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Let's talk a good game: Mining talk shows for classroom engagement ideas

Although teaching during a pandemic has presented many new challenges, educators were searching for ways to keep students engaged and motivated during class long before 2020. Distance learning, however, has added the additional obstacle of a digital device between teachers and students.

It might benefit us to seek inspiration from some of the people who have mastered keeping vast audiences interested through a screen for years: talk show hosts. With the job to provide entertainment to people who can switch a channel any time they get bored, these men and women have learned a thing or two about how to gain their viewers’ rapt attention. There is no reason educators can’t adapt some of these techniques, such as the games they play with their guests, for the classroom.

Five Second Rule

For instance, let’s look at the game, “Five Second Rule,” played on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It became so popular that it was turned into a board game. The premise is simple. Each person has five seconds to name three things in a category. If they can’t name three things, the next person gets a turn - but they can’t repeat any of the words already stated. The players who follow have a chance at the same topic until three correct answers are given (or everyone has had made an attempt), and then a new topic is then chosen.

How could you use this framework for a learning experience? For a low-tech method, you can write different topics, such as “Revolutionary War Generals” on flashcards, and just show them to your students, possibly using a five-second YouTube timer. You can also use this Google Slides template I’ve created with some generic subjects studied in school. Better yet, share the template with your students, and have them generate curriculum-based categories.


The women who host The Real play a game that has been developed into a free app. The game, “Shoutrageous,” somewhat reminiscent of Family Feud, times you as your team members shout out as many words as possible for a certain topic, hoping to say one of the ten answers in the app. For example, one category might be “Things that are stolen from hotel rooms,” and correct responses would be objects like shampoo and towels.

A school version of this game might include lists crowd-sourced by your students using a Google Form. Some ideas that come to mind are: “Battles of the Civil War,” “Spanish Words You Would Find in the Classroom,” or “Math Vocabulary Words.” Use one of these classroom timers to keep each team on their toes as they guess. If your school is hybrid or virtual, and you don’t want to hear a lot of shouting through your speakers, home participants can use PearDeck, Nearpod, Padlet, or Jamboard to submit responses in the allotted time.

Human Guess Who

James Corden popularized the “Human Guess Who” game on his show. You can watch this example to see how Corden plays the game using audience members holding either red or blue question marks.

This would be fairly easy to reproduce in a physical classroom, but what about virtually? One way to do it would require that all students have their cameras on. To play without teams, the teacher can select a secret student, and another student, chosen randomly, can try to guess who. Instead of sitting down, students who are not in the category could turn off their cameras.

If students are not comfortable with being live on camera (or it’s difficult to get all of the students on the same screen), you can also use this alternative, where students can replace the silhouettes with their images. Even less intrusive would be to use words or images that represent the unit you are studying.

Fake or Florida

With many educators trying to guide their students to use critical thinking in order to discern the difference between real and fake news, the Seth Meyers game, “Fake or Florida,” is a unique option for practicing this skill.

This would be an excellent opportunity to let some of those advanced students in your class do some prep work for an upcoming unit - especially in Social Studies. They can research unusual facts about a particular historical time period and mix them in with ones they devise on their own that sound almost plausible.

After you’ve checked the proposed questions and students have proven the “real ones” with reliable resources, the students can challenge the rest of the class to identify the fake facts.

Depending on the era, the game could be, “Ridiculous or Revolutionary?”, “Counterfeit or Colonial?”, “Poppycock or Progressive?”

Word Sneak

Jimmy Fallon is probably the king of late-night talk show games and a huge supporter of teachers. “Word Sneak” is a clever one where he and a guest each get several secret (and very unusual) words, and they have to find ways to correctly use one word at a time while conducting a conversation.

Imagine playing this in a foreign language class or any time you have vocabulary to review. To make it even more challenging, you can give the students certain scenarios or topics for their conversations. Not everyone will want to be the center of attention for this, so bystanders can be in charge of assigning points, judging words for correct usage, and determining if the sentences fit in the context of the conversation.

Mad Lib Theater

Another entertaining game that Fallon plays on his show is called “Mad Lib Theater.” You have probably played Mad Libs before and perhaps even used them in your classroom. However, the extra spin that Fallon puts on this activity is that, once his guest supplies the nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech, Fallon and the celebrity act out a scene using the words.

Take a look at this example where Tom Cruise is first asked to generate the words for the blanks in Jimmy’s secret story, and then participate in the hilarious scene he somewhat reluctantly co-wrote.

Setting this up in the classroom could be differentiated based on the age of your students and your curriculum. As the teacher, you could fill Jimmy Fallon’s role by writing short dialogues related to your course or topic of study and gathering words from your students. You could also take it to the next level (and save yourself some time in the process) by assigning the students to write dialogues in partners or groups.

Plug the stories into the Flippity Mad Lib generator, and then guide groups to filling out the required parts of speech for a different group’s story. Finally, have them act out their newly written scenes.

Mining talk shows for classroom engagement ideas

From Jimmy Fallon’s “Box of Lies” to his “Wheel of Opinions,” there are plenty more games you can transform for educational use. Here is a list of Jimmy Fallon sketches to excavate for additional ideas. Some games might be better suited for community building or brain breaks, while others might be a jumpstart for more imaginative methods for presenting or reviewing academic material.

As you think about incorporating these, or some of the other examples above, don’t let the idea that they were successful because they were played on sound stages in front of studio audiences dissuade you from trying them in a different context. You can always adjust the games for the needs of your students.

David Letterman once said, “Traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines.” Approach these suggestions like cab drivers in the Big Apple view “Stop” signs. Do what works for you.