Culture, Star Wars, Dinosaurs and a Child’s Imagination in the English Classroom

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A second-grade English learner practices story-telling across four Earth Time eons/eras: Hadean (pre-Cambrian) with our paper-mâché volcano in the background, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras color-coded (matching mats with pictures and information not in this photo.)  The student has to put animals in their respective times.  He will then choose some Famous People and have them interact with some of these animals in a time travel story –

As a parent or teacher, you tend to “go along” with the play-acting of your child.  If you film it though, and replay the “lesson” you had with him or her, you see all kinds of things that go  far beyond chance comdedy. You see all kinds of brilliance!   And you see, in many, many ways, exactly how your child’s work is brilliant.

Take Christopher, an 8 year old boy, for example.  He is precociously conversational in English, even though his parents are both Czech and speak mostly Czech at home.    As progressive and caring parents, they wanted him to be in an English speaking environment where he would be challenged, given the means to do his best and also have fun in the process. So he did just that, and more.  How? Well, I gave him

  • some Famous People dolls. (I suggested Queen Elizabeth and Leonardo Da Vinci; he chose Sherlock Holmes and Barack Obama.
  • some plush-toy Star Wars characters from both sides of the Force  (they’re so funny and cute, even Darth Vader!)
  • an element of adventure (a Time Machine) –  endless in possibilities for story-making.
  • a taste of prehistory – with toy dinosaurs (carnivorous and herbivorous), giant spiders (mesothelae), various mammals, a jungle setting and colored mats to represent the different Earth Time periods that the Time-Machine might land in.
  • some facts about the Time Periods, their Earth and atmosphere characteristics, what kinds of animals, if any, are in them, etc.  The student then chooses which Earth times he or she prefers.
  • some facts about the Famous People we chose together.

christopher-second-grade-and-his-movie-series-cast-famous-people-star-wars-prehistoric-animals

Christopher with the majority of his chosen “cast”: Star Wars characters to the let, some mammals behind him, in front of him Leonardo Da Vinci, Queen Elizabeth the 1st, President Barack Obama, composer Beethoven (who puts dinosaurs to sleep in one of our little episodes), and detective Sherlock Holmes.

Left: Leonardo Da Vinci cleans some mammoth bones. Right: Christopher poses with his “Cenozoic mammal/people friends”.

Any child can entertain himself with Star Wars and dinosaur toys –  and entertain his peers and his parents, too.   Maybe even teach or enlighten someone about something previously unknown!  For such a presentation, all the teacher needs to do is

  • make sure the child plays and performs in English only
  • make sure the child incorporates some of the cultural or scientific facts learned before the play-session or during the play-session.
  • “go along” with the child’s improvised dialogue and play, working with his or her ideas as he or she has them.  The teacher must then support the child’s choices as much as possible and interact with them, staying in character.
  • give the student a few historically or scientifically-based ideas.
  • find a comic way together with the student to express these ideas. (Children will quickly find a way, trust me.)
  • leave the rest to the kids, and have fun!

Here are some compiled clips of what we produced together:

Do you find them funny? I sure do. I knew I was going to have a good time teaching and learning alongside of my young student.  What I didn’t know is just how much he would end up contributing on his own.  It’s not so much because the Famous People, the plush Star Wars characters or the T-Rex are cute.   It’s because of what the boy does with them.  With engaged play there is the opportunity for the added learning of facts, and the child’s incorporation of those facts in the play.  Done in ways that only the child could devise.  Always turn to a child for good ideas, or for how to put good ideas to use.  Here are some of Christopher’s original contributions to our “film series”:

  • making R2D2 the computer part of the Time-Travel machine, and DaVinci the inventor and the pilot of the machine.
  • the traditional dubbing  (making someone a knight) by every English/British monarch.  In our little film,   Christopher has Elizabeth the 1st pronounce to the robot R2D2, that he is now a knight.  It’s a reward for saving her from being eaten by a T-Rex.
  • using a giant spider toy to be Darth Vader’s “walking robot”, reminding me of the AT-AT Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.
  • making the Famous People  + Yoda, Chewbacca + R2D2 go back in time to the birth of the Earth “by mistake.”
  • producing great visual special effects, appropriate to the Hadean Eon of Earth; responding appropriately to to facts given to him spontaneously as we play along. (Hadean heavy meteor bombardment ? He grabs some orange rubber balls and drops them on to the characters who he moves out of the balls’ way with effortless coordination. )
  • making the characters start choking, as soon as he hears me telling him there is no oxygen in Hadean Earth’s atmosphere.  But he doesn’t exaggerate the choking, or forget to make his characters speak (always in English).   He continues the dialogue of his characters, and the appropriate actions too,  while they escape to the next Earth Time.
  • turning Darth Vader into a fossil.   What an original kind of fossil – a fossilized robot.  Is that possible?  It gave us both food for thought about how long it takes to make a fossil, and who would be the one to discover it.  Human or post human? Deep questions, which we addressed briefly.  Then my student decided to use a Barack Obama doll, and have him make a cameo appearance, discovering the Darth Vader fossil with Queen Elizabeth, Da Vinci and Sherlock Holmes.  Detective Holmes  comes late to the scene, having previously wandered off to inspect another dead dinosaur’s tongue, and smell his breath (Christopher, you are so funny.)

It is Christopher’s fast reaction and original (and hilarious) interpretation of information that make his performance on videos so brilliant.  Through toys, some facts and a story-line, he practices three out of the four areas of language learning: reading, listening and speaking.  But this student doesn’t merely learn to use English better.  He entertains.  He entertains himself and,  if there are …

  • enlightening facts
  • adventure
  • comedy

… he entertains others, too. Imagine what that does for a child’s self-esteem 🙂

What possibilities there are for learning a language (and everything else), through play and  imagination! The originality of a child’s ideas gives you food for thought. Ah, children … give them some of their favorite toys, a few basic facts, and leave the rest to their fertile imagination. The results are amazing!

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Christopher and characters from the Future –

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Characters from the deep past (Hadean, Pre-Cambrian, Paleozoic times), from the dinosaur times (Mesozoic times), the present (Cenozoic times and today), and also characters (Star Wars) in the Future.

Queen Elizabeth and Leonardo Da Vinci discover a fossil … of Darth Vader, who almost killed them in a previous episode!

But wait … there is more.    By chance, this 8 year old created “dramatic devices” which I could not fully appreciate while we were playing and filming.  I caught them when I watched our work together on video.  They explain just why these “Sci-Fi series” make me laugh, every time I see them:

  • Tongue and cheek leitmotifs –

“We need to look”Christopher repeatedly makes the characters go peer into the jungle, in every Earth Period they land in.   The viewer also gets to enjoy some dramatic irony.  It’s obvious that the impetuous Queen Elizabeth, the nosy Sherlock Holmes and even the wise Yoda will pay a price for their recklessness.  And which child does not delight in setting up a dramatic ’cause and effect’?

“Oh, this is just a T-Rex” Yoda nonchalantly and effortlessly zaps to death every T-Rex he sees and saves the life of his time-traveling friends.  He does this with every dangerous animal that crosses his path, in every Earth time period.

  • Slapstick – 

The impetuous and bossy Queen Elizabeth is always fainting at the first dinosaur ambush.  Well, who wouldn’t faint at the sight of a T-Rex?  Whenever I watch certain clips from the film Jurassic Park, my heart almost jumps out of my chest!

Here, Sherlock Holmes is curious detective who then loses his cool in the face of danger, fainting frequently, contradicting his image of a character with self-control and intelligent foresight.  Who would have thought? I suggested we have Leonardo Da Vinci improvise some natural “smelling salts” from the environment  to ‘recovers’ the detective.  Instead, Christopher grabs the Queen Elizabeth doll and makes her give the detective a few smacks in the face. I can only imagine the real Queen Elizabeth doing this ;).   “I have the body of a weak and feeble woman” the real Queen once told her troops, “but I have the  heart and stomach of a King, and a King of England too.”  I don’t think Christopher is making a feminist statement here, but he is seems to be using role-reversal slapstick – AND making a compelling rendering of the famous monarch.

  • A sense of irony –

Such a grown-up thing, and so important when it comes to adding  depth of character to a story. Here, an 8 year old child does it randomly and effortlessly, through make-believe play.  Sherlock Holmes is traditionally famous for his  intelligence and sang-froid in the face of danger; yet here, the student makes Sherlock Holmes  comic and subtly self-ridiculing.  You will see Sherlock Holmes inspecting dead dinosaurs’ mouths and smelling their breath  (the same with the meteor-barbecued Darth Vader’s still-smoking mask) with all  the seriousness and pragmatism of the “real” Sherlock Holmes, yet his findings are completely useless in preventing or averting danger.  And as Christopher previously suggested, the detective turns out to be a coward! Always fainting at the sight of danger.  A typical “Christopher touch” :).

We finished our series with a filming of Christopher’s explanation of the dinosaurs’ extinction.  I let him know that the meteor that crashed into Earth 65 million years ago is one of several possible reasons.  He then reported back –

christopher-second-grade-with-meteor-earth-and-dead-dinosaurs-showing-end-of-mesozoic

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