Opinion. Learning can be fun by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Learning can be fun by Hal O’Leary

Opinion. Learning can be fun by Hal O’Leary, in his weekly section on Yareah: Just Hal. Every Saturday a new interesting article.


Singing children by Tonny Watanebe


There is little question but that our educational system needs reform.  Too many of our students simply have no desire to learn.  There is an effort to place the focus of education on the student’s intellectual needs. The result is for the student to become bored and subsequently lose a desire to learn. With a greater focus on the emotional needs of the student, I contend that this indifference to learning can be avoided. Since it is our emotions that determine attitudes, and attitudes that determine a desire to learn or not to learn, the importance of at least an equal focus on emotional needs cannot be overstated.

There is a method, however, for addressing these emotional needs that makes learning fun and increases the desire to learn. It is generally referred to as Creative Dramatics. As an example of how the underlying psychology and philosophy of Creative Dramatics can address the emotional needs of students, let me take you through one particular exercise I devised. I used a segment from the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”  It proved to be an excellent way to counter three of the most common emotional disturbances plaguing today’s students, inferiority, loneliness and cowardice. If, for example, at this elementary age, students discover that they are not the only ones who occasionally think of themselves dumb, lonely or afraid, self-confidence is boosted, and with it a comes a recognition of their uniqueness, making them less susceptible to the debilitating curse of peer pressure.

I must admit that I do not much admire Frank Baum’s book on which the movie was based. Nevertheless, the movie is a masterpiece and is, most definitely, for children of all ages. I use the cliché “children of all ages” because while so many adults may have matured intellectually, emotionally they remain childish in the sense that they are still beset with the same irrational fears that haunt children. This movie has become a true classic, as evidenced by the fact that since its premiere in 1939 it has been repeatedly shown year after year. I have yet to encounter a child who has not seen it at least once, and while he may not identify the lessons to be learned, regardless of age, the movie, very subtly, has the potential for altering the most debilitating negative perceptions of oneself that we seem, at times, unable to overcome. What follows is a description of the procedure I used with great fun and success in addressing these stumbling blocks to true happiness. I do so with the assumption that the reader is familiar with the movie.

In a typical third grade class of twenty or thirty students, I would begin by reviewing the movie from beginning to end, with the aim of encouraging participation by allowing the students every opportunity to join in the recall. Actually, it took little encouragement. Once we had gotten through the whole story, the real fun began with frantically waving hands, to join in acting it out. Perhaps here I should make clear just what the term “Creative Dramatics” means. I simply tell a story and then have the students act it out, creating the dialogue as they go. It is referred to in theatre as improvisation. Let me digress and provide a humorous example.  On one occasion, with a first grade class, we were doing Goldilocks and The Three Bears. I took the little girl who had volunteered to play Mama Bear aside and whispered to her that Baby Bear was going to be bad this morning, rush out to play without eating his breakfast, and it would be her job to get him back in. When Baby Bear did just that, Mama Bear ran to the imaginary door and screamed in a voice that could be heard throughout the school,


Needless to say, the classroom teacher was not amused.

Of course, time would never permit any possibility of acting out the entire story, so I lit upon that segment when Dorothy and company have returned to the Wizard, having gotten the Witch’s broom, with the expectation of having their wishes granted, only to be told, “COME BACK TOMORROW.”  It is then that Toto, pulling back the curtain, exposes the Wizard as a fraud. The Wizard, however, in an attempt to win them over proceeds to counter their anger and disappointment by giving Scarecrow a diploma (all people with brains get one), Tin Man a watch (not only can you imagine the ticking as a heartbeat, but it is what all people are given as a token of love and appreciation), and to the cowardly Lion he awards a medal (the typical reward for all brave and heroic deeds). Once the selected students have acted out this first part of the scene and are happily on their way with what they perceive to be their granted wishes, I would intercept them with “Did I just see you leave the Wizard’s palace?” to which they boastfully admit that they had. When I would ask them what took place with the Wizard, they would proudly show me what he had given them in the granting of their wishes for a brain, a heart, and courage. Feigning shock and disbelief, I would then question their wisdom in accepting a diploma (a piece of paper) for a brain, a ticking watch (that could sound like the beating of a heart), and a medal to suggest courage. I would tell them emphatically that the Wizard had tricked them and that they should go back and challenge him, upon which, with tempers roused, they would go screaming,


It then became the task of the student playing the Wizard to somehow placate them. In the many times I have done this I don’t recall that the poor student playing the Wizard ever arrived at a satisfying solution. With his failure I would turn to the class with the question,

“Did the Wizard grant their wishes or didn’t he?”

Again, rarely would the class have an answer to that question. If the Wizard had not granted their wishes, the whole story is a tragedy, I would tell them. In their confused silence, I would send them home to think about it, and try to arrive at some resolution. When they returned to class, often one or more of them would have arrived at the idea that Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion had the qualities they had wished for all along but just didn’t think they did. I would then ask the class how someone could possibly have a brain, a heart, and courage and not know it. This question became the great opportunity to teach a lesson rarely approached in the average classroom. First dealing with Scarecrow (another name for dummy), my approach would go something like this,

“Is there any one here who has never made a mistake? Has the teacher never asked you a question to which you didn’t know the answer? Raise your hand.”

Their first response would always be to look around to the others, and seeing the first hand raised, they could comfortably follow suit. I would then ask how it felt to be the one who didn’t know the answer, and most would admit that they felt the other students, and the teacher as well, were thinking they were just a dummy. Then there might be the follow-up when they got home and Mummy asked them how they did in school. When told that they couldn’t answer the teacher’s question, Mummy might respond,


Then, that evening Mom tells Daddy and Daddy repeats.


But, even that can be overcome should it happen only once or twice; but more often than that, and one morning, the student might get up and upon looking in the mirror,  mumble,


Now, the student will have convinced himself or herself that they indeed have no brain.

This brings us to Tin Man. I would ask if there were any who have never felt lonely, who felt that nobody likes them, who felt that everyone has friends but them. Again, we would get the looking around to others before committing, and with the first hand raised, all would gradually concede that, yes, they had experienced loneliness. I would remind them that the heart is the symbol of love. And if you never experience love, wouldn’t it be only natural to assume that you really have no heart? And wasn’t that Tin Man’s problem, all alone for so long, not loving or being loved?

Let us now turn to the cowardly Lion. I would first ask what it meant to be brave. Invariably, the consensus would be that to be brave is not to be afraid. I would then ask if there were any students who were not afraid of anything. At this point, one or two boys and an occasional girl would proudly wave their hands. I would press them to convince us that they were really not afraid of anything. As I made my way down the aisle to beside one of their desks, and after a quiet moment, I would turn sharply and shout,


They would, of course, jump and be frightened. And the class would laugh. This was the most crucial moment in the entire exercise. Either the student would be able to laugh with the class at himself, or he  could not. In the event that he could laugh, this was a glorious moment, for it meant that he and the others realized that everyone is afraid, and that they no longer had to foolishly pretend to be brave, that there were indeed things that they could and should be frightened of. What a lesson to learn. There were, however, times when the student, rather than laugh, would become indignant and even surly, insisting that he was unafraid. I must admit, I was never quite sure of the best way of dealing with that, other than to explain that being afraid is not cowardice.

“To be brave is to do something even though you are afraid,” I would say.

Often that would suffice even for the victim. Unfortunately, as I said, we all tend to judge ourselves by what others pretend to be, and of course, we can never measure up. This exercise helps the students recognize this most necessary truth. It helps students develop a true and reliable sense of self-worth, which is essential for warding off the peer pressure we spoke of at the beginning. It also helps students identify unique talents that will ultimately enable them to become the very best in whatever their genes and those talents might permit. Testimony of the success of the exercise comes in the form of the thanks I have often received thirty and forty years later from many grateful and former elementary students who may have forgotten the names of their teachers, but who remembered my four forty-five minute visits.

Fortunately, Creative Dramatics requires no specialized training or talent on the part of the teacher other than a sincere love and respect for the uniqueness of each individual student, and a sincere desire to help students to become the very best whoever they can be. We must never forget that these children have already learned the most difficult lesson one has ever had to learn before ever approaching a classroom; they learned to talk, and on their own. Why? Because they had a strong desire to learn, and it was fun.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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