It’s interesting to observe how children learn, solve problems, and pick up cues from their surroundings. For several years I offered a tutoring service. I also kept myself on the substitute lists for area school districts. It was a good way for me to keep close contact with the schools, meet a lot of students, and keep in touch with teachers. They all knew of me; I was always there on Fridays because I did not tutor on Fridays; and sometimes I was at school on other days too.Substitute teaching is one of the most thankless jobs an educator can have. In that role, usually the teacher leaves plenty of work sheets to keep students occupied. Most of the time, you feel like you are either a policeman or a babysitter. The students often use their creative skills to throw off substitutes. After you understand what you can and cannot do as a substitute, you realize you will not be teaching anything; rather you maintain order. But, every once in a while, something incredibly good happens in substituting situations. One of the usual tricks of students is to sit somewhere other than their usual place or, what the seating chart reflects. One day I was substituting in a high school and asked the first person if he was who was supposed to be there. He said, “No.” I then asked who he was. He answered, “I am Mickey Mouse.” The next guy said he was Donald Duck. After three students chose fictitious names of cartoon characters, the rest of the class followed suit. I found it very interesting, particularly because they were waiting for me to put a halt to this folly in the classroom; I chose to let them imagine themselves as someone else. When all 38 students had announced who they were that day, and incidentally there were no duplicate choices, I asked if they all remembered who they chose to be. They did. I gave them three minutes to seat themselves alphabetically. It was shockingly, amazingly, wonderful to watch what happened. Almost immediately a couple of leaders emerged and said, “Characters with names starting with ‘A’ to ‘H,’ please come to the right side of the room. The direction continued for the alphabet. They were indeed seated in alphabetical order. And, instead of being just another student, each one was a famous, well-liked character. They functioned as a unified group. They asked, “Now, what do you want us to do?”As I was watching this group of young people functioning as a cohesive group I was pleased with their sense of order and that they were aware of the time limit they had. Though I did not write down any characters each student chose to be, I do remember there was not one villain in the group. The other thing I noticed was every single person in that classroom was paying attention, sitting properly at their desks, and enthusiastically ready for more direction.I asked them to consider themselves as the character they chose, write a paragraph or a few sentences about what made that character unique. They were encouraged to use dictionaries and carefully select adjectives to appropriately describe who “they” were. Rarely does a substitute see such an engaged class of students. They had 15 minutes to write their description. It was an English class; I viewed it as creative writing that day. Each person pondered the assignment for a few minutes; some of them looked at themselves, perhaps hoping they were physically transformed into fiction. I was impressed by the seriousness with which they approached this totally spontaneous idea they themselves initiated.Timing was critical because to ensure that each person, in character, had time to read his paragraph to the class, feigning a “voice” of the character. A few that I remember were quite descriptive. The person/character I found most interesting was a young man who wore glasses and seemed to be very self-conscious, if not shy, chose to be “Prince Charming” and, he was! When he read his paragraph, he had total command of the class and he spoke with authority. We all applauded his presentation.We had an innovative, creative class hour; everyone was immersed in their character. I would see those students from time to time. We would chat, always mentioning character day. I strongly believe everyone in the class had some insight into themselves and their abilities. Role playing often gives us understanding about ourselves and how others view us. Empowering and encouraging students to use their imaginations was a great learning experience.It seems unlikely a day like that one could happen at a school today. What we now have as characters on screen are base, disrespectful, violent, and crude. I cannot imagine having the same kind of enthusiasm I saw that day as a substitute teacher. • Ann Bednarski of Carson City is a career educator and journalist.
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