Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic

One half of the entertainment duo Penn & Teller explains how performance and discomfort make education come alive.

Damian Dovarganes / AP

Education, at its most engaging, is performance art. From the moment a teacher steps into the classroom, students look to him or her to set the tone and course of study for everyone, from the most enthusiastic to the most apathetic students. Even teachers who have moved away from the traditional lecture format, toward more learner autonomy-supportive approaches such as project-based and peer-to-peer learning, still need to engage students in the process, and serve as a vital conduit between learner and subject matter.

Teachers are seldom trained in the performance aspect of teaching, however, and given that every American classroom contains at least one bored, reluctant, or frustrated student, engagement through performance may just be the most important skill in a teacher’s bag of tricks.

I asked Teller, a former Latin teacher and the silent half of the magical partnership known as Penn & Teller, about his years as an educator, and the role performance played in his teaching. Teller taught high school Latin for six years before he left to pursue a career in magic with Penn, and in the 40 years since, the duo have won Emmys, Obies, and Writer’s Guild Awards, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As our conversation meandered through Catullus, Vergil, Shakespeare, and education theory, he explained why he believes performance is an essential, elemental aspect of effective teaching.

The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.

As that symbol, Teller argued, the teacher has a duty to engage, to create romance that can transform apathy into interest, and, if a teacher does her job well, a sort of transference of enthusiasm from teacher to student takes place. The best teachers, Teller contended, find a way to teach content while keeping students interested. “If you don’t have both astonishment and content, you have either a technical exercise or you have a lecture.” Teller’s educational philosophy is rooted in the philosopher A.N. Whitehead’s “rhythm of education,” a theory that asserts learning happens in three stages: romance, precision, and generalization.

The magicians and entertainers Penn & Teller (Francis George)

Romance, argued Teller, precedes all else. “I’m 5’8” and was about 160 pounds those days, so I was not the kind of person who could walk into a room of rowdy kids and [they] would just pay attention to me. What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”

In pursuit of that romance, Teller’s first order of business in his classroom at Lawrence High School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, was to throw away the curriculum and text and create his own. “I taught [Latin] with a set of Latin readers I composed myself, complete with illustrations, called Lingua Latina Pictorius.”

I did my best to hide my glee, calmly replying that I’d really like to see a few pages, if he still had them. This was, of course, a gross understatement; I was dying to see the books. Teller wouldn’t make any promises, as the books were in storage somewhere, but a few hours later, scanned excerpts from his readers appeared in my inbox.

Teller’s Latin curriculum

He paired his handmade books with supplemental readings, also selected for their potential to engage his students. He chose Book Two of The Aeneid, because it contained the story of the Trojan Horse, and selections from the poetry of Catullus. “Not the absolutely pornographic stuff like, pedicabo et irrumabo, which is that very, very naughty poem, but material I liked and could get excited about. Everything had either humor or sex or blood or romance in it, because that's what you’re thinking about when you’re in middle and high school.”

Once a teacher has sparked romance in students, Teller argued, the rest can follow. It’s easy to disregard the entertainment of your students as pandering, but it’s not, Teller stressed, citing Frances Ferguson’s The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective. “In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that's strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.”

Teller’s Latin curriculum

Some subjects can’t be taught without the showbiz, Teller asserted. Teaching Shakespeare as a text, before students have a seen a production, is the surest route to kill off any enthusiasm for The Bard. Students must watch Shakespeare before they read it, he said. “Until you've seen what the idea [of Shakespeare’s work] is, it’s really like handing a child an orchestral score and saying, ‘Imagine this music.’ Well, you can’t; you have to be Mozart to do that.”

And if Shakespeare (or Catullus or Vergil) makes students uncomfortable? That’s a good thing, Teller said. Learning, like magic, should make people uncomfortable, because neither are passive acts. Elaborating on the analogy, he continued, “Magic doesn’t wash over you like a gentle, reassuring lullaby. In magic, what you see comes into conflict with what you know, and that discomfort creates a kind of energy and a spark that is extremely exciting. That level of participation that magic brings from you by making you uncomfortable is a very good thing.”

As we were on the subject of discomfort I asked Teller what he thinks of schools’ efforts to protect students from discomfort as they learn through censoring teachers’ content and requirements for trigger warnings. For the first time in our conversation, Teller illustrated the power of his trademark silence, and the line went quiet.

Just as I’d begun to think we’d been disconnected, he replied,

When I go outside at night and look up at the stars, the feeling that I get is not comfort. The feeling that I get is a kind of delicious discomfort at knowing that there is so much out there that I do not understand and the joy in recognizing that there is enormous mystery, which is not a comfortable thing. This, I think, is the principal gift of education.