I continue to draw inspiration in my own teaching from my favorite experiences as a learner. Of course, most of these I pull from memories of my undergraduate instruction and my own high school English classes, but I can honestly say that one of the schooling experiences that had the biggest impression on me—and still does—was my K5 year kindergarten class at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in St. Francis, Wisconsin, back in 1991.
Our K5 teacher, Mrs. G, was absolutely delightful. I still remember her clearly as a kind, energetic, fun teacher who truly cared about her students; I recognized all of that even as a five year old. What I can more greatly appreciate now is the absolutely insane amount of work she must have put into planning, designing, and maintaining her beautiful kindergarten classroom. The units that we did involved these large scale classroom transformations that immersed us into a world of imagination related to the topics we studied in class. The interior of a spacecraft, Plains Indians traditional homes, the Amazon jungle, under the sea—not only was the classroom a place of learning, but also of wonder and color, the ultimate playground. And the students participated in the creation of these worlds, too. I can still remember helping to craft, stick, hang, and drape things for our Ocean-themed classroom during Open House week.
Recently in my own classroom, I was reflecting back on those kindergarten days and found myself thinking, “Man, that was fun. Too bad high school can’t be more like that…” Often, we’re way too busy grading research essays or worrying about curriculum alignment to even consider taking the time to turn our classrooms into deserts or courtrooms. But you know what? I think that, at least a couple times a year, we should make the time. Because high schoolers love to play, too. And they learn better while doing it.
A perfect example of an idea for creating an immersive classroom experience in the high school classroom comes from one of my former colleagues from Milwaukee School of Languages, Ms. L. (She has her own wonderful blog called The Art of Seeing in AP English—check it out!) Her class was famous among the students for, among many other things, its transformation from classroom to Speakeasy during her unit on The Great Gatsby. When I asked her to share a little bit about the process, she wrote:
When I have done a speakeasy as part of the school day, students were expected to come dressed up in some way (beads and dresses for the girls, ties or hats for the boys). Each hour had a different password (example: “the cat’s pajamas” or “the bee’s knees”) that they had to know to get into class (and also something like a draft of their Gatsby essay). Once inside, the fluorescent lights were off, Christmas lights were on, and we would drink apple juice (“cider”) or one year a boy brought glass bottles of Coke. We tried out all our 1920s slang and learned how to dance the Charleston (through the power of YouTube). I definitely believe in imaginative play being beneficial to students. Too often I think something that is left out of the conversation in education is that school can and should be fun. We always remember things better and understand things more thoroughly when we’re having fun. For me, events like these are key to classroom culture and team-building, and they’re things that underclassmen see going on and then get excited about being in my class eventually to do. I see it as part of my overall English class Marketing program–always got to work on your brand, right?
Right. If we offer our students the often-ignored or skimmed-over chance to play and imagine, we get higher interest and investment. And, as Ms. L wisely observes, that process of thinking positively about a classroom experience sometimes even starts years before students get into our classrooms.
So, I’ve decided to try incorporating more of these immersive experiences into my classroom. The most recent one (which was enhanced by some brilliant ideas from Mr. M’s students next door), was creating a classroom crime scene investigation to correspond with Act III, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet. I dubbed this activity “CSI: Verona.”
After reading and acting out the scene dramatically, we used colored electrical tape to create an outline where Tybalt had fallen, collected the weapons that were strewn when the battle had occurred, and used index cards to create some nice blood spatter where Mercutio had been dragged offstage. Then we took on the role of crime scene investigators—I had my students create a detailed report of the crime scene, and then they conducted suspect interviews with various characters who had different perspectives of what happened (Benvolio, Lady Capulet, Citizen, Montague, Balthasar, Tybalt’s cronies, etc.) Based on their observations, the students decided who to charge, what to charge them with, and what their recommended sentence was. They ate it up, and when we left Tybalt’s body print on the floor for a few days, my other classes were all intrigued. (Several students from other classes even laid down to test their silhouette against the body imprint, with bemused grins.)
Our CSI Verona activity was only one class period long, and altered the appearance of the classroom only in a fairly minor way. Still, the power of imaginative play created an environment of laughter, fascination, and thinking that no list of textbook questions could ever come close to spurring.
I think it’s time to take a lesson from kindergarten and create more immersive classroom experiences that use the power of imaginative play to take high schoolers by the hand and pull them back into the sandbox where learning and fun go hand in hand.
If there are readers out there with awesome examples of immersive classroom experiences like this, please leave a message in the comments or on the new Universe as Text Facebook page! The button at the top of this page will take you straight there. Like us for notifications of new postings and other updates!