Yes. I’m a little late for Mardi Gras, but not for class—or usage of “Carnival” tactics in class. In my current creativity class, we studied Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher who wrote extensively about dialogue and the importance of dialogue in the classroom and in life. Put simply, Bakhtin believed that dialogue—even an utterance—is critical to making meaning. What I love about Bakhtin’s theory of Carnival is that it backs away from teacher-centered instruction. With the teacher’s approval—and this is central to his theory —teachers and students alike disguise themselves by wearing masks, or costumes. The notion is that participants will talk more freely when they are disguised and hierarchal barriers will be removed, leveling the playing field. This environment fosters deeper thinking and opportunities for creative expression.
Consider some canivalesque options that have worked:
- Opening the classroom to any type of drama; from my experience “Fairy Tales on Trial” served as a great medium for expression of self, ideas, elaboration and enthusiasm
- Analyzing a novel: we jumped into puppetry when we read The Giver
- Tackling emotionally charged issues (and distancing oneself from them), like climate change by making an i-movie in which students, dressed as mythological characters, reported on the earthlings’ environmental mess
- Celebrating Pippi Longstocking’s birthday with great gusto or
- Listening to Alexander the Great as members of a conquered society
I’m certain that teachers and students can come up with many more Carnivalesque activities that would be appropriate lessons.
The biggest objection to Carnival is that it takes away from structured class time. Ironically enough, I’d argue that Carnival adds to class engagement and productivity. Some of my students did their best work “in costume,” whether analyzing novels (nothing like role playing and figuring out how to deliver a line), environmental issues, or learning Geography. We feasted on dishes from around the world. Students dissected vocabulary and discovered that words are not inert; they all have meaning. Some teachers wonder about how students will make the transition from Carnival to daily class. Yes, students return to a stricter environment when the teacher ends Carnival, but things don’t go back to normal and that’s a good thing. Both student and teacher have experienced a more open and dialogic classroom. In fact, in Fecho and Botzakis* Feasts of becoming: Imagining a literacy classroom based on dialogic beliefs, theses authors note:
we think Bakhtin (2004) would argue for the relationship he seemed to seek and have with his own students, one that acknowledged the wisdom on both sides of the teacher’s desk and routinely sought opportunities to mine that wisdom through mutually empowering discourse (p. 554).
Oh, the possibilities when learning reaches across the desk in both directions! Empowering. The authors of the article also talk about the joy that students experience when engaging in Carnival and other dialogic activities. That needs to be emphasized. I think it’s joyful for a bunch of reasons. First, students are driving the inquiry, selecting what draws them into the text and responding indirectly, certainly in costume and definitely in a more relaxed environment. It’s funny—and often laughter invoking—to see peers and a teacher dressed up in school. Under anonymous circumstances, both student and teacher will be more inclined to take a risk. Sometimes we forget that schooling should be fun and teachers need to come up with creative breaks from routine work.
Carnival for St. Patty’s Day—a serious suggestion!
*Happy to send the Fecho and Botzakis article to anyone interested!
**Please take a look at my interview on the Admissionado website, http://admissionado.com/college/resources/education-situation-talk-education-expert-rhonda-stern/. Admissionado has wonderful resources for educators and students, particularly those applying to elite colleges.