Students Acting Out

In Civics and Economics, tenth graders learn the difference between civil and criminal. Defining the concepts and distinguishing between the two is simple enough, but last week Mark Grow’s students performed short skits to make sure the concepts were clear and unforgettable.

Having learned all the basics, Grow’s students were instructed to form groups of three to four students, choose a type of case (criminal or civil), create a skit demonstrating that case, and act it out. In ten minutes, scenarios were developed. In ten more minutes, skits were performed, individuals determined the case types, and discussion ensued—twenty minutes those tenth graders won’t forget.

• A baby sitter neglects a child who sticks her finger in an electrical socket. Civil.
• A driver accidentally strikes a pedestrian. Civil. The injured pedestrian shoots and kills the driver. Criminal.
• A drug dealer stabs a man who can’t repay him a debt for drugs. Criminal and criminal.

Skits and Memory
According to Eric Jensen, the brain directs learning down two major memory pathways, explicit and implicit. Explicit memories include semantic (language) learning and episodic (locations, circumstances); implicit memories include procedural (physical skills, hands-on learning) and reflexive (automated, nonconscious) learning. When both pathways are engaged, memories are stored in and retrieved (more efficiently) from more locations in the brain.

Grow’s students learned and thoroughly reprocessed the semantic content of civil and criminal cases, but the skits also allowed them to store their learning as episodes (remember that time Jesse put her hood on and acted like a gangster and shot Tony, and she used a baseball bat as a gun, and Leslie said, “Oh my oh my.”) In six weeks, they won’t struggle to recall this episode, and they won’t have trouble connecting the semantic learning with it.

Moving, Laughing and Learning
The episodic memories created by these skits are not the only reason Grow’s strategy was successful. Physical movement and laughter contributed, too. For the ten minutes students created and rehearsed their skits, most of them changed seats, moved around, acted out, and even fell down—simulated acts of violence were common. Physical activity increases oxygen flow to the brain and can result in the release of memory enhancing chemicals. The brains in students’ noggins were probably more efficient and more effective in storing information during this activity because the bodies were moving.

Also enhancing memory storage during this lesson was humor. Above all the energetic socializing, brainstorming and acting, I heard laughter. I laughed out loud when a girl named Maddie flopped on the floor, revealing the hastily drawn electrical socket into which her character had stuck her finger. And the entire class howled at the student who at first feigned concern for an injured man, then stole his Blackberry. Why does this matter? Emotions, like the joy associated with laughter, create stronger memories that are easier for the brain to retrieve.

When you look at the big picture, these skits make perfect sense. Students develop a deeper understanding of essential terms and concepts while significantly increasing the strength and retrievability of the memory through a creative, social, physical, and emotion-stimulating activity.

And it only took twenty minutes.

Jensen, Eric P. Brain Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin P, 1995. Print.

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