Volume III - 1995-1996

Spellbound in the Language Class: A Strategy of Surprise
by Gertrude Moskowitz

      Dr. Gertrude Moskowitz is professor and coordinator of Foreign Language Education at Temple University, where she has also served as coordinator of TESOL. She is noted for her publications emphasizing humanistic teaching: Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class (Heinle and Heinle) and The Foreign Language Teacher Interacts (Amidon Publications). Her most recent interest is multicultural education. In addition to training teachers, Dr. Moskowitz has worked with medical students, nurses, counselors, therapists, and social workers. She has given presentations on a wide variety of programs throughout the United States and abroad.


      What in the world was Judge Lance Ito doing in that ESL class? And how did they ever get Frida Kahlo to come to their Spanish class? Really, you say a well- known reporter was actually in a French class today to do a story? Oh, I get it. These teachers were showing VIDEOTAPES of these people in their classes! No? Then they appeared on satellite? Wrong again? You mean they WERE in these classes themselves? Hmm! Next thing you'll tell me is that the soothsayer from Julius Caesar appeared in a Latin class! He did? What ARE you talking about? Oh, it's a technique that second language teachers can use to get celebrities and other guests to come to their classes, yet it's rarely ever used. Tell me more! What's it called? "Teacher-in-role?" Never heard of it. Tell me more!

     Simply stated, teacher-in role is where teachers themselves portray people other than themselves in their classes. In other words, the teacher changes roles (and disappears, so to speak, from the class) and becomes someone else instead.

You portray the person yourself? No way. l'm no great actor, only a ham at heart.

      That's what language teachers have been told for years--that you should be a "ham" actor. But with teacher-in-role, you choose the roles you feel comfortable in. Besides, once you get into it with the students, you'd be surprised how you can get carried away in the part.

I guess I could at that. Always thought 1 might have hidden talent for the stage. But how do you carry out the whole idea? How do you get started?

      For one thing, it comes as a surprise to the class. That is, it's not announced that you're taking on a new identity. So what you can do is mention that a guest is coming to the class the day before or that day and then leave the class to "find the guest" who seems to be lost or waiting in the office to be escorted to the class. Or you can arrive a few minutes late after your class is seated and enter in role. Or the class may be working in groups or on a written assignment and you slip out momentarily to put on whatever simple costume is needed to become the new persona. Or if the costume change is slight, such as putting on a mustache or a type of hat or carrying a fan, you turn your back to the class for a moment, make the change, and upon facing the class again, you're now in role. At any rate, whichever means you choose, you are now decked in whatever paraphernalia you need to be the expected or unexpected guest. It's really quite effective!

But now that they're sitting in shock, what do I tell them to do?

      Not a thing. Just go into role and become that character, and the rest is easy because they'll just fall into role with you. If at first a few don't follow your lead, just remain strictly in character and they'll soon go along with you.

This sounds like fun. Now what can I expect?

      The first thing is SILENCE! The class is usually astonished--taken off guard-- and in their state of shock, the natural response is quiet in the classroom, maybe followed by a little laughter once the shock wears off. Just begin your role as though it's very natural for you to be there, and they'll do their part in turn. Be spontaneous and they will be, too. lt's amazing that even though they haven't been directed by the "regular teacher" as to what they are to do, they "get it" and perform exactly as you want them to.

But why am I doing all this? For the fun of it or just to startle the class?

      Of course it's fun and the class is both surprised and fascinated, but you always have linguistic purposes for doing teacher-in-role things you want the students to learn, experience, practice, or have reinforced. So you don't carry out a teacher-in-role just for effect, but use it as an effective way to teach and communicate certain aspects of the target language or culture.

How about some examples of what you mean?

      Sure. But let me begin by mentioning that I did this myself in a methods course I teach on Drama Techniques in Teaching Second Languages. In fact, the very first thing I did in starting the course last time was to enter the class and take on the role of a director who was casting a series of shows for the season, and I acted as though they were there to try out. With a microphone in hand, I talked to them about their experience, the large cast of characters I needed for the 15-week season, which coincided with the semester's length, and approached each one as I "instinctively" felt there was a special part that person should try out for. And naturally, throughout these interviews, my casting instincts were always right.

So you practice what you preach?

      Or you could say I practice what I teach. At any rate, later in the semester, I introduced the concept of teacher-in-role and referred to my introduction to the course as an example of one they'd experienced. Then the teachers in the course each developed one to present to our class, one that was appropriate for their target language goals. You asked me for some examples. These are some of the roles they chose to do.

Examples of Roles

      One person made a dramatic entrance as Madame Olga, a fortune teller with hoop earrings, lots of scarves, and some tea leaves and special cards. Amidst the laughter from the predictions she and the class members made, the future tense of regular and irregular verbs in French was practiced. A very pushy auctioneer wearing a long floral skirt and a huge straw hat and decked in bangles and beads, noisily crashed into the classroom. Carrying shopping bags filled with worthless merchandise, she proceeded to rave about the great value of each item in Spanish as the students, using play money--pesos in this case--bid on each one, paying outrageous prices for items as they practiced using numbers of all denominations. And then, as I mentioned earlier, Judge Lance Ito made an appearance to teach ESL students about the American judicial system. Wearing his judge's robe, glasses, and beard, he acquainted the students with terms used in the courtroom, as well as the justice system here, and then questioned them about his highly publicized case. The intent was to have them compare the legal system in their countries with that of the United States.

I'm beginning to see that there are lots of possibilities for using teacher-in- role in the language class.

      So true. All it takes is imagination, a spirit of adventure, a bit of daring, and the suggestion of a costume to begin. Of course, it takes careful planning and thoughtful decisions as to how to carry it out and what aspects of language to include. And it generates a lot of participation as well as mesmerizes students to pay attention to what's happening. A key remark teachers have made upon trying out a role in their own classrooms is that it converted any noisy classes into task-oriented students focusing directly on the lesson. So the classroom can become anything you want it to be. The sky's the limit. Even that's no limit as you can transport the class to an imaginary airplane as well as any other vehicle. For example, one teacher became a train conductor in our class and set the chairs up like a coach with an aisle in the middle. She was so realistic, you'd think she'd been calling out the stops and selling, collecting, and punching tickets, while conversing with passenger, for years.

What are some other roles teachers have taken?

      Let's see. When their classes were learning about all kinds of food, they whisked them away to an elegant creperie or to the local deli, where they donned an apron, and with an order pad, saw that the class practiced ordering, using all sorts of language that they need. And then there was a police officer and a crossing guard, both of whom borrowed authentic items of apparel to wear. In their own classes, they had their students create large city maps for the classroom floor and traffic signs and had them practice such things as prepositions of location, stores and cultural places in town, directions for going places and safety rules. The whistle of the one and the stop sign of the other lent added special effects to the scene.

      We had a karate-kicking teacher among us who took us through the paces of a class a la TPR. This was energizing, cultural, and gave most of us a new experience as we learned to follow her commands. And toga-toting teachers appeared as famous Romans, prophets, or Shakespearean figures. On a holiday of the target culture, the teacher can dress appropriately to introduce teaching about the occasion. A natural for an ESL class is Halloween where there are all sorts of possibilities for costumes.

I can see how a cultural celebration would be more understandable this way.

      Yes, because the students can then interact with the teacher and find out more about the occasion through questions and even active participation related to the holiday. Another thing that's effective is to come as a famous person people have heard of or are studying. Impersonations always have great appeal. Just ask comedians.

Sort of like history or current events coming to life?

      Yes, but you can include any kind of celebrity or famous person, such as literary, artistic, entertainment, or political figures. We had Chinese revolutionist Mao Tse-Tung come to our class with his red flags and special jacket. By questioning him, the students found out a lot about his background and Chinese culture and history.

What a learning experience!

      Yes, but wait till I tell you about the visit of Frida Kahlo! As you may know, she was a Mexican artist (married to muralist Diego Rivera) whose intense suffering from a childhood accident is expressed in her paintings. You should have seen her when she came to our class in a teacher-in-role done by a Spanish teacher. The teacher did such a convincing job of it that we all felt we were actually in the artist's presence.

Wish I 'd been there. But did this teacher ever try it out with her own students?

      Yes, she did. And her third-year Spanish students were very responsive. She told them they were having a visitor and she'd be right back. After thickening her eyebrows, donning a home-made wig and a peasant skirt, and pulling out a cane, she re-entered the classroom. And here's what she had to say about the experience.

A Teacher's Account

      "When I walked in, they laughed a little, but I kept on in my role and spoke to them in Spanish and told them I was there to answer their questions, discuss my art work, and see what they know. I was surprised that the students didn't think it was silly, but they went right along with it. I felt comfortable doing it and enjoyed it a lot. Actually, it was fun!"

And what did her students have to say about it?

      It so happens that I asked teachers who teach various languages and age groups to get anonymously written feedback from their students about their reactions and feelings related to the visit of their "guest." Here's what "Frida's high school students had to say:

Students' Comments

"The presentation was very stimulating. It gave the teacher a chance to teach us in a more entertaining way."

"Even though we knew it was our teacher, she never stopped acting as we asked her questions, which made it more realistic." "The costume and extensive knowledge about Frida were very helpful. Good job!"

"I definitely would like other presentations like this as it gives students a chance to see and learn things first-hand. It makes the class exciting. "

"My initial reaction to the Frida Kahlo visit was to laugh because I thought it was very funny, but as the class got involved, my reaction changed to gratitude. I realized the visit was very educational."

"After the visit, I felt that I knew more about Frida Kahlo and my Spanish teacher."

Creating Interest

      Although some people aren't interested in art, it's clear that hearing the stories and studying the works directly from the "creator" drum up appreciation for the work.

But what about younger students? Wouldn't they act up?

      Just the opposite! With a borrowed stethoscope from the school nurse and a white coat from the science teacher, a French teacher, playing the role of a doctor with a sixth-grade class, said the students all wanted to take her role after seeing her do it. And they did. And with an eighth-grade class whose attention it was hard to get, another French teacher stated she had 100% attention the day she burst into class wearing a raincoat and, using a mike, announced she was a reporter whose paper wanted to know all about them and their lives. She further added that they were successful in learning a new formation for the future tense! Listen to some of her students' comments:

"It was really funny and really educational to learn about the future tense this way."

"I felt it was a good activity. The lesson helped me to be able to comprehend what the teacher was saying in French better."

"I felt important--that somebody wanted to know about me and what I like to do."

"I was amazed."

"I thought it was very amusing. It's a good way to keep students interested."

"I thought it was exciting and different because other teachers don't usually do that with us."

Interestingly, this teacher's supervisor observed her class that day and was amazed and favorably impressed.

You've proven your point about younger students. But what about mature ones? Adults? Foreign students? You know, ESL classes?

      I think the inherent interest is universal-- transcending age. It worked in my drama methods classes, which contained some students from other cultures. In fact, some of them in enacting a teacher-in-role themselves have been particularly outgoing and very much into their role. One Asian student was so convincing and humorous as a psychic that she was asked to do an encore. As far as how they respond as learners, a college ESL teacher became Doubting Thomas and later, Tracy Travel, with her graduate students to find out for herself. Describing their reactions as she entered the classroom wearing a sheet, she told me: "From their faces you could see that they were shocked and amazed, and there was complete silence. It's hard for me to get their attention at the beginning of class because they're all talking to each other as they know each other so well. But that day, there was total silence, and they were looking at me and listening very, very, very attentively to what I was saying." And here are some of their comments:

"I was interested and enjoyed the acting. It helped us participate more in class."

"It is good because we can learn things from literature, culture, customs, religion, and see some things from everyday life."

"I'd like to learn English this way."

Taking Two Roles at Once Let me tell you about another very imaginative way to use teacher-in-role and that is for the teacher to take two roles at once.

Two roles at once? You lost me.

      Well, suppose you want to present two sides of an issue or compare differences between two cultures. The teacher becomes both sides or both cultures when speaking by donning an appropriate article of clothing, such as a hat, which symbolizes one country, and then changing to another typical item of apparel of the other culture in order to respond. So a crown can make you royalty; a straw hat with a red, white, and blue band--an American; or a beret--a French person.

Clever! And the two parties could even have debates! I can just picture the teacher changing the items of clothing back and forth a lot, especially if it's a controversy.

      You've got the point! It's great for showing conflicts or differences between people in history, current events, literature, and any walk of life. Say during a presidential election here, the teacher could become both candidates in an ESL class to point out the differences between the parties. Or comparisons between dating customs in the U.S. and another country can be made by the teacher taking on the role of a person from each culture who shares his or her customs, while expressively reacting to those of the other culture. And the students have an important role in this, too--being very active in the interchange.

I'm convinced! But to what extent are teachers actually masquerading like this in their classes?

      Once in a great while you may hear about a teacher who dresses up and performs like this on occasion. A few educators in different fields have been written up in articles as being exceptional teachers for doing so and have taken on such roles as Mark Twain, Joseph Politzer, Ronald Reagan, and filmdom's boxer "Rocky" (Coleman, 1983; Duncombe and Heikkinen, 1988; Jennes, 1980; McKeen, 1980). In the second language class Dartmouth professor John Rassias is known for showing up in class decked out as 18th-century French philosopher Diderot or as a Chinese emperor (Bacon, 1993). One thing they report is that their students do not fall asleep during these performances!

      It is important to realize is you don't have to be a Thespian or an award- winning star to do an effective teacher-in-role. In the second language class there are lots of opportunities to take on a role to demonstrate a point; create a scene, situation, or event; develop understanding of a person, time period, culture, or literary piece; and practice certain elements of the target language. It's much more fun meeting people than just reading about them on a page. Of course, you don't want to overdo it. But once you've successfully tried it and find out how well it's received, you'll find yourself thinking of potential return engagements as your students inquire, "Are we having another 'visitor' today?"

If I want to encourage other teachers to try a teacher-in-role, what should I tell them ?

      First ask them, "Are you willing to try a technique in your second language classes that: Captures the attention of students and holds it? Is dynamic? Is conducive to interacting in the target language? Gets positive responses from students? Puts a great deal of emphasis on drama? Relaxes students? Calls on student imagination? Emphasizes meaningful communication? Develops understanding of others? Offers experiences students may not have had before? Calls for natural language? Is stimulating for learners of all ages? Makes learning concrete? Helps students remember what is taught? Brings material to life? Allows students to express their feelings and opinions? Keeps students on the alert? And dispels discipline problems at that time?" And if they answer "yes" to almost all of these questions, explain what you now know about teacher-in-role to them. Of course, you should try it yourself first before suggesting it to others.

That makes sense. But what should I think about when I plan a teacher-in-role?

      Think about the material in general that you're going to be teaching. What is it you want to expand for students or have them practice? Are there some things that are normally not so interesting that you could make more appealing this way (such as the reporter who dealt with the future tense)? Are there some insights you'd like them to have about a fictional or actual person or celebrity, past or present? Have they been reading the work of an author they could meet? Or could they meet a character in the story to gain ideas about its message or its theme? Have they been learning the vocabulary and types of responses for certain kinds of situations which could be put into use, such a going to a doctor? Although you could enter as a physician, of course, you could also become a medicine barker who's selling the cures for all ills. Think of an initial role that will be fun to experiment with.

Once I've chosen the content and my role, then what?

      Know what you want to accomplish and decide how to carry it out. Be prepared with the knowledge needed to be the person you're going to portray. Then decide on the costume and props you'll need. The barker could us a straw hat and bow tie and a small suitcase with pills or tonic. Think about how you'll enter the class and your opening lines. Be spontaneous and stay in role. Use facial expressions and gestures with your hands and arms, and move around the room. Be animated and exaggerate, but don't overdo it. Most of all, let yourself enjoy it, because it's fun. It's perfectly acceptable for learning to be fun.

      And I'm ready and willing. Thanks for the helpful hints. I just have to figure out who I want to be first. Say, I can be all the people I've ever wanted to be now! Let's see. I could be Joan of Arc or a famous rock star...or Hillary Clinton or even Bill...Pocahontas or Scarlet O'Hara...Queen Elizabeth or Princess Grace...Confucius or an astronaut...Maya Angelou or a great inventor...Dr. Spock or Sigmund Freud...Norman Rockwell or a super athlete...Julio Iglesias or Rosa Parks..or.. or....yes, yes, this is going to be fun!


Bacon, Richard M. with Ma Baolin and Joel D. Goldfield. "The Thunder and Lighting Professor: Teaching Language by Using Theater Plus Up-to-the Minute Technology." In Methods That Work: Ideas for Literacy and Language Teachers. John W. Oller, Jr., ed. Boston: MA: Heinle Heinle, 1993, 40-49.

Coleman, Stephen F. "A Dramaturgical Approach in the Classroom." Teaching Political Science. 10: 146-152, Spring 1983.

Duncombe, Sydney and Michael H. Heikkinen. "Role-Playing for Different Viewpoints." College Teaching. 36: 3-5, Winter 1988.

Jennes, Gail. "Privacy Expert and Law School Ham, the Other Arthur Miller Is Harvard's Professor of 1,000 Faces." People. 107-108, 110, November 3, 1980.

McKeen, William. "Vaudeville Tactic Is Shot-in-Arm in History Course." Journalism Educator. 34: 12-13, January 1980.

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