Better Learning Through Collaboration, Pedagogical Rollercoastery

Wolf and Pig

Yours truly, with highly venerable Scottish ladywolf colleague

The full-body pig suit was incredibly hot.

Pink and gelatinous and topped with a great cardboard-and-felt monstrous head measuring a half-metre in diameter, the costumes were pretty magnificent. I had planned ahead and thought to wear only gym shorts and a t-shirt, and thus my wretched porcine swaddling was not quite so torturous as it might have been. Even still, as we waddled down the hall, unable to walk astride because of the width of our encasements, the bulk and claustrophobia started to feel like a sauna buried deep below the earth.

We wandered into the library, where our children had been deposited minutes before. The librarian had read them the 3 Little Pigs, and we were those pigs, having recently fallen out of our storybook, concussed and bewildered and unsure of our connection to one another. Shrieks of joy assaulted us as we approached. Some tried desperately to figure out who was trapped within each piggy of lupine disguise, while others were just willing to go with it and accept the magic.

The children broke into groups to interview us, to discuss our perspectives, to explain our relationships to the others pigs and the wolf and why we were holding bricks and straw. When we departed, the wolf hot on our trail, we needed to jog back up a flight of stairs and down the long hall to our grade classrooms so we could change, deposit our farmland carapaces, and try to right ourselves. We returned to the library to pick up our charges, only slightly unkempt and red-faced, and asked them what was all the commotion.

It was exhausting and taxing and impossible to manage. There were extra adults on-hand just to keep things running smoothly, and I went home that day from school feeling like all the life had been drained out of me.

But the kids went home grinning and gleeful, excited about the day they had had and thinking about the days to come. Childhood joy with learning is teacher cocaine. It is difficult in those moments when I am pulling on my sweltering costume or climbing into a large time machine or organizing massive piles of garbage, and I feel like I may need a caffeine IV drip pumped directly into my aorta. But then a 7-year-old tells me that they love school, that they love science or math or reading, and suddenly sweating through a felt costume isn’t so bad.

My mailbox is constantly full of letters and packages from mysterious strangers, all of whom have relevant pedagogical needs. Toymakers who need capsules to contain specific capacities of small toys, animals who need homes built out of specific material, endangered species wrapped up in packages with clues suddenly appearing in my email. Puppets crawl suddenly onto my chair, waiting to discuss their views on the stories from which they emerged, and everyone in the room is perfectly willing to ignore my hand jammed up the puppet’s butthole, because this is elementary school, where sorcery lives.

It helps that my students are at exactly the right age of guilelessness. Their concept of cool is so nascent as to be non-existent, so the idea of their teachers playing dress-up and leading them on a variety of educational journeys is as plausible as it is joyous. My kids know that “special guest” means “teacher dressed up like an idiot” just as much as it means “something terribly amazing and interesting is about to happen.” One or two are staunch cynics, desperate to point out the flash of business casual poking out of a mad scientist sleeve or how a certain puppet sounds just like me. But they are drowned out by the rest. They are swallowed by the desire to just go with it and let learning be as much Disneyland as it should be.

It’s not always easy, nor does it always work. I think of attempting this solo, of conjuring together this much spectacle as a lone ranger educator, and the prospect seems terrifying. The children will get a lot out of it, but you need collaborators just as much as you need enthusiasm. You need other grown-ups who are willing to winkingly try on anything at all for the sake of a good investigation.

The trick, our team has decided, is assembling a group of adults who are all game. Adults who are willing to be goofy. Adults who are willing to dress up, to smear themselves with makeup and period costumes and claustrophobic wolf masks. Teachers who are ready and eager to make jack-asses of themselves if it means a kid will take an interest, will start to pick up the passion. With the combined force of a half-dozen of such nerds working together as one force, anything is possible.

Anything sometimes being a time machine, built from cardboard boxes and painted to perfection, filled with people in clothes borrowed from forgotten high school drama productions. It sometimes means running from one end of the school to the next to collect paints and wood and metal and paper and plastic and having a much-desired “garbage party.” With enough recyclables, some non-toxic paint, and a room full of wide-eyed children, you can make basically anything happen. The only limitations are your walls, the sky above, and how many silly wigs you can get your hands on.

16 thoughts on “Better Learning Through Collaboration, Pedagogical Rollercoastery

  1. That sounds brilliant and engaging and most importantly, memorable. Those kids will look back on that library lesson for years to come! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • They brought it up the other day when I asked about what great things happened in the library. Some of my kids are still very willing to play ball: “When you were in a meeting, the three pigs came to visit us!”

    • I used to write about it a bit more in Korea, mostly because there was little chance that any of my coworkers or the families of any kid in my school would ever seek this out or even try to read it. Being at an international school has made me sheepish about sharing, and very delicate in my writing! I want to write more about the classroom.

  2. All the hard work that goes into “making the magic.” Grade school teachers really can shape a kid’s future.

    “everyone in the room is perfectly willing to ignore my hand jammed up the puppet’s butthole, because this is elementary school, where sorcery lives.” this line cracked me up

  3. May I suggest, that despite the sweat and unkempt hair you have a better time and feel rewarded unlike other pedagogues who think that “seriousness” (the symbol of which are stern faces) is part of true didactics?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s