Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Jimmy Chan"

I first met Jimmy in a colleague's tenth grade Health class. One of the key tricks in her toolbox is using fictional situations to help students get over the embarrassing parts of her course to move right to thinking through what to do in some tough situations. Jimmy and George and Gloria and Eugene (and a few others) regularly turned up in her class as students who were encountering a typical teenage difficulty. Class discussions focused on giving advice to these "extra" members of class.

Jimmy first showed up in one of my classes when I was stuck for a way to explain the word "taboo" to a class of ninth-graders. "...So there's this kid named Jimmy, and he comes to class naked. That would be 'taboo'. Not to mention instant suspension." Somehow Jimmy often returned our class, albeit still invisible, and still nude. Mostly he came up in those moments when students toss out anything they can think of to avoid the day's lesson. "Mr P, when did you first meet Jimmy? Doesn't he EVER wear clothes? Why are you friends with a naked kid? Isn't that breaking some law?"

Then, at my new school, working with middle schoolers, something changed. Jimmy took on a new life, one that did not focus on a lack of clothing: he became a fully fledged imaginary friend. He grew a last name - Chan - AND a full Chinese name. He's written sample essays for my English classes, but he's still most prominent in lessons on health and relationships in Moral Education. I found out from my students that he has a girlfriend, Gloria Ng. They met outside of a school bathroom. She smokes, but he's a star athlete and doesn't touch cigarettes. He stands up against bullies, but once got a beating for his efforts.

Some of the students here still believe my initial introduction, that he's actually a student at my old school. Jimmy has even been seen a few times, and one day when the students were socializing in my room during a recess they drew his image. Apparently, he looks a lot like the demon from "Death Note".

What's the educational insight from Jimmy Chan? Damned if I can connect him to anything I ever learned in teacher training, or read about on somebody's blog. And I don't think that any of the teacher appraisal systems I've seen have a category on "Makes Up Good Stories" or "Has Extensive Set of Imaginary Colleagues". But despite all that, I think that my ability to bring a class of students with me on an imaginary tale is one tiny part of what makes me effective in the classroom.

Telling stories is all about manipulating the mental space of the classroom. If you can take the kids with you on an imaginary journey to meet this guy named Jimmy, if kids ask you about him in the halls, if they become invested enough in this imaginary friend to draw him on the board during their free time, then something has happened. The collective group becomes willing to try new things in lessons. You gain more power when you ask a class "close your eyes and imagine you're in Feudal Europe." (Post on my four-hour simulation of feudalism coming next...)

So next time you finish a lesson five minutes too soon, introduce your class to a Jimmy Chan. Give them a few broad brushstrokes, let them flesh your friend out. Don't worry - while he is an extra student, he won't add to your marking load...and you just might find that he helps your class learn a few unexpected lessons along the way.