POWHATAN – As Flat Rock Elementary School teacher Robin Hagy watched the fourth-graders yelling, screaming, and jumping up and down, she had a satisfied smile on her face.
She could see the excitement and engagement on their faces as they alternately cheered and booed the professional wrestlers participating in the Winter Wipeout held on Dec. 7 at Powhatan High School. Hundreds of people, including most of Flat Rock’s fourth-grade class and their family members, came to watch the free show, which saw male and female professional wrestlers squaring off in a ring set up in one of the gyms.
“I was so incredibly proud of them at the show. I took a few moments through the night to soak it all in. The smiles and absolute joy on their faces throughout the night brought tears to my eyes,” she said.
For Hagy, the night was the culmination of more than a year’s worth of work that started when she applied for and was awarded a $10,050 Engaging Creative Thinkers grant from Partners in the Arts to implement her Heroes Wear Masks projects. The project allowed her to blend two loves – teaching and professional wrestling – in a surprising and exciting way.
Over a period of six weeks, Hagy, along with “resident wrestler” Chris Hoyer and several other special guests, incorporated the world of professional wrestling into language arts lesson plans teaching the 96 fourth-graders how to develop and tell a good story.
“We studied narrative writing and the elements of a story. We broke down the writing process by step and our experts in wrestling, who are experts in storytelling, broke down those steps in their world,” Hagy said. “We looked at models from the world of wrestling and used those to help us learn the steps of the writing process and become better, more descriptive writers.”
But even beyond that already complicated task, Hagy worked with various teachers at Flat Rock to incorporate elements of public speaking, art, music, and even computer coding.
Students created their characters, using descriptive language to determine how they would look and act and wrote stories about a match of their own design. They created a luchador mask for their characters, whose images were printed on t-shirts in art class and worn by the students to the Winter Wipeout. Students studied how music could advance a plot and change the tone of a story, and some of them used animation and coding for their projects.
Outside of the classroom, most of the school’s fourth-grade class participated at Winter Wipeout, with roles ranging from announcing wrestlers to acting as escorts or working concessions. Hagy said she wanted them to run the entire show.
“I felt like a proud mom as I watched the students. They were so fearless in front of the crowd, and it was as if they had been performing in front of a crowd that large their entire life. They were absolute professionals. They took all of their roles so seriously, and knew that every job from ring announcing to playing music was important to the story,” she said.
Donning a mask
When Hagy was growing up, she loved wrestling. She struggled in school, especially with reading, but when it came to wrestling, the larger-than-than-life characters, plots, conflict and resolution, and other elements just made sense to her.
As a teacher, Hagy noticed that when she struggled to build a rapport with a student, the topic of wrestling sometimes helped ease the way.
“They would come in the day after wrestling came on and we just talked. It became this bonding thing,” she said. “I thought maybe I should turn this into a whole writing project. (Partners for the Arts) were willing to listen to me and here we are.”
After receiving the grant, Hagy collaborated with Hoyer, who wrestles under the ring name Lucas Calhoun, to get a more in-depth look at wrestling and how it could be incorporated into a classroom setting.
Hoyer became a regular for six weeks – visiting the different fourth-grade classrooms to help with the various lessons, give his perspective, and see how the students’ work was developing.
“He was there every week for writing block. The kids really got to know him. Some places have resident artists. He was our resident wrestler,” Hagy said. “He really turned into this great mentor and role model who was super supportive and wonderful with the kids and extremely creative and knowledgeable about writing and the elements of fiction.”
Hoyer said he was on board as soon as Hagy told him about the project, calling it a “genius” idea. He started reaching out to contacts from his years producing and participating in wrestling shows in Virginia and found many other people from that world were receptive as well.
“Professional wrestling is this really awesome art form that gets misrepresented sometimes. I think there is a lot of depth and a lot of possibility to professional wrestling,” Hoyer said. “So with something like this, where you are using it as a medium or way to communicate storytelling elements to kids, this is the absolute heart of professional wrestling. It is telling stories and figuring out how to accurately convey these stories and the emotions and the concepts you want to get across.”
Creating the lesson plans was a matter of distilling the elements of wrestling down into relatable lessons, Hoyer said. For example, he used a wrestling promotional video as an example of a hook into a story.
The promo featured professional wrestler Mark Henry announcing his retirement in front of John Cena, giving a heart-felt and emotional speech. But when Cena went in for a hug, Henry surprised him with a massive body slam and a renewed challenge that he was coming for Cena’s championship belt.
“The reactions from the kids every single time we watched this promo was incredible. Every class that we were in, because it is a long lead up of Mark Henry being sad and talking about his family, the kids are invested in this and listening to him talk about his kids. Then as soon as that slam happens, everybody in the classroom was like, ‘Oh no, what happened?’ It was great,” Hoyer said with a chuckle.
One of Hoyer’s favorite parts about being involved in the project was seeing the unique approaches the students took to their stories, characters, and artwork.
“When people who are in professional wrestling start thinking about characters or stories or what they want to do in pro wrestling, we tend to operate in these defined spaces of how we think about professional wrestling,” he said. “The thing that is great is the kids have none of that. They have no preconceived notions about what professional wrestling is or could be or should be, so they are just going with 100 percent creativity.”
To offer a hint at what he is talking about, some of the characters that students created included Clown Baby, Hot Sauce, Flower Power, Dancer Angel, Firefox, Mountain Monster, Pyro, The Peacock, Electrizar, Fall Leaf, and Madison Fletcher.
Fourth-grader Luke Estep’s character, The Fire Bird, looks scary but is actually a good person, he said. His character is “intelligent, knows a lot of moves, and has been training for a long time.”
Luke said he loves wrestling and was excited to attend his first live show and meet the wrestlers.
Wyatt Gould said he saw a wrestling movie with Scooby Doo and really liked it. He also enjoys wrestling with his brother. So he liked it when his class studied wrestling, including the differences in the good and bad characters, the colors, and the names. His character, Skeleton Demon, is a tricky bad guy who pretends to be nice and hoodwinks people.
Adelaide Blankenship’s character Firefox is a clever but sneaky villain who manages to get herself out of tough situations despite being small. Adelaide said she didn’t know anything about wrestling before she started learning about it in school but she really enjoyed herself and was excited to be one of the ring announcers at the Winter Wipeout show.
“I really liked this project because you got to create your own character, your own story, and your own t-shirt, which is really cool in my opinion. … When you make your character, you can choose if it is going to be on the bad side or good side or sneaky or colorful. You can choose its mask. You can choose pretty much everything about the character,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.