“Wow! How did you do that?”
“Can you do it again?”
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
These are typical reactions to performing magic and illusions in class. I thought I might try magic as a vehicle for teaching English since it is an example par excellence of lateral thinking, which demands concentration, creative problem solving, imagination and also because it appeals to almost everybody.
Here then was my basic premise. If the elements of surprise, wonder and mystery arouse the creative juices, then magic could be a very effective teaching tool. Besides, it’s fun for both the student and the teacher. Furthermore, I believe that teachers’ hobbies and interests can be used effectively in the classroom, as can those of the students, since these are such human yet individual activities.
The application of magic to teaching English is based on the distinction between a ‘trick’ and an ‘illusion’. A trick is just the bare action – be it guessing a card, reading someone’s mind or escaping from a locked chain – while the illusion is how you dress it up, how you enrich it.
It is through the illusion that you focus on language. This is where you introduce the vocabulary or the linguistic structure you wish to teach at the level you choose. You design the illusion to serve your teaching objectives. By the way, almost any trick can be adapted to any subject, be it geography, mathematics, history, whatever.
Card tricks are always very effective. Everyone is familiar with the ‘pick a card, any card’ kind of trick.
To reinforce vocabulary, for example, you can write words on as many cards as you want. A student picks a card, which he shows to the class, and which you have to identify. Let’s say he has picked a card with the word ‘beneficial’ on it. He shows it to all the students, who have been directed to concentrate on the word.
However, you write other words – which you are ‘receiving’ along with the chosen word – on the board. Explain that telepathy relies on a concentrated signal, and unfortunately there must be some troublemakers who are trying to confuse you by thinking of other words. They must all focus only on the chosen word. Then, of course, you point out the word ‘beneficial’ to their surprise, and review the other (related) words you have written on the board.
A variation of the same trick is to write questions on the cards from your literature, or about students, or grammar points – whatever you want. You say that you dreamt of questions and answers the previous night and wrote out the questions in the morning. Ask a student to pick a card. You can stretch out the question part, but in the end, you give the correct answer to the chosen question without having been told the question. It’s the same trick: you have guessed the secret card but you have built a different illusion around it. There is no end to the possible variations.
As you see, the possibilities are limited only by the imagination and almost any trick can be made into an illusion in order to teach the item you want the pupils to remember. I personally prefer the genre called ‘Mentalism’ which consists of mind reading, telepathy and telekinesis-type illusions.
For example I can talk about closeness between a man and wife and how that reinforces telepathy. I just happen to suggest experimenting with this idea. I ask someone to pick a card, or word or name from a list and show it to me and to the whole class. Then I call my wife on a phone and ask her to speak to one of my students without saying why I had called or what the secret is. The student explains the experiment and asks her to guess the chosen item. All the time I am visibly in deep concentration. My wife talks a little, and then guesses the chosen item correctly. Shock!
While performing an illusion try adding more English. Ask casually what ‘Tele’ in ‘telepathy’ means and if they know any other words with ‘Tele’. Do they know what ‘Phone’ means? Or ‘Scope’? These casual items are inserted as an aside, as if for interest, but are of course planned beforehand.
Telepathy, by its very nature, incorporates language and English, incidentally, is the only language my brain can receive or transmit. Therefore any illusion I create can succeed only if it is in English. In order for me to read their minds, the students must think in English. I explain this to my students. They accept it with a pinch of salt, in fun, but do try to think in English. Isn’t this what we really want them to do?
Getting Students’ Attention
Magic will always catch and focus the observer’s attention, enabling you to activate every student, even those who don’t usually participate. Here is a chance for the awkward student, or the loner, to be involved and be part of something special. Everyone’s mind is totally involved.
Consider keeping some rope, or a deck of cards, or dice, or just some mental tricks handy for those times when everyone is bored and the lesson is dying. Magic can be a lifesaver in these situations. I’ve seen students transmogrify from a state of mental catatonia to one of rapt attention in the split second it takes to say the word ‘magic’.
To expand on the magic theme you can plan a magic day or give the class an article on magic or have them prepare a biography or history of magic. You can give them a project of finding magic tricks or writing about mysterious happenings. The possibilities are endless. The whole point is to use magic as motivation, as a vehicle for enjoying and learning.
But of course, the real magic is the English language itself, full of wonder, beauty and elegance. Its history, its etymology, its breadth are truly amazing. Why, you can transfer everyone and everything into the future by using just one simple fantastic word. No, not ‘shazam’ – just the little English word ‘will’. Magic indeed!
Some Points of Advice
– Use magic for either special occasions or as a surprise, so the students never know what to expect or when. Thus there is always an element of suspense in the air. The point is that magic is something special and must never become a routine activity.
– Do not repeat illusions. You can do different versions, as I have demonstrated above, in which case you should space these illusions well apart.
– Never reveal how you do the trick. This causes an anticlimax, a feeling of being disappointed, and you deprive them of the mystery, which is the essence of magic.
– Do not use student accomplices (called plants). Many tricks are done with another person, but in the school situation this can cause bad feelings among the students.
– Just as you develop your own teaching style, develop a ‘magic style’ which suits you and your personality. There is no need to copy anyone.
And now, good people, the hour is late, the moon is full, the spirits are about, and I am going to slowly disa …..
Abi Schatz is a lecturer of English at Ashkelon Academic College in Israel and has wide experience in teacher training, resource development and instructional design. His hobby is, unsurprisingly, magic and he has given many workshops on the subject.