Why We Need More Epic Learning Experiences

Epic Learning Experiences in School

Growing up as a kid I couldn’t wait for Color Day. It was my school’s “Field Day” except…it was epic.

When you entered school as a kindergartener (or in any grade) you were given a color: Red or Blue. That color stuck with you throughout the entire K-12 schooling experience. Color Day was placed on the same day as the High School Prom and lasted a half-day. At around 11am when it was over everyone went back home or to get ready for prom if you were older.

At this point you are probably thinking, yeah…my school had field day too…what’s the bid deal?

Well, here is how Color Day was epic.

1. The entire school participated in Color Day. Red Seniors were cheering for Red Kindergarteners, Blue 5th graders were cheering for Blue 1st graders etc. Each grade level had a specific event (think dizzy bat race, tire roll, etc) that garnered points for the winning color. Elementary, Middle School, and High School also had relay races where you could win points…and the High School had a tug-of-war for both girls and boys.

2. Color Day was a tradition that dated back years and years. There was a running tally on who had won each year (Blue is still ahead). And each year the winning team got to paint our school’s bell their color.

3. Color Day started off with points on the board. There was a Red and Blue quiz during the school year to give a head start to the winning academic team.

4. Siblings were all the same color (either Red or Blue). I was the oldest in my family and chosen to be a Red, therefore all my siblings were Red as well. This encouraged cheering for siblings and family rivalries.

5. The night before Color Day was time for Red and Blue mischief and sleepovers. It made for quite an interesting night…and added to the “epicness” of Color Day.

I could go on, but I hope you get the point: Anyone who went to my school will always remember Color Day as one of the best school experiences. Why? Because it was bigger and better than anything else.

Student Engagement vs. Student Buy-In

Color Day was on my mind, because the HS I worked at had a Field Day that was canceled. It wasn’t canceled because it was a bad idea…there were a lot of people who put in time to make it a great day. It failed because there was no buy in. Students would rather miss school than to go to that field day. On the other hand Color Day has the entire community come out and support the event…including Alumni.

What I’ve seen in schools is that events like this can go one of two ways. They can be embraced, talked about, and loved…or they can be scoffed at, laughed at, and dismissed.

The difference is not student engagement…it is student buy-in.

Student engagement is about getting kids to pay attention. Student buy-in is about getting kids to take ownership.

When we plan events, we want students, staff, and all the community to get excited. But often we miss the part that matters the most. Epic experiences come from the buy-in.

Epic Learning in School

Back to my school that canceled Field Day. You may be thinking, this school lacks school spirit, that’s the problem… However, this is the same school that packs a gym full of thousands of students for our annual Silent Night basketball game. Check this video (and this one) to see the awesome event.

The difference between Field Day and Silent Night, is that students were active in the creation of the epic experience. Silent Night started out as a student-driven event and quickly became a tradition that everyone in the school community looked forward to as winter rolled around. Alumni come back for Silent Night and parents come out to support it in the same way they do Color Day. I’m sure that 20 years from now students will be talking about what happened on their first Silent Night.

These experiences have me thinking about epic learning events in school. When I look back on my K-12 days here is what I remember:

  • Field trips to NYC, DC, Musicals, Plays, and of course our epic Home-Ec field trip where we ate all day in different spots in Philadelphia
  • The school plays we had to perform in each elementary grade
  • Timetable competitions…they were epic…so were the “24” and “Krypto” competitions
  • First big research project on a country. I chose Romania because of Dracula I think…
  • Creating my first game in computer programming class
  • Acting out and recording our version of a play
  • Building cars and towers in Physics
  • My last research paper on Malcolm X

As a teacher I see this trend continue. Here is what I remember most from teaching:

  • Project: Global Inform
  • Flat Classroom Project and NetGenEd
  • Starting FANS club
  • Sparknotes Website Creation for Bonesetter’s Daughter
  • Class Poetry Slizzzamms
  • 20% Project
  • CSI Wissahickon (1 week CSI we put together at the end of 11th grade)
  • Appeals Day (last day of every marking period where students argued for grades with evidence and research)
  • Writer’s Boot Camp (10- days of intensive writing)

All of these experience were bigger than what we normally do…and either I bought in as a student, or my students bought it when I was the teacher. They were all EPIC.

The issue, however, is that we can’t make every single experience in school epic…then it would lose it’s luster and we’d miss out on some very important lessons/content.

Yet, I believe what we do on a day-to-day basis should lead up and prepare students for epic learning experiences.

We also remember the little things as human beings. How a teacher treated us. How a student grew throughout a year. A class coming together to do something great for a family in need. Saying hello in the hallways. Asking about their weekend, or summer, or anything besides school. The games we’ve watched together. The moments in class when no one can stop laughing…

These little things build a school experience over time. But, the epic experiences help shape our view on teaching and learning. You don’t always have to try for epic learning, but when you do, make sure their is student buy-in and ownership. That way, the school community or class will come together naturally, and learning will be a byproduct.

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  • Jon Harper says:

    Great piece AJ! We seem to forget that we have a lot to compete with for kids’ attention. If we don’t find a way to get it, something else will and we may not even know it. I love the camaraderie involved in color day. If we can build that in our classrooms the students will create and buy-in to whatever we need. I like the term “epic” to describe what we need to be doing, well done!

  • We had something very similar in elementary school. Starting in grade one you were assigned to Birch, Oak, or Maple. We competed in events throughout the school year – mostly sports-related – including our intramurals at lunch. The foyer held plaques of the three major events (fall, winter, spring). Each year the school got the name of the team that one that event and the year they won it engraved on a piece that could then be hung from the appropriate plaque. The leader board was also displayed there with the names Birch, Oak and Maple shifting places throughout the year depending on who was in the lead at the time.

  • I would actually say that some of those smaller moments can be pretty epic, too. They may not have the pomp and circumstance but we never know how something little can help a kid catch fire for something, change their attitude, or become a truly epic memory.

    Thanks for the post!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Completely agree, in fact it is those smaller moments that often have a greater impact on the individual students. For example, I still remember a piece of writing I handed in that my teacher told me was not up to my potential…and made me resubmit. There was no anger in his voice, just a calm feel that I could do better and therefore should do better. It has impacted me in ways he’ll never know (guess I should tell him!).

  • Tim Smyth says:

    This really made me take a step back – it is so hard to see the big picture as a classroom teacher when we have so much thrown at us each day and need to “get through” the curriculum. I have always wanted to get all of my ninth grade students into the stadium to reenact trench warfare – a giant strategy game. Hmmm….

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