Every successful classroom contains laughter. It doesn’t have to be belly laughs or feel like a comedy club, but for students to learn a sense of humor has to lurk somewhere in the space students share with their teacher. Smiles need to be the rule rather than the exception.
Gifted teachers have a million different ways to bring this lightness to their work with kids. For me, a lifetime ago when I was in the classroom, laughter took on its most daring look when I cracked open a treasure chest and put on a sash, eye patch, and hoop earring.
The most fun I ever had in a classroom was Pirate Week.
Its origins were humble; one rainy winter when I was teaching at a little high school in Oregon, my best friend and I decided that we needed to do something to raise student and staff morale. It was January and had been gray and wet since October. It seemed the whole state was in a bad mood.
We kicked around some ideas to shake things up. What would everyone have fun with? What would be unexpected? Who didn’t like pirates?
Together we found some piratical short stories and nonfiction we could use in our English classes. We put together a few activities that would get the kids moving, taught our students the proper way to deliver a hearty pirate yell (one fist in the air, one fist forward, and a rousing “ARRRR!”), and learned the words of “A Pirate’s Life” so we could go caroling.
Some of my theatrical students located life sized wooden cannon in the prop closet behind the stage. Two boys brought in a recipe for hardtack. A group of girls decorated the room to look like something out of Treasure Island.
I grew a beard, starting far too early before the designated week and looking like a Russian poet for almost a month. Students plotted costumes, created props, and planned an elaborate treasure hunt.
Along the way we laughed.
Outside the weather stayed predictably inclimate; inside we sailed the sparkling waters of the Caribbean with Captain Blood. The week itself swashbuckled in. Hook hands flashed, hoop earrings appeared on unlikely lobes, and shanties filled the air. We ended the week exhausted, happy, and closer than we’d ever been.
Pirate Week taught me the value of big, fun, and unexpected events. I continued it every other year for more than a decade, and saw students and teachers add to it with beautiful ideas (inviting a third grade class to a day of crafts and games, a treasure hunt put on by ASB with a real bag of gold coins at the end, and the creation of a roving band of teachers who sang pirate songs to students at lunch).
Why every other year?
Even pirates could grow stale if they were always around. Plus, it opened the door for Space Week!
I found that Pirate Week was much more than the five days we dressed like buccaneers. The smiling passion it engendered extended from the beginning of the year to the end.
In addition to the positive attitude and good humor we bring to work every day, it’s energizing to have something a little madcap to highlight the year. That Pirate Spirit, as I took to calling it, colored all we did together. We were a cohesive crew, not just a collection of strangers of a ship.
Together we laughed. Together we learned. And when I see a former student, the chances are great that they’ll begin their hello with a hearty “ARRRR!”