The Theatricality of Teaching

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Teaching and acting have a great deal in common. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Students walk into a dim classroom.

“Thank you for being here today,” the teacher intones to the first student who arrives.

“Your presence here this morning would have meant a great deal to him,” he remarks somberly to the next student.

“I know this is a tough morning for you; he considered you a great friend,” he assures a third.

As students take their seats, bewildered, they notice the podium is draped in black, fake vines and a rose hanging from the top, flickering tea light candles arranged across the top of the lectern. Behind the podium, a drawing of a long-haired boy next to a soberingly terse epitaph helps the students make sense of this bizarre start to their second-period English class:

Simon
c. 1944-1954

This is the dramatic scene that greeted my sophomore students this week the day after I assigned them to read chapter nine of Lord of the Flies, the chapter in which the stranded boys of the novel, driven savage in their isolation from “civilized” society, “do in” ten-year-old Simon in a frenzy of mob violence.

For the fourth consecutive year, I followed our reading of this devastating chapter this year with a brief, somber memorial service for Simon, the quiet Christ-figure of Golding’s 1954 novel about the savage beast that resides in all of us.

In addition to being an effective way to determine who did the assigned reading (“What? Simon died?!” the oblivious student will inevitably exclaim), this bit of theatricality breathes life into our study of the novel and shows my students in a powerful way just how human the characters they’ve been reading about have become to them over the course of a few weeks as we all share an opportunity for a bit of catharsis in the classroom.

Sometimes, by this point in a unit, my sophomores are simply ready for a change. Fortunately, I’m ready for their restlessness. This week, as I delivered my precisely one-minute, thirty-second eulogy over the background of “Elegy for a Funeral (Entrance)” by British band Dakota Suite, I saw thirty-seven pairs of eyes on me. Not a single student was whispering to a neighbor; not a singe text message was being furtively composed. Sniffling a bit, wearing a mournful expression on my face and grasping a rumpled tissue in my hand, I reminded my students of Simon’s uniqueness as a boy unafraid of the jungle and the dark, the only kid on the island who recognized the true identity of the beast and dared to stare it in the face (quite literally, thanks to Golding’s employment of the sow’s head as a corporeal symbol of the evil within all men–and boys). I bemoaned the loss of the one person in the novel who showed charity, who resisted the temptation of the hunt, and who, ultimately, “was too good for this world.”

Year after year, without fail, the students are momentarily riveted, and it happens that they’re in this engrossed state as I’m overtly reminding them of the salient qualities of a character who too easily fades into the background of a novel filled with characters who are more vivid, assertive, outspoken, and meticulously described than the dark boy with the long black hair. That’s what I like to think of as a “teacher trick.”

It’s often said that teachers are actors. We put on a happy face on our most anxiety-inducing days, we radiate optimism when we’re not quite sure a student’s really going to get it, and we quite literally perform for our kids whenever we do a read-aloud; I’d wager that most high school teachers would confirm that this flair for the dramatic is as important in teaching high school as it is elementary school.

Every year, activities like my memorial service for the fictional Simon–a lesson that students often tell me stands out as particularly memorable–inject a vigor into the teaching and learning in my classroom while communicating clearly yet tacitly to my students that I care deeply about them and about my content. What teacher, after all, would go to the trouble of decorating a podium, creating a slideshow, forcing down convincing sobs, and delivering a heartfelt eulogy for a made-up kid in a book unless he really cared, right? And it only takes  a few minutes of instructional time each year. Talk about efficiency!

I wanted to share this simple lesson and reflection with you today because I think it’s an important reminder of the power of three qualities often undervalued in pedagogy: personality, performance, and creativity. We can adhere to “best practices” and research-based techniques every day, but unless we bring our personalities and creativity into our classrooms and are willing to perform a bit, we’re unlikely to capture our students’ minds, hearts, or respect.

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