September 26, 2011

A Letter From The Teacher: The Transformative Power Of ARRRRRR!

Anytown High School, Any State, USA

To: Mrs. Williams
From: Mr. English Teacher
Re: The Transformative Power of ARRRRRRRR!

Dear Mrs. Williams:

I very much appreciate your attention to my monthly newsletter. I'll be glad to explain why we talk like pirates and why that's a wise thing to do in English Class.

International Talk Like A Pirate Day is September 19. I'll let Dave Barry explain the origins of the occasion because it was through this column that I first heard of it. I immediately thought it would be a fun and useful activity at the beginning of the school year and in the near-decade since, has proved to be just that.

Each of my seven classes has its own unique personality made of the personalities of all of the students. But every year I have one or two classes of kids who, as a class, are tentative and reserved. Of course, many kids are reluctant to perform, to stand before a class to read or act out a play. How to cure kids of their fears, to encourage them to participate, is always one of the most vexing problems any teacher faces.

In addition, the state mandates a long list of standards we must teach each year. Among them are grammar, drama, public speaking and various kinds of writing. Surprisingly, talking like pirates—and our preparation for it--fulfills all of these requirements and more. But I'll explain what we do before I tell you of the extraordinary results.

During the first week of school I tell the kids of Talk Like A Pirate Day and tell them that we'll all be talking like pirates. Some look confused, some are delighted, but it builds anticipation in all. The day before Talk Like A Pirate Day I explain the concept and show them a DVD I made with a principal. First we have a normal conversation:

Mr. English Teacher: "Good morning Mr. Principal. How are you?"

Mr. Principal: "I'm just fine Mr. English Teacher. How about you?

MET: "I'm fine as well, thanks. Say, have you noticed that Sally Student is doing better this year?"

MP: "Yes I have. I'm glad you're keeping an eye on her."

MET: "I'm glad to do it. Thanks."

MP: "You're Welcome."

Then we translate the conversation into Pirate while wearing hats, eye patches, hooks and other piratical goodies:

Mr. English Teacher: "Avast Cap'n! Be ye shipshape?"

Mr. Principal: "Arrrrr! I be tauter 'n a mainsail! Ye?"

MET: "Yearrrgggh! Me hatches be battened! Have ye spied the cut 'o Sally's jib?"

MP: "Aye, she be a sprightly wench! Step smartly and keep a weather eye out!"

MET: "Arrrrr.

MP: "Arrrrrrrrr."

This delights the kids, who always love to see their teachers being goofy. In a very real way, it gives them permission to have fun.

I hand out our "Semi-Official Pirate Sentence Generator," which is a list of pirate nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, phrases and sentences. "Arrrrr" is, of course, every part of speech. The kids work in small groups to write their scripts of original pirate conversations.

Without realizing it, they gladly throw themselves into interacting with others and have to think about parts of speech, sentence construction, rhythm, plot and theme. Because it's inherently silly and fun, they drop any resistance to school and have a great time merely speaking the phrases and sentences and making their own. In fact, they'll be spontaneously talking like pirates at home and around school for days.

When Talk Like A Pirate Day arrives, I'm always pleased and a little surprised to find that some kids have gone to the trouble to make their own sets and props in addition to the hats, eye patches, hooks, spyglasses and other piratical goodies I provide. Instead of having to pick groups as teachers usually do, I have only to relax as the kids can't wait to Arrrrrrrr their way through their skits.

And what skits! Some are mediocre, some average and others witty and delightful. And it is here that magic happens. Bright smiles on their faces, their un-patched eyes twinkling, they throw themselves into various accents and dialects: a British pirate here, an effete French pirate there, and other accents not easily identified. They laugh and fight epic battles with foam swords, dramatically dying when run through. And miracle of miracles, the other kids cheer them on, laughing freely and genuinely at the antics of their classmates. Many see their classmates in new, agreeable ways that would not have otherwise been possible. They are genuinely surprised at kids they've known for years.

I videotape their skits and lovingly edit them with fast and slow motion and other tricks into a DVD that I show at the end of the year. It serves to remind them not only of how very much they have grown and improved in a single short school year, but what great joy life holds if only they set aside their fears.

When Talk Like A Pirate Day ends, my reserved classes are transformed. They're far more lively and interested. It's apparent in their posture and in smiles much more freely given. For the remainder of the year, when it's time to real aloud or to stand before the class and act "Julius Caesar," there is no reluctance, no hesitation. The kids are conditioned, and without realizing how or when I did it, they gladly jump up and tackle the English of the late 1500s with a better ear for dialect, pacing and delivery.

In this simple, brief activity, we've dealt with many state standards and set important precedents that will last the year. The kids discover that words and language are fascinating and fun. Speaking and acting in front of others is no longer any big deal. And most importantly, the kids begin to actually look forward to coming to—of all things—English class!

I hope I've addressed your concerns to your satisfaction. If not, please let me know. You're always welcome in our classroom.


Mr. English Teacher

Posted by MikeM at September 26, 2011 10:54 PM

My daughter would have a Beatnik Cafe day at the end of her poetry block to help her 7th graders get involved with their own poetry. It was enjoyable enough that other teachers would come in during their off periods to participate. It was one of the hits of the year. I'm not sure what she did to transform the room beyond little light except on the "stage" and bongos.

Posted by: STW at September 27, 2011 09:09 AM

Oh, how blessed are the children who have such wonderful teachers!!! If only we could get rid of the over-paid 'administrators' and give that pay to teachers. They deserve to be paid 'top dollar' for the wonderful gift of learning that they give to children.
To all the money that is wasted on nonsense in our school systems, I say...ARRRRRRRR;-)

Posted by: carol at September 30, 2011 10:53 PM