should they think about it, and what should they do next?

Rita Platt:

The concept of “failure” doesn’t resonate with me. So, if something lands with a thud, consider it a part of the process that will end in success. I’m going to share a kind of weird analogy. Years ago, my best friend smoked cigarettes. When he decided to quit smoking, there were many starts and stops. He would quit for a few days or a week or even a few months but then start again. Each time he started again, he would be full of self-loathing because he felt like a failure. However, every time he told me he had started again, I would say, “Don’t worry! It’s a process! Every time you quit, you get closer to the final time where you are totally successful! Celebrate what you accomplished and try again when you’re ready.” Well, guess what? He did quit and hasn’t smoked in 20 years. All of those “failures”? They were a path to his success.

Pick strategies that you really want to try. Pick strategies that you feel fit with your philosophy and teaching style. Try them. If at first you don’t succeed? Try again! Even better, find a colleague who will try with you so you can compare notes, reflect, and improve together. Or, contact me (@ritaplatt) ! I LOVE to help teachers near and far and am always up for a good old-fashioned chat about teaching and learning. Teaching is a profession. That means we have a shared body of knowledge and can and should call on each other! A growth mindset is just as important for teachers as it is for students. Read about growth mindset and the power of “yet” in Chapter 2.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Rita Platt:

Teachers deserve to be joyful, too! Just as I wrote above about students, there must be an opportunity for mastery, purpose, and autonomy in an educator’s day-to-day life at school.

Chapter 8 is called “Effort and Joy, They’re Not Just for Students!” Teachers have a hard job. If it is to be a doable and long-lasting career, then we must do two things. One, point our efforts in the most impactful direction, and two, increase and sustain joy in our working lives. PLNs and professional collaborators can help! When things get hard, and they will get hard, step back. Take a breath. Ask for help, watch a funny video, go have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with a good friend, and remember that it will get better. Teaching can be a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you’re down, look up! You’ll be at the top again before you know it.

LF: Thanks, Rita!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.