By Michael Chellman, Middle School
The Wall Street Journal said he "revolutionized the teaching of foreign languages." The New York Times said his "theatrical, immersive approach" made him the "preeminent pioneer" of language instruction for students around the world.
"He" was Dartmouth Professor John Rassias, who died last year. I was one of his students.
Rassias was an unabashed performer. (Uh-oh, red flag...doesn't that mean a "teacher-centered" classroom?) I'll let Professor Rassias answer for himself:
"My method is a dramatic interpretation of language, infused with an avalanche of energy and an excessive stretch of the imagination, all presented to the students with a warm embrace and an invitation to join the action.
"The more students participate in the class, the longer they will retain the knowledge. They are emotionally involved. When they do something with all of their senses—when they come alive—they are deeply engaged.
"Interaction is playful, nurturing, rewarding. Class is free of fear. Inhibitions vanish.
"If you conform to a mode that says don't show much life in order to preserve a sense of dignity, no one is going to be energetic. I'm trying to release teachers from that.
"It's a simple concept: You perform in order to instruct. If you divorce the two, you're dead."
In short, Rassias actually had the ultimate "student-centered" classroom. Fun and drama are about making connections between the teacher, the student, and the content. It's performance with a purpose. As author and former Brandeis professor Jyl Lynn Felman says, "Emotions are a pedagogical tool. Without feelings, there is no passion; without passion, there is no appetite to learn."
So yes, whether it's Dartmouth College or the Bullis Middle School, a class can be fun...and substantive. In my class that means using music and stories to bring history alive. Fun also means lots of respectful but spirited argument on both historical and contemporary issues. We do that through debates and my own "verbal essays" similar to the lively "roundtables" on Sunday morning talk shows. Fun also means seasoning lessons with abundant doses of humor–laughter and learning make ideal partners.
My philosophy mirrors that of Harvard's Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot: "I believe in the 'playfulness' of learning—turning ideas on their sides, considering them, laughing about them. Learning is at its best when it's serious and playful at the same time. There is an art to the interplay of discipline and humor."