Stuck in a teaching rut? Make things uncomfortable


Sometimes, the classroom becomes a stage. (image: wikipedia)

Someone said that you can fake it ‘til you make it.  And that person was right.

I’m not an actor…at least I’d never consider myself one. But the thing, is, as a teacher, I don’t have a choice in the matter. Teachers are actors and actresses.

A certain experience in class two weeks ago led me to this realization, and maybe you can relate to it. As I looked around the classroom on a Wednesday afternoon, I realized that students were bored. It’s a bad thing to have to admit, but it was true.

And that had to change. Because if the kids are bored, it means that I’m probably bored, too. And it’s hard for the students to get energized about learning if the teacher is not energized about teaching.

You might start to get the wrong idea here.  I’m not talking about a utopian classroom where everyone is high-fiving and calling out complements. “Energized” here just means awake, alert and engaged at the task at hand.

After the initial period of feeling down about myself passed, I came to the realization that this makes sense at this time of year. The days are dark, it’s cold outside, the holiday break had recently ended.  It can be easy to fall into patterns of doing something similar in class everyday, following the curriculum, going through the motions.  When this happens, that theme of “make things uncomfortable” comes to mind.

This simple idea is about coming up with something that would be great to do in the classroom, but that scares you a little bit.

Dramatics are a surefire way to shake things up in the class. Especially if you are a teacher like me, who is generally a mellow guy, having the teacher act in a dramatic, outgoing way catches kids’ attention, makes them laugh, and engages them in the learning.

So here’s the lesson. Feel free to try it out.

There were 5 cards, each with a type of character written on them.  These cards were:

  • People with a fear of notebooks
  • Technology-addicted teenagers
  • People who laugh at anything
  • People who cry upon hearing the word “hello”
  • People who deal with any problem by acting like Superman

The class began with a projection on the board: “Mr. Dawson’s House of Horrors.”  There was creepy music playing, which was an hour-long YouTube video found with a search for “scary music.”  As the students walked in, they looked around a little bit, but didn’t react too strongly to the board or the music.

Then, I told them that today’s class was not English 9, but was instead a field trip to Mr. Dawson’s House of Horrors.  Each of them would be transformed into a horrifying character, and the classmates would observe these characters and take notes.

Then it was time for an example to set the tone.  I changed the slide, and the board read:

“I become a monster whenever I’m asked a question.”

I stood silently in front of the room.  The kids stared at me.  I said nothing back.  It got awkward.

Then, eventually, a student asked, “What do you want us t–”


I threw my hands in the air, stepped quickly towards the student and let out the best monster roar I could muster.  The poor girl drew back into her chair, and then eventually let out a smile.

Another kid said, “Are you acting like a–”


I did it again. Same great reaction from the student who asked the question.

Eventually one student said, “he becomes a monster when you asked him a question.”

We finally got to the point of the lesson then.  I said to the students, I told you that I become a monster whenever I’m asked a question, but how did I show you?  Write down what you saw and heard after someone asked me a question.

We shared examples, and this led into a discussion between showing vs. telling in narrative writing.

The students each demonstrated their own “House of Horror” characters and we repeated the process.

The whole activity took much longer than planned, so we didn’t get as much time at the end for independent practice as I would’ve liked.  But now, there’s that mental anchor that students have in their heads.  When they are telling instead of showing in their writing, they can quickly be reminded: “remember when Mr. Dawson was a monster?”

There was a funny feeling of butterflies in my stomach as I did that routine with three of my classes.  There’s always the risk that students won’t think anything of the antics, that they’ll think it’s stupid or they won’t make the connection to their writing.

But it worked, and it was a way to shake things up in class…by making things a little uncomfortable.


Below you’ll find the original post that has led this theme of “get out of your comfort zone” to be a part of my teaching.

For this activity, all it took was telling a room full of 16-year-olds that they’d all have to record themselves speaking.  Just like that, they were filled with nervous energy, and ready to focus, even on a Friday.

Asking the students to record themselves was not a gimmick. It was a fair, authentic way for me to assess their understanding of the skills we’d practiced over the past few classes.  They began by reading a poem aloud to each other. They performed close readings, making literal, inferential and finally a critical response to the poem. Then, the curve ball, each group recorded themselves explaining their annotations and thoughts about the poem, using a cell phone or computer and USB mic. Each student in the group had to speak.

Had I asked the students to write an essay, they might groan, but they’d do the assignment, with varying levels of success and effort .  Writing a literary analysis essay, while an arguably important skill, does not invigorate a sixteen-year-old.  The voice recording had nearly the opposite effect as would handing out lined paper and prompts.  The task of recording an audio close reading of the poem meant that each student’s thoughts would be made manifest for themselves to listen to. When writing an essay, it’s easy to write stream of consciousness, hand in the paper and never look back. With this task, students were required to listen to themselves, both checking for the clarity of the audio and the clarity of their thoughts.

They had to be sure of themselves. It’s easy to pick a few quotes, throw in the phrases “this represents” and “this is a symbol of…” and be on your way to the weekend. But when speaking out loud, with other group members listening and depending on each others’ performances, the students prepared deliberately to be sure about the thoughts they were speaking.

[As an aside, no one likes the sound of their own recorded voice, including me. However, in today’s technological word, audio tools are so readily available, and it’s a situation that students should get comfortable with.]

This activity spanned two class periods, and I noticed that I felt the same excitement that I observed from the students.  This may be because I felt uncertainty about asking students to do something that I knew would be challenging, and even unpleasant for some.  Every student who attended class that day completed the activity.  For most, it was a challenge when they had the recording device ready and prepared to press the red circle.  Also for most, once they got started, it wasn’t nearly as bad as they’d expected it to be.

As a teacher, I think it’s important for me to go to the places of discomfort, too.  I should sit there, acknowledging the discomfort, and recognizing that if it makes me uncomfortable, I’m probably no good at it.  And if it’s something I’m not good at, it’s probably important for me to work at it.

A few recent moments where I’ve embraced discomfort:

On the first day of school this year, I memorized and recited the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins to four of my classes. I displayed the poem behind me and asked students to follow along and check my performance.

I taught students how to use a new online tool, Scrible, which I’m only moderately comfortable with using.  I knew students would gain value from it and would probably end up teaching me about it.

I’ve shared my students’ work with administrators (Just waiting for a response can be nerve-racking sometimes.)

In daily life, I’m approached with choices about exercise, meditation, healthy eating, having difficult conversations.  All of these are times where the best action is to go to a place of discomfort.

Go there, sit, and embrace it.  It won’t be as bad as you think.

How do you get students out of your comfort zones? Let me know in the comments.

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