Creating learning moments out of classroom chaos (yes, it can happen!)

Teaching children can be a volatile experience, especially when the subject is art.  And since art can be almost anything, it pays for a teaching artist to be ready for almost anything when teaching kids.  One of many occupational nightmares a teacher has to face is the suddenly eruption of class chaos and anarchy.  And it doesn’t take much to trigger it. It can be a bird flying in class via open window, or a class comedian making the sound of a muffled fart.  What ever it is, the explosion is swift and loud.

Odd as it may sound, a teaching artist can take advantage of chaos especially if the cause is clear and specific.  “Seizing the moment” becomes a reality, and not a workshop abstraction.  It all boils down to timing, taking specific actions and having a clear idea of where to take the energy of shouts, cries and thundering feet.

Gary Draper (left) in action: Elementary students learning critical thinking skills through creative movement.

I once taught a bizarre “drama” lesson to 35 loud, engaged 4th graders in an echoing auditorium.  In the span of 1 hour I wanted to give the kids an experience of what a fully committed action looks and feels like.   One of several “exercises” during the lesson had kids demonstrate a strong decisive action in front of their classmates.

To add a little tension and suspense, I tried a gimmick in one of the exercises – I brought in several large plastic packing bubbles, the size of small pillows.  The idea was to have a kid leap and land with a pop on the air bag as they made an implosive or explosive frozen body shape.   We would study and reflect on the dynamics – tension and suspense – as if we had captured in a photographic image the release of high energy.   Fortunately, just the combination of pausing before the action, the leap, the landing with a loud shot of sound, engaged the kids.

This routine went on for some time before a short dumpy kid stood by the bag.  On my cue, he paused, coiled his legs and leapt.  I remember thinking: for his size and body weight it was a high leap.  Wham he hit the bag full force and got the loudest echoing shot of the day.  He instantly became the implosive shape, bent over like a tight spring.  Before we could applaud and appreciate the beauty of his performance- bright red blood gushed from his nose, splashing on to the gym floor. Seconds passed before the teacher rushed the kid out of the gym, leaving a trail of drops behind.   The rush from the room had a conic effect and caught the kids off balance.

I had to say something to try to contain the growing chaotic response that would soon erupt.  As teacher and child fled, I called out, “Hey, what’s your name? That was fantastic!”

There were waves of exaggerated groans, grunts, shouts, utterances of disgust that filled the gym.  Most of the kids leapt from their benches to get close ups of the sticky red mess of living liquid.  A few boys remained near the benches play-acting retching and vomiting.  A crowd of curious girls and boys gathered around the point of impact and stared at the pool of splatter with twisted faces, a few of the brighter girls had broken off and seemed to methodically trace the pattern of drops that lead to the gym door.

At some point during the creative anarchy, I regained control of the mob by bellowing over the shrill voices of kids to sit on the benches!  I told them that by sitting we could better study the spattered pool of blood and fleeing drops.  My ensuing improvised lesson drew much of its information and critical thinking approach from having watched episodes of Dexter on television. Thanks to Dexter we focused on using deductive reasoning to recreate what had happened based on the blood pattern on the floor.  We even played with likely scenarios of what may have happened when the lunch bell rang out.

Gary Draper is a former teaching artist and currently the Artistic Director at Performing Arts Workshop. When Gary’s not at the Workshop, he can be found indulging in books and French cuisine. Read his full bio here.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy:

  1. Who Are Our Teaching Artists?
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  3. The Subtle Change Within
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4 thoughts on “Creating learning moments out of classroom chaos (yes, it can happen!)

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