ARCHIVED—The Day Stalin Dropped By
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Learning experiences that capture students' imagination can happen in the classroom, too, particularly when the teacher goes out on a limb.
You could have heard a pin drop the day Russian leader Josef Stalin walked into a history class at St. Joseph High School in Ottawa. He barked orders at the surprised students and, before they knew it, had them doing push-ups beside their desks.
As a way to start a unit on the Russian Revolution, you couldn't beat it. "The kids were hooked," says Virginia Winfield, their teacher, who acted out the part of Stalin.
On another day, to launch a study of The Lord of the Flies, she dressed in rags and crawled on her hands and knees up four flights of stairs, crying "Water, water."
"Most teachers forget about sitting in a square classroom… how dull it can be," Winfield says. "The first thing you have to do is wake them up. That's the first purpose of my incorporating drama into my classes."
She has since discovered other benefits. For one, students see the teacher in a different light - as a risk taker. "If students can see you out there, they will put themselves out there. If you ask them to do creative projects, why would they do them when they see that you wouldn't?"
Drama is also tangible and can involve all five senses. In her history classes, all the students dress up. When learning Shakespeare, she has them act out all the plays. They particularly like using foam swords and ketchup for the fight scenes.
(There must be something about swords. Another recipient, Donna Neilson of Rockridge Secondary School in West Vancouver, recounts how one of her toughest students memorized and acted out a large swath of Hamlet when given the chance to do so with a real sword as a prop.)
Winfield has a huge tickle trunk à la Mr. Dressup that she can raid whenever she needs to. "There's so much you can do by giving a student a hat or a mask. They feel safe [to take risks they normally wouldn't]."
Winfield admits that her acting experience makes this easier for her than it might for other teachers. But there are a lot of baby steps any teacher can take to bring a subject to life, even in a small way. Here are a couple of examples.
- Play four corners with a discussion topic: divide the class into four groups, one in each corner of the room. Have each group discuss the question, with each person putting forth their argument. Once everyone has had a turn, those who agree, move on to the next group to collect up more adherents. The teacher can participate in this, too.
- Put the desks in a circle every now and then and have a group discussion.
- Give an oral presentation on a topic. Purposely make it perfect or purposely do it poorly. Ask students to mark the presentation and discuss it.
"You don't have to act, just take mini-risks," Winfield says, but do take risks and "try to ensure that you take more risks than they do."
Taking risks means risking failure. And when students see teachers who are willing to possibly fail - in front of the class no less - they may be more willing to take such risks themselves. Winfield recounts a grammar lesson that just wasn't working. At one point, she flopped in a chair and said in exasperation, "You know what, guys. I'm completely off today."
"As a teacher, you can't bring an ego into the classroom because kids smell a fake," says Winfield.