Of Superheroes and Principals

Guest Article by Shalene Gupta
Johns Hopkins University

ETA Shalene Gupta working with students
“If your principal was a superhero what would he wear?” I say to a room full of a hundred students I have never met before. I’m leading a writing workshop on the informal essay. I’m on loan from my regular school and I’ve had a week’s notice about the event and minimal information to help me prepare. On the car ride over, their teacher grilled me on my teaching experience, stressing that the main issue was the students had trouble being creative. When he found out I had no training what so ever, he retreated into a polite silence.
The room goes silent. A hundred pairs of eyes stare back at me. Then everyone erupts into laughter and students begin to shout out suggestions left and right.
“Underwear. Pink underwear.”
“High heels. He’s short!”
I write the principal’s name on the board and start drawing little arrows off of it. I explain what a mind-map is and the importance of planning out an essay before you start writing. Then I turn the students loose to draft mind-maps on their favorite teacher’s secret life as a superhero.
The students know about mind-maps, and when I go through the structure of an informal essay, they shout out the parts, introduction, body, conclusion. The information is old news. What’s new is the spin. When the students finally draft their mind-maps into essays I get stories on superhero teachers who run away from their wives, stories told from the perspective of a dream, and elaborate metaphors about how clothes are like unsung superheroes.
When I leave the students mob me for my e-mail address and phone number. “Come again,” they say.
As an untrained teacher who is supposed to be leading classes, I often doubt my ability to impart information to my students, such as explaining the whys behind the rudiments of English grammar or the basic principles of good writing. The teachers I’m surrounded by often times have a much deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of English and how to manage a classroom.
What I’ve learned, is the best thing I can offer my students is a different perspective. I strive to make learning fun, which has its own value in an education system that caters to acing national exams. I measure the success of a lesson by how engaged the students are, how much they are laughing and paying attention.
The lesson about superheroes one I’ve used before with my own classes, and I was surprised by how hard students were willing to work as long as they were interested in the topic at hand. I’ve disguised basic grammar drills as competitive games, where I write sentences with blank verbs on the board and divide the students into teams that compete to fill out the sentences the fastest. By the end of the class, students were nearly knocking each other over in their attempts to conjugate verbs correctly and catch errors. 
There are days when lessons don’t work, or classes that react differently to a lesson—some of them loved error correction, others grew bored of it half way through. Each class has their own personality, but I’m learning it’s my job to try as many things as possible to figure out what will get students up and out of their chairs, so excited by the activity at hand, that they forget they are scared to speak English, forget that speaking English is difficult, and just focus on having fun. That’s when the real learning begins.

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