The Dead Guy in Grammar Lab

“What are some other types of characters in the classic detective story?” I look out at the four faces staring back at me, all surprisingly awake for 8:15 in the morning.

“The dead guy,” answers Hayden.

“True,” I say. “But not every mystery story is a murder mystery. Why don’t we call that character the ‘victim’? The victim isn’t always dead.”

“Yeah,” calls out David, not missing a beat. “Sometimes he’s still twitching.”

And the class, including me, erupts in helpless laughter. Wiping my eyes, I return to our lesson on basic sentence parts. “We’ll talk about the other characters later. For now, I want to talk about basic verb types—action, helping, and linking—and each of these corresponds to one of the character types we just talked about.”

I click to the next slide on my PowerPoint—a slide about how action verbs are “main characters” of sentences, like detectives in mystery stories—and up comes a large picture of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. For about the fifth time in fifteen minutes, I lose the class for several more seconds of general delighted uproar.

I’ve never been known for having a quiet classroom. A couple of years ago, during a particularly silent creative writing lab, the principal stuck his head in the door of the classroom just to make sure we were still in there. Apparently Miss Heins classes are never that quiet.

Of course, there’s plenty of reading and sitting going on in my classrooms. It’s not like we’re swinging from the rafters every second. But it seems like every year I teach, it becomes more and more important to me to make my classes appealing, fun, and active. As a kinesthetic learner myself, I know the value of getting my hands on whatever I’m trying to learn. I know from experience that talking in class, as long as it’s about the subject, is actually a powerful way to learn. I also know that knowledge—whether it’s Puritan literature, Pacific Northwest history, or how to use verbs properly—isn’t innately boring and therefore shouldn’t be taught as such.

Call it a personal philosophy, if you like.

The delicious chaos that my classes tend to be would make some teachers—and possibly some students—pull out their hair. My tendency to skip merrily through the textbook in my own order certainly makes a lot of work for myself. And there are certainly times when my grandiose creative schemes fall flat on their faces, and the students look at me like I just told them to pull their socks off and draw each other’s feet. (Actually, that happened once. I had no idea they would find the concept so horrifying.)

But if teaching verbs as characters in a detective story actually makes my students remember how to use the verbs properly—therefore enabling them to communicate precisely for the rest of their lives—I say, it’s worth it. If performing skits where students are throwing bean bag cats at each other while speaking in only one different verb tense per person actually reminds them which tense to use, I say toss those bean bag cats. Learning ought to be a ridiculous amount of fun.

Let’s keep the dead guy jokes and Benedict Cumberbatch pictures coming.

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