We were reading Beowulf and the kids were slumping in their seats. I bellowed and spat the epic poetry with all of the Viking force I could muster, but the lines formed a lot of saliva due to the strong alliteration and the kids scooted their desks to the back of the class and covered their faces with hands and notebooks. I took this as a sign that we needed a break and said: “Instead of reading Beowulf, lets PLAY Beowulf!”
“Beowulf” the game is wildly popular in my class. It’s a version of reverse tag where a single “Grendel” gets a 20-second head-start out the door before the rest of us–“Beowulf’s Army”–hunt him down. Sometimes the hunt for Grendel takes us through several classrooms and restroom stalls and administrative offices (and often on-campus security has become inadvertently caught up in the game), but it is a great way to invigorate a boring lesson. I try not to have other rules, but last week our Grendel ran home, made herself lunch and took a nap for the rest of the day. So now we have a rule about that.
The kids elected me to be “Grendel” so I took off, scaled a gutter pipe and laid down on top of the roof off my own classroom. Then I waited for ten minutes, but weirdly, nobody left the classroom to come search for me. I crawled to the edge of the roof and peered through my own windows. All of my students were just chilling and playing on their phones–they had forgotten about the game!
I whispered to myself: “I am a pointless, ridiculous monster, crouched in the shadows, stinking of men, murdered children, martyred cows….” That is what Grendel would have said.
Then I asked myself: “What would Grendel do if Beowulf’s Army never left the great meeting hall?” Answer: He would wait for darkness and then attack! But since I had no darkness I settled for the element of surprise. The passing bell rang and just as the kids were exiting the classroom I leapt from the rooftop to land in front of them, intending to yell: “I will destroy you Hrothgar!” But sadly I landed awkwardly, rolled an ankle and couldn’t yell–just a whimper: “Pity the miserable wretch, Grendel!” I said, as the kids stepped over me.
Re-springing Your Step
On Friday all of my third period Freshmen students dressed up as their favorite hero–from history, movies, books, sports–whomever they admired–and then we challenged each other to fights to see who was the greatest hero. So I was Odysseus and also the referee and I would make sure that the battles were realistic and that everyone stayed true to character. For example, when Albert Einstein fought Kobe Bryant I would tell Kobe that he could dunk on Albert Einstein or perhaps rape him, but that Einstein could actually nuke Kobe Bryant’s family. Then they would mime the battle in super slow motion (while my computer played the battle track from A New Hope) to give it that epic feeling. The kids loved it! And of course they learned that sometimes being a great scientist is cooler than being a superstar athlete–not a message they hear often in our culture.
Some battles were made in heaven. Todd S. came as his own great-grandfather who had survived Aushwitz and the death march, while Connor (who is a bit autistic and never participates in anything) slicked back his hair, glued on a mustache and came as his favorite military hero, Adolf Hitler. I allowed Hitler to beat, shoot and gas Mr. S while Mr. S could only writhe in pain and, with his last breaths, thumb his nose at Hitler, who would grow more and more frustrated. Finally, he shot himself in the head and Connor took a full minute to die, which was super funny. And of course the lesson here was that Courage always trumps Evil!
Many heroes challenged me, The Man Who is Never at a Loss, the Great Odysseus, and each time I smote them with my sword or battle ax. My favorite moment was decapitating Peyton Manning after he hurled (imaginary) footballs at my head. But then things got dicey when Hana, dressed as the Muslim prophet Muhammad, issued a fatwa on me and my descendants. Of course I easily took her out with an arrow between the eyes, but then the entire class–acting as her followers–captured me, cut my throat and paraded my corpse around the room. After that things got a little out of control and a full scale slow motion riot broke out. Fortunately the bell rang a few minutes later.
Pleased to Meet You
The secret to learning is asking questions. Students should train themselves to ask ten thousand questions a day, I model this for them by answering all of their questions with questions. “What are we doing today, Mr. Newhart?”
“I don’t know. What are we doing today?” I reply.
“Should we read the next chapter or are we still talking about this one?”
“Should we read the next chapter?” I ask. “Or should we talk about this one?”
Pretty quickly the students realize that the best questions elicit more questions and that those who want easy answers are not learning or adventuring through a learning experience, but are merely shutting out possibility and short-circuiting the thinking process.
Recently I gave a test to see if my students had read Book One of Homer’s Odyssey and the students answered with challenging questions of their own.
“Who is Telemachus?” I asked on the test.
“Who IS Telemachus?” they wrote back. “Do we really know? And does Telemachus really know who he is?”
My students have begun to think. I am so proud!
Smartphones have revolutionized education! They are smart… and we can learn from them… and we can learn through them… by using them to communicate more directly. I can send a group text or a group email to my entire class while they are sitting in front of me! So instead of fighting with technology I am adopting and adapting! I no longer speak directly to my students while they play Trivia Crack on their phones. Now I simply sit at my desk and text instructions over and over again to them. I have restricted all classroom communications to texts and emails (I will not answer them in person) and use my phone for everything. The students find this extremely annoying and try to shout me down, but I simply yell out in a robotic voice that I cannot hear them unless they are talking through my screen. A few students have begged me to look up at them and listen to a personal complaint or question or give permission to use the restroom, but I have yet to make an exception because a good teacher should always be stern and consistent when retraining student behavior. Bad habits do not break themselves!
My doggie makes me smile because he is always happy. He wicks me and wuves me with his wittle doggie heart. Most of all I wuve my doggie-woggie because he learns so much so fast unlike human students who are slow and stupid and ungrateful. Snowball is my bestest student–never gets frowny, never talks back, never leaves without permission unless I leave the front door open when the garbage truck goes by. He doesn’t ask for makeup tests because he was smoking pot with his friends or argue about his grade. He just wuves to learn from me every minute of every day. This morning he jumped into my bed and snuggled up to my cheek, and I said, “Snowball!, Daddy’s sleeping. Get off the bed, go outside, do a pee-pee and then wait by the door for your bone-woney.”…And that is exactly what he did! He listened thoughtfully to every word, nodded and flawlessly executed the command without asking a question or needing me to repeat my instructions three times. So now I ask you this semi-serious question: Why do we waste public education on humans who don’t appreciate it when there are so many deserving doggies who could benefit from those resources?