Death by hanging vs. being eaten by a shark.

My students in Korea loved playing hangman.

I used it regularly as a way to revise vocabulary and practise spelling, and they often begged me to play it if I suggested another game or activity in its place (it bored me to tears after a few years). Here, though, hangman is frowned upon.

Now, I must admit, although I wouldn’t call myself a politically correct person (maybe another post in its own right, but in short I do tend to be irritated by the PC police – the ones who jump down someone’s throat for saying something “offensive” when it’s clear that the person had no intention of offending), I have always had my concerns about the appropriateness of a game that is basically the students trying to stop their teacher from completing a picture of someone being murdered. Still, it’s a game that’s recognised the world over, and the kids didn’t seem to be particularly traumatised, so I didn’t lose any sleep over it.

Over the past couple of months, however, I’ve spent uncountable hours in teacher training sessions, both as part of CELTA and mandatory teacher development seminars at my new place of employment. They model and demonstrate a wide variety of teaching techniques and useful activities – one of which is a hangman-style game. I’ve seen it over and over again, despite never having encountered it before moving to this country. I don’t actually know whether it originates in the Czech Republic, or I just never heard of it until I came here, and a Google search has given me no clues, so I’ll go ahead and assume you don’t know of it either.

Dashes are written up on the board to represent letters in a word or phrase, just like in hangman. However, instead of drawing the gallows, you draw a set of stairs, with a little stickman standing on the top step. At the bottom, there’s a wavy line to illustrate water. And in the water… there’s a shark. You may see where this is going.

So, the kids guess letters as per hangman, and you fill in the correct guesses as normal, and write the incorrect ones at the side. The difference is that instead of drawing a stickman piece by piece, you penalise each incorrect guess by moving your mini stickman down one step closer to the shark’s waiting jaws. If they fail to guess the word in time, the hapless stickman takes the final step into the shark’s mouth, where he is obviously going to be torn to pieces.

Now, I’m sorry, but I fail to see how this is any better than the original version. No, it is certainly not pleasant to play a game based on capital punishment by an outlawed and barbaric method, when you think about it. But really – really – is it any better to send a poor, innocent, trembling stickman down a short staircase to die a presumably even more painful and gory death at the teeth of a Great White?

I have heard a variety of reasons, which I can boil down to two main ideas:

Hanging is a visual symbol of a cruel and painful death, which is inappropriate for children. Oh, I completely agree. But I fail to see how the obvious child-friendly alternative is to push the victim into the sea to be eaten for dinner by a hungry shark. I mean, seriously. What child is going to develop a fear of being hanged, in all honesty? It’s not relevant. A fear of the ocean, on the other hand, seems much more plausible to me, as someone who loves swimming but panics uncontrollably at the sight of an unidentified object approaching in the next wave. And that’s only because I think it might be a jellyfish or some kind of crawly thing. I imagine that the fear would escalate quite considerably had my teachers consistently reinforced the subconscious association between being in the sea and being eaten by a shark.

Fewer people are likely to have been affected by shark attacks than by hanging. This is a much more valid point, in my opinion. The last hanging in Czechoslovakia took place as recently as 1989, and capital punishment was then abolished in 1990 – a decision which obviously remained in place when the Czech Republic was established. It’s crazy to me to think that this sort of thing was still going on during my lifetime. I genuinely cannot get my mind around the idea of modern, Western countries deeming this sort of practice acceptable – I read up on it tonight, and was shocked to discover that in many European countries, hanging was legal until the 1950s and later. I honestly saw it as an “olden days” kind of thing – you know, not much more recent than burning witches at the stake. [I am deliberately leaving America out of this, because I will unintentionally go into a full-on disbelieving rant about the fact that the “new” country still ritually murders people as punishment, now, today, in the 21st century… no, no, no, must not get started on capital punishment! It is Friday night.]

Erm, sorry, got sidetracked. The point is, as one of the teacher trainers pointed out today, hanging is a potentially emotive subject. She knows a few teachers who played hangman in classes of adult learners, and found that a member of a student’s family had actually been hanged. It’s still too recent. Like playing Lethal Injection Man in the States, perhaps.

Anyway, I suppose that’s a valid reason not to play hangman in the Czech Republic, although I really doubt that a 9-year-old is going to make a connection between the hanging stickman and a family member they never knew and probably haven’t been told about. And yes, I suppose children from a landlocked country can afford to develop a phobia about the sea, since they’re not likely to spend much time swimming in it. Can’t imagine that first trip to a coastal resort will be much fun, though.

And so, with some confusion and decidedly mixed feelings, I have waved goodbye to hangman. From this moment on, it shall be known as The Shark Game.

Being a teacher is, like, so political and stuff, innit?


2 thoughts on “Death by hanging vs. being eaten by a shark.

  1. Suzanneingalicia says:

    Loved your post – as always!

    When I did my CELTA, they taught me to draw a highly stylized cat instead of either hangman or shark & it seems the kids just like the game, even without the ghoulish ingredient.

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