The Immersive Classroom

Fall 2017

By Alex Barron

This is meant to break ribs, break vertebrae, go through you. — Butch Maisel

Butch Maisel has the undivided attention of the upperclassmen in his military history class. The boys are, in fact, literally standing at attention in the middle of the soccer field. Today, despite what their Sperry shoes and Vineyard Vines ties might suggest, they are grunts in the British Infantry, training for combat in the French and Indian War. Their eyes are focused on one of the sharp metal bayonets that will be affixed to their rifles. As they march, most of them will have to be content merely to imagine themselves holding firearms, although Mr. Maisel does have a few authentic period weapons on hand, like the bayonet — artifacts from his military history museum, which opened this year in a space in the upper school.

Today, the classroom is the same field where, in a few hours, some of these new recruits will run wind sprints and practice penalty kicks. The venue, unusual though it may be, is an extension of the classroom, and the usual classroom skills are still required. In order to ensure that they are abiding by proper protocol, infantry grunts must listen carefully to orders from their commanding officer: no hands in pockets; toes up to the line, perfectly even with their peers; rifle resting on the right shoulder. The back line must take great care to maintain an even distance from the front (exactly an arm’s length), which means that both lines must maintain an identical marching pace. This proves especially challenging when Mr. Maisel leads his troops on a sharp right turn.

As it would be on a test or a composition, attention to detail is key, and although these soldiers will not be graded for their marching, even minor errors may have grave consequences. “You could get everyone killed that way,” he admonishes a boy whose failure to halt on command results in a collision with the body in front of him. Luckily, mid-18th century British generals, like contemporary history teachers, understand the value of positive reinforcement. After 45 minutes of marching, a weapons demonstration, and a little mock shooting at an imaginary target, Mr. Maisel commends his troops on a job well done. Training concludes with an exuberant and historically accurate cheer of “Hip hip huzzah!”

Mr. Maisel, like all of my colleagues at Boys’ Latin School of Maryland, constantly looks for novel ways to engage students. We like to talk about boy-friendly teaching: that is, instructional methods designed to appeal to different types of learners, including lively activities that encourage the boys to get up and out of their seats. With increasing frequency, innovative teaching at Boys’ Latin means creating a wholly immersive experience — transforming the traditional classroom space into a battlefield, or a political war room, or the island setting from Lord of the Flies. On any given day, boys from kindergarten through 12th grade may find themselves inhabiting any number of parts, from a mock Republican presidential candidate to a Roman consul in the forum of Caesar.

Our school’s dining hall looks out onto a playground, and since upper school lunch often coincides with lower school recess, it’s common for an upper school teacher like me to witness boys at play. Their imaginations are impressive. They chase each other around, using their fingers to shoot at each other as cops and robbers, or they jump off the jungle gym, like paratroopers from a B-52. By the time they reach upper school, most boys no longer engage their imaginations as vividly as they once did, but they have not lost their capacity to pretend, and they frequently respond with a lower schooler’s enthusiasm when a teacher presents them with an elaborate role-playing scenario.

In order to pull off an immersive classroom, a teacher must be willing to jump in with both feet. The project is destined to fail if the instructor insists on maintaining a tongue-in-cheek tone or on openly acknowledging the inherent goofiness in asking teenagers to “play pretend.” Mr. Maisel leads his basic training simulation with all the sincerity of a drill sergeant, rarely cracking a smile until just before the closing cheer. Seventh-grade English teacher Gillian Vernon likewise understands the importance of fully committing to the illusion. It’s this commitment that helps spur her students to buy in unanimously when she recreates the desert island from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Three years ago, when Ms. Vernon started teaching the novel, she worried that it might be too advanced for seventh graders unaccustomed to unpacking subtext and interpreting metaphor. Her response was to create the island — not as a substitute for substantive literary analysis but as a bridge to help her students access a challenging text. By now, the island has become something of a seventh-grade tradition, largely because Ms. Vernon refuses to go halfway in putting together her annual pedagogical art project. Each day during this unit, she lights beach-scented candles and plays a soundtrack of jungle sounds and bird calls. She decorates the ceiling with vines and the floor with sand and blue crepe paper to denote the ocean. She supplies each student with his own camouflage blanket to sit on during class readings. And, of course, she brings in a conch shell.

Most of the time, class still operates in a fairly conventional fashion. Students read aloud, engage in discussions, and complete written assessments. But the immersive atmosphere is enough to hook students, some of whom have previously been resistant to English class. Last spring, one usually reluctant reader developed the habit of using his free time to curl up on a camouflage mat with his copy of the book. Class discussions still have their challenges — these are seventh-grade boys, after all — but even setbacks have the potential to become teachable moments. “We have a rule that you can only talk if you’re holding the conch, just like in the book,” Ms. Vernon says. “One time, discussion was devolving, and kids were forgetting that they had to hold the conch. But then one kid commented that that’s just like the book. Their minds were blown!” Most seventh graders are capable of reading Lord of the Flies and developing an intellectual understanding of the opposition between civilized behavior and basic animal need, but having experienced this conflict firsthand, the boys in Ms. Vernon’s class are likely to remember it for a long time.

Matt Stone, who teaches eighth-grade English, agrees that students have an easier time comprehending and retaining concepts they have seen realized in an organic way. Instead of passively reading Shakespeare, his students perform Julius Caesar on a stage they construct themselves.

“Most guys haven’t read a lot of drama before,” says Mr. Stone. “So sometimes they have to see stage directions acted out before they get what they mean and why they’re important.” He identifies a moment early in the play in which Brutus and Cassius plot to assassinate Caesar, even while Caesar is still on stage. When Mr. Stone directed the boys playing the two conspirators to a spot underneath a tent in a corner of the room, far from where Caesar was standing, the class fully recognized the clandestine nature of the conversation. As the unit progressed, Mr. Stone saw evidence that his students were understanding and retaining ideas and plot points from Shakespeare, despite the fact that most of them had never read any of the plays before. One day he overheard two students arguing over the answer to a question on a study guide: “Who was the first conspirator to stab Caesar?” One of the boys confidently opined, “It was Casca. I know because I was him when we did that scene.” It is possible to forget a detail like this after you have read it, but it is easy to remember if you have actually done the stabbing.

At its best, the immersive learning experience has a way of transcending the boundaries of the classroom, both literally, when class meets in a new or a transfigured location, and figuratively, when the buzz generated from an exciting lesson spills over into the lunchroom, the locker room, and the hallways. The presidential campaign simulation developed by upper school history teacher Matt Welch, for his Honors Government class, is that rare academic unit that consumes students’ attention even outside of class. With the presidential election dominating the national spotlight, Mr. Welch sensed a natural opportunity to hook his students on a topic that already held their attention. “It would have felt like a waste if I had just had them read the textbook and answer questions,” he remembers thinking as he planned his fall curriculum. “The presidential election was just too good to pass up.” But as he brainstormed ideas for a role-playing exercise, he worried about the potential conflict that might arise in his politically polarized class.

In the end, Mr. Welch divided his group of 15 into three groups of five; one boy would play the part of a presidential candidate, and the other four would be his campaign team. At random, he assigned a political party to each group and fictional but realistic biographical details to each candidate. (Political candidates had to select new names that rhymed with their real names — both their first and their last name.) The exercise, which activated the boys’ still lively imaginations while also tapping into their natural competitive spirit, caught on immediately. Each group had to determine its candidate’s core values and had to express these values in a brief television spot (posted to YouTube). Campaigns had to decide whether to stay positive, perhaps leaving themselves open to the attacks of rivals, or go negative and risk alienating voters. (A minor scandal occurred when one group orchestrated a smear campaign in which they used a picture on a rival’s Instagram page to attack him.)

Like Mr. Maisel and Ms. Vernon, Mr. Welch committed fully to the illusion he had created. On one day, he entered the classroom with breaking news: The press had photographed one of the candidates dozing during a diplomatic function. Immediately, each group was given the task of creating a press release that would spin this potentially damaging incident to their advantage.

The simulation would ultimately end with an election, scheduled, of course, for Tuesday, November 8. Here, too, Mr. Welch saw the chance for a teachable moment. Students would be allowed to vote only if they happened to have brought their ID cards to class. Students are not required to carry this card, and Mr. Welch estimates that only about two-thirds of them would be able to produce it on the spot. It would be a perfect segue to a discussion of voter registration laws.

To many teachers, the word “innovation” has become synonymous with technological advancement: To be innovative is to incorporate some new application or program into instruction. Clearly, technology can and does enrich the educational experience, but immersive classroom simulations, which depend on students’ capacity to pretend, can be just as innovative, and they usually end up being more memorable. When I was young, my parents would often exhort me to get off the computer and go outside and use my imagination. The creative techniques of my colleagues suggest to me that teachers would be wise to take the same advice.
Alex Barron

Alex Barron ( teaches upper school English and runs the Writing Center at the Boys’ Latin School of Maryland in Baltimore.