Teaching Content Outrageously: How to Captivate All Students and Accelerate Learning
By Stanley Pogrow
Reviewed by Elizabeth Stein, NBCT
Special Education Teacher (NY)
Teacher Leaders Network
I was in my third year of college as a psychology major. The first day of the spring semester began and I walked into my sociology 101 class. There were two students who were even earlier than I was. One student was reading and the other sat slouching in his seat with his eyes closed. After a few minutes the classroom filled up. Class was to begin—but where was the professor?
After about five minutes the murmurs became loud complaints from students who said, “Let’s just go—this is crazy.” I sat quietly, reading and occasionally looking up to observe. I noticed the student who was slouching at his seat was still slouching, but keenly looking around the room. He seemed to be interested in the obvious discontent of students who did not want to wait. He only grunted when approached by another student who said, “We should just leave.” After about 15 minutes of waiting a few students walked out. Once they left, the sloucher swiftly stood up and walked to the front of the classroom. He introduced himself as the professor for this class.
Most students just stared in disbelief. He apologized for putting us through that, and briefly explained his reasoning for beginning a class in this manner. After all, this was a class about human behavior within societies. It left quite an impression on many of us, encouraging us to really reflect on our personal responses and behaviors. Stanley Pogrow, author of Teaching Content Outrageously, would describe this as an outrageous lesson.
Pogrow, a professor of Educational Leadership at San Francisco State University, clearly places value on the perspective of students when teaching content area material. He is known for developing the HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills) Program for accelerating the learning of under-performing students. His book is all about attempting to engage students at the onset of a lesson as a way to guide their attention and deepen understandings of the content and lesson objectives.
Pogrow believes that a great way to engage learners is to employ dramatic techniques as an instruction tool. He states:
Dramatizing content instruction has tremendous potential for teaching students who have not been successful learners or are intimidated by a particular subject or type of content, because it taps into their deeply held emotions and beliefs, their imagination…
Some examples of the use of dramatic technique include:
• Expressive Microbursts (the teacher exaggerates the tone of voice or facial expression)
• Changing Persona with Humor and Strangeness (this involves taking the expressive microburst a step further to create a shift in one’s persona)
• Create a Make-Believe Context and Scenario via Role Playing and Simulations (I believe my college professor would fall into this category when he changed his role as professor to student.)
Pogrow says that an "outrageous" lesson plan incorporates the following components:
• The element of surprise at the onset to “hook” the learners
• A storyline or scenario with a dilemma, fantasy, and humor
• Disguises and props (both costume and voice) as the teacher depicts characters
• A setting that incorporates as many media and senses as appropriate
• Eliciting emotional responses from the students
• Transition to the learning activity
• Debriefing with the students to review the content and the lesson objective.
Pogrow feels that introducing some lessons (definitely not all) in an unconventional manner helps to develop a stronger student-teacher relationship, as students become comfortable enough to participate and therefore learn. Pogrow also contends that incorporating dramatic technique helps to maintain discipline.
As a special education teacher, I can connect my own practice to some of what the author is saying. I often insert humor and use my voice as a means to engage students in the learning process. It's effective. As I use such techniques with students who have learning disabilities, they display a sense of comfort and relaxed emotional stance that adds to their level of attention, participation, and understanding.
As I read through the book, I felt as though the author were right there speaking. It was written in a very relaxed manner—in some cases, too relaxed. At times, it felt more like reading a first draft still scattered with repetitive language and redundant ideas and in need of a good editor. But Pogrow's overall message for teachers to shake things up a bit did resonate with me. Students need to find ways to make the content meaningful. They need to find ways to connect to the content so that they can make sense of it, and, ultimately, transfer it.
For the most part, the examples the author shared were created by student teachers to indicate that if they can do this then anyone can. I found myself wondering if the author knew of examples from veteran teachers (other than the two shared lessons he created). Pogrow concedes that there is as yet no substantive research to support that dramatic technique improves learning. He does, however, provide his anecdotal observations to share his belief that there is a place for dramatic technique in the learning process.
Although I easily grasped Pogrow’s core contentions, I had a more difficult time with his instructional tactics and the lesson examples of his student teachers. They did not feel in sync with my own practice. While I cannot heartily recommend this book, I will say that it encouraged me to think about my teaching style and the specific techniques I use to liven up the learning environment for my students. In that sense, the author’s mission was accomplished.