Every year, back in my Derby Middle School teaching days, we did Kansas Day. A big Kansas Day. As in . . . invite the newspaper, Board of Education, and parents kind of Kansas Day. I was the social studies guy on a teaching team and my goal was to find a way to integrate my social studies activities with math, language arts, science, and reading.

And a big Kansas Day fit the bill.

We organized all sorts of activities and projects for the day that students rotated through. Kids weaved wheat into hearts and shapes. They punched tin for pioneer lanterns. Sewed quilt pieces. Played frontier games. We had a blacksmith set up shop who demonstrated how to make horseshoes. A storyteller came and entertained.

It was always such a great day. Parents loved it. Made our principal look good when he talked with the newspaper guy. Kids were up and moving around.

It worked out so well that I started doing more projects and activities. I had kids use potatoes and paint to make African Ashanti cloth. We played Oregon Trail. Kids simulated the Constitutional Convention. You get the idea.

I was Project Man.

Because projects are good, right? My job was to engage kids. Have fun. Hook kids into liking social studies?

But the further I’ve gotten from Kansas Day, the more I realize that I had the wrong end in mind. I wanted my kids to enjoy my class. And I think they enjoyed stuff like Kansas Day and Oregon Trail. But fun isn’t the goal. Learning is.

Projects don’t necessarily equal learning. Projects equal busy. And while fun and engaging activities are not wrong, if we focus just on engaging, we miss the point of why we’re here. Nothing wrong with fun but we have to be clear that it doesn’t get in the way of learning.

Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group spoke at a joint Kansas / Missouri history conference several years ago and did a quick Q & A:

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as History Alive or about making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to thinking rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.

I’m beginning to agree.

The cool thing is that there are lots of fun and engaging things that we can do with kids that still end up with them learning what we want them to learn. I really like the work that Wineburg’s group is doing with curriculum – it focuses on historical thinking, content, and, because it starts with a great question, it’s engaging for kids.

A friend of mine who’s busy teaching 8th graders told me this morning:

I am ending my year running my kids through nearly every Stanford History Education Group lesson plan over Civil War and Reconstruction. They like it . . . and it’s so teacher friendly.

For those of us who focus on projects and those who believe in the power of traditional lecture style instruction, a recent article in the latest Stanford alumni magazine will be helpful. (Sam sent a PDF version as well.) The article highlights what instruction can look like when it’s focused on both engaging kids and teaching them to think historically.

We can be both. Project Man and facilitator of learning. And if we want to be the best we can be for kids, we need to be.