Innovation: Good for Business, Essential for Education

Check out this article from New York Times Magazine--highlighting Jump, a business specializing in finding innovative solutions for businesses.  As in education, these professionals find endless benefits from employing the principle of "Yes, and..." into their brainstorming processes.

I also believe that "Yes, and..." offers the key to stronger, more meaningful interpersonal relations--in school or in the workplace.  How has this principle influenced you?

Check out the article here:

Debriefing, Part Two: A Structure for Debriefing

Whether at the end of a stand-alone game, in the midst of an improv workshop, or after a series of activities, debriefing with the group is an essential component to integrating improvisational theater into the classroom.  While my last post addressed the reasons for processing with students, this section will outline the logistics involved in structuring these discussions.

Physical Structure
When I teach using improv, I always debrief sitting in a circle with nothing in-between us.  That's right--I feel strongly that having desks, books or folders in front of students obstruct them from directly connecting with their fellow players.  To develop a community of learners, an ensemble, I create an environment in which we are all sitting at the same level (all in chairs or all on the floor) and have no distractions or barriers between us.  In establishing this seating pattern as a routine step, my students know that Sitting on the Floor In a Circle = Processing Time.  Even 7th and 8th-graders can handle sitting on the floor; once you establish it as an expectation, they will embrace it as a part of your culture.

How Long to Debrief? 
Well, that all depends on the game(s) you're debriefing, your focus, and how long you'd like the conversation to run.  I've facilitated one-minute processing sessions, and I've guided and participated in 45-minute-long debriefing marathons.  It all depends on your goal as the teacher...and your class's focus and engagement as an ensemble.

Conceptual Structure*
Processing with your class will work best if you have a FOCUS, or objective, for your game or workshop.  Of course, any good teacher knows that an excellent lesson begins with a defined objective.  The same is true for improv--whether it's a class taught on the stage or an integrated lesson in the classroom.
Your learning objective (academic or social) will guide your facilitation of the processing discussion:
1) Ask the players to make observations-- "What did you notice?"  "What happened?"
2) Ask the players to personally react to the experience-- "How did it feel to...?"
3) Ask the players to make connections between the improv activity and another area of the curriculum, personal goals, or social interactions.  "How is this a metaphor for...?"  "How is this like...?"  "How can we use this experience to help us understand...?"
4) Ask the players how this activity might inspire change.  "What are you going to do differently next time?"

When teaching primary students, I often focus on the first two of these areas, and I certainly don't cover all of them for every workshop.  If it's a quick game, I'll often focus on observations or connections as a brief response.  However, I am consistently blown away by the insight and complexity of students' understanding when discussing the experiences, applications and impact of these games.  As much as our play brings smiles to our faces, our conversations about the meaning behind the play inspire deeper learning and stronger relationships.

Ever onward!

* Thanks to Cheryl Gould for her informative, engaging presentation about debriefing at the Applied Improv Network SF Bay Area Regional Meeting in December, 2010.  I've blended my approach and her ideas for this blog post...and for my future work in guiding sessions with students and teachers.

Up Next: Strategies for Supporting Equity in Debriefing Sessions

Debriefing, Part One: Why Debrief?

On Friday, I was lucky enough to attend the Applied Improv Network's SF Bay Area Regional one-day conference at BATS Improv in San Francisco.  Surrounded by like-minded folks, I was inspired to see how a wide variety of professionals are utilizing the principles and activities of improvisational theater to transform communities.  From business to college campuses, from the classroom to the board room, improv offers opportunities for both professional and personal growth.  However, as with hands-on learning strategies, it is not enough simply to DO.  It is in the REFLECTING and DISCUSSING that we are able to engage in transformative processes.  Debriefing is at the heart of applied improvisation.

Yes, yes.  That's all well and good.  But how do I do it?  And what if I mess it up? 
When discussing a recent in-class workshop in which I was modeling how to teach using improvisational theater methods, I made a grave mistake: A teacher mentioned the fact that she'd noticed the students who had participated in our debriefing/processing session were the ones who commonly spoke during class discussions.  As I felt pressured by time (and probably a bit embarrassed that this had happened--and didn't want to admit it to myself), I'm pretty darn sure I skirted the issue.  Really--we had SO much to discuss in our limited time together. 

Woo hoo!  What an absurd mistake, Carrie.  What else could be more important?  We're addressing issues of equity and engagement here.  If three kids are participating--are really "getting" it--what is going on for the rest of the class?*  I believe it's essential to not only provide an opportunity for the class to react and make meaningful connections, but that it is our responsibility as educational professionals to employ a variety of tactics to engage a range of learners in both thinking about and sharing lessons learned from these activities.

In the next three blog posts, I'd like to discuss not only WHY we should include time to debrief the games we play and activities through which we guide our students, but also HOW to structure processing discussions and some STRATEGIES for addressing equity in the classroom.

Why debrief?
Is it okay to play these games and not discuss them?  Sure, it is.  Anything to increase engagement in learning and enjoyment of life in the classroom is all right by me.  And many of our students will be able to make the connections between improv activities and learning in other areas (social interactions, collaborative decision-making, narrative structure...) without our guidance.

However, in taking time to think about the meaning of and connections between this play and other areas of life and learning, we develop conceptual links we may not have made had we just trudged on to the next moment in the day.  Whether our processing is individual (i.e. in writing or thinking) or collaborative, simply taking the TIME to consider questions about the meaning and extensions of the parts and the whole allows for greater learning.  Further, listening to others' connections inspires a broader understanding of the impact of a seemingly simple game.  Debriefing shouldn't take away the fun; it should add to the genuine learning and inspire deeper thinking.

The goals of debriefing are threefold: Processing allows for more complex conceptual connections, debriefing helps the group meet the objective of the workshop, and discussion supports individual learners in solidifying the learning they've just experienced.**

Coming next: HOW to debrief (The Structure of Debriefing Discussions...and Differentiating Questions Based on the Grade-Level and Needs of the Group)

 *Just because three students might be talking in a whole-class debriefing discussion, I do not mean to assume that they are the only ones who are understanding the applications of the activities.  Actively listening can be at least as powerful as verbally contributing to a conversation.  However, I'll discuss strategies for engaging all learners in discussions in Part Three of this series of posts.
**Thanks to Cheryl Gould for her excellent session at the AIN SF Bay Area conference about debriefing.  She was the inspiration for this series of posts, and I'll be borrowing/adapting some of her approaches to debriefing in these blog posts as well as in future workshops with my students and with other educators.  Thank you, thank you!

Walk-and-Stop: Building Community Through Groupmind

What is your tendency, your role, in group situations?  Do you always lead?  Is it you who makes the calls for the group, who decides when to move on and what your goals will be?  Do you tend to pull back and rely on others to lead?  Are you uncertain about whether your ideas are right, whether others will listen to you?  Do you just like to go with the flow?

These are the questions I ask my students, my fellow players, and myself as I play a wide variety of improv games.  Analyzing these tendencies--and, more importantly, the impact of these choices on an individual's self concept and the group's efficacy, is the foundation for building trust and a sense of community.  Through experiencing and evaluating these dynamics in a low-stress setting of a game, we can collectively determine opportunities for affecting change.  And that, my friends, is the stuff social justice is made of.

During the past two days, I've facilitated two classroom workshops focused on groupmind and building class community--one with my class 26 of seventh- and eighth-graders, and one with my colleague's ten first-graders.  Many of the interactions and challenges were strikingly similar: certain students' tendency to take control, others' seemingly familiar off-task/distracting behaviors.  These are the realities we face in the classroom.  Heck, these are the realities we face with colleagues in the workplace, with family members at home!  Figuring out ways to analyze and navigate the tricky terrain of group dynamics is something we can apply to our lives in a wide variety of contexts...and this process is a gift we can offer our students.

In my 45-minute workshops, I employed a number of games.  I've described some of them before, and I'll offer explanations of others in the future.  Here are the lists of the flows I used yesterday and case you're wondering.
7th/8th-Grades: Ball --> Pass the Pulse (only clapping) --> Knife & Fork --> 5-Second Scene Picture / Follow-up game: Walk-and-Stop

1st Grade: Pass the Pulse (clapping and then with name) --> Walk-and-Stop --> Cosai --> 5-Second Scene Picture

Although I could delve into numerous observations and reflections about each of these games (and their related processing sessions with the players), I'll focus my reflections on one game for now...

Our group of first-graders did an amazing job with learning "neutral position", and their initial wiggles evolved into moments of true, amazing focus.  However, I could feel that I was losing them at the end of two rounds of "Pass the Pulse".  I needed to get those kids out of the circle--and mixing around in an organic, unplanned fashion. 
We had two students in the group who were used to exercising control over their classmates--one overtly (We'll call her The Director), and one covertly (We'll call him The Guide).  As I began my session with this group, The Director tried to talk over me; she was trying to "help" by telling everyone else in the group exactly where they should be and how they should be acting.  Although this sort of behavior can be extremely frustrating for a teacher, I personally have a tremendous amount of empathy for The Director.  (Yes, she's a charming little reflection of myself as a six-year-old.  I've been working on these issues my whole life.  I'm still a work in progress!)  The Guide did not necessarily ask for his role as the leader; everyone just looked to him to make decisions for them.  He is a confident and articulate student, and others seem to rely on him to make things happen.  These two leadership styles offer many gifts to the class environment.  Yet, they hold can also others back from making their own decisions, from finding their own place as a leader within the group.

In my class of older students, we have similar dynamics.  Our Directors can be less obvious (and possibly more helpful) in their attempts to guide the group.  Our Directors and Guides tend to start most of the class discussions, and they fill the void of silence when analysis is required, when connections need to be made.  They are often the voice of the student body--in class and in the school community as a whole.  I appreciate what they offer and the risks they take in speaking up.  However, I strive for a more equitable classroom environment; I'd like to hear a broader range of voices and perspectives.

With this simple, 5-minute game, we experienced an evolution of group dynamics and decision-making.  The task is straightforward: Everyone walks in a given (fairly confined, but not too restrictive) space at the same time and at the same pace, and everyone stops at the same time.  And so on.  I asked that this be completed silently, that no one lead or direct, that we each pay very close attention to the movement and will of the group.  The goal of this activity is to act AS ONE.  This is not the place for a title character or a star-studded event.  This is a time for us to all "Make Our Partners Look Good", to act as an ensemble.  What's more, I asked players to be reflective about their tendencies and to challenge themselves to make different choices: If they tend to lead, try to follow.  If they don't always take initiative, try to take the first step.

As we began, in both groups, students looked to me to make the first move--to begin and to stop.  I assumed this role at first, but then I wouldn't lead and it was essential for a student player to step up.  Probably as expected, the common leaders (those who are first to speak in most activities) took the first steps and stopped the group.  However, as the game progressed, this undoubtedly changed.  New players assumed the leadership role, and the group began to make decisions as a whole rather than relying on one person to take the first step.  We discovered these tendencies together in our post-game processing discussion, one in which a wider variety of students participated than in our conversation about a shared book earlier this morning.

As we ended our session, we discussed the applicability of this game to an improv scene, to the classroom, and to life.  Rena explained that sometimes you have a certain plan, but the group decides something different so you just have to go with it and make it work.  Brad related the dynamics to playing a team sport.  I'm eager to return to this game in the coming weeks, to explicitly link it to issues of social justice, and to play and think with these communities of learners.

Family Connections

I just received one of the most heart-warming messages;  I have to share it!
My friend and colleague, Kerry Santia, teaches K/1 at my school.  I've also had the pleasure of teaching her two wonderful children.  Here's a message she sent me today:

Hey Carrie,

Hope you're enjoying your holiday.  We had one of the best Thanksgiving Days yesterday and it was partly because my kids taught us some of the improv games you've done with them.  We were are hanging around after the meal and the under 8 cousins were entertaining us with songs and skits when Dino decided to teach us "I'm a Tree."  We played it for a while and then Bella taught us "Big Booty"  - which we played around the bon fire for about 30 minutes.  

First of all, I loved the way my kids took the initiative (no coaching from me - honestly) to teach our group of 20+ between the ages of 5-70, and I've never seen my family laugh together as much before.  There was a lot of belly rolling laughter and just good clean fun under the stars around the bon fire.  A night we will remember.  Thanks for inspiring my kids to spread the improv love.


Find Your Characters

In asking players to portray characters--in scenes and in games--we are asking them to move outside of themselves... to empathize, to understand, to play.  My three-year-old daughter does this multiple times each day: First, I am informed that I am actually the baby and she is the mama.  Next, she is the big sister to her "babies" (an odd assortment of dolls and stuffies).  Then, she is a baby giraffe.  It goes on and on.

What happens to this imagination?

For many of us, and for many of our students, it takes real work to step outside of the character we play every day to find a new character to play for a moment.  What acting offers us is a chance to see the world from new perspectives, to interact in different ways and experience different relationships, to explore objectives and desires, to experiment with how to be.

This is no easy task.  I'm often heard side-coaching, "Play a character that is not yourself.  Show us someone we haven't seen before.  Be obvious; say what comes next as this character."  However, finding new characters takes some direct, intentional coaching.

I like to start by using metaphor as a method for developing character.  I learned most of the following activities at BATS Improv, with John Remak and Lisa Rowland.
You can guide the class through the following explorations in the classroom or in a larger space (preferably indoors):
- Find your center.  Not a different character--you.  It might be in the center of your belly, in your chest, in your knees.  Feel where your energy is centered as you walk around the room.  Don't interact with others as we do this...yet.
- Now, stop.  Clear that character--the character of you.  Now, imagine the new character you are going to play has their "center" in the tip of their nose.  Walk around the room as this character.  What does your facial expression look like?  What do you like most in this world.  How do you feel about strangers?  What are you feeling right now?
- Repeat this with other body part centers--knees, bottom of feet, top of head, belly, chin...whatever strikes you.
- Spend some time debriefing how it felt to be each of these characters.  You can talk about story ideas, relationships, characters' goals and motivations...the list goes on and on.

- Guide them through similar explorations of character using various colors or musical instruments.  At some point, ask the players to interact with each other in brief scenes--in pairs, small groups, and large groups (party scenes).  If you have a large class, have half of the class act as an audience and then switch it up.

I've been doing some of this work with my cast of 54 6th-8th graders as we prepare for tomorrow's play.  Mostly, I've been guiding large groups of student actors through some silent, thoughtful work on how to represent their character.  I ask them to close their eyes and imagine how their character would feel in various situations.  I ask them to imagine what it is their character wants most.  I ask them to show a body position that represents their character's personality.  This can be considered their "neutral" position, so that they can be in character even when they're just standing on stage.  I also have them show us a facial expression that shows who their character is.  In practicing this in rehearsal, they have something to fall back on when on stage.

In the classroom, we can do similar explorations in improv workshops.  However, we can also explore characters from literature, from historical events, who are/were scientists, as preparation for creative writing--the possibilities are endless.  For, aren't we all just characters?  And how powerful it is to experience interactions in someone else's shoes.

Sensory Explorations: Enriching Scenework, Building Narrative

I recently started a performance group with a small group of committed, talented improvisers in San Francisco.  We don't yet have a name, and we have the luxury of exploring advanced and foundational improv together in a safe, challenging setting.  During our first rehearsal, we took a substantial amount of time with "beginning" exercises...and we found that the quality of our narratives, connections, and characters benefited tremendously from these shared experiences.

I'd like to share them with you here, as I have no doubt that activities focused around the senses offer opportunities for deeper learning in a variety of curricular areas.  These exercises were pulled and adapted from Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater, an essential title for anyone studying or teaching improv.

What do the sounds in an environment tell us about that setting?  How do they support the development of character?  Can auditory input drive the narrative?  We explored these questions together after sharing the following experience:
Decide on one location in which the group can imagine a shared experience.  For our group, we chose "hospital room".  You could choose to "be" at a baseball game, in a grocery store, in a get the idea.
Then, just sit together, making an effort to block out unhelpful background noises.  Close your eyes and "hear" the shared space.  Share out what you "heard" after a few minutes.  
We noticed so many surprising details from this activity.  Individuals in our group experienced entirely different emotional responses--the evidence of which was clear in our facial expressions.  Two of us began to envision distinct characters for ourselves, while others imagined looking down on a scene and beginning to see the problem (or "tilt") emerge in the narrative.

I could see using this activity to explore the setting of shared literature, to develop characters, as a pre-writing activity, or to connect with a historical setting.  How might you apply Shared Sounds?

Creating realistic scenes with convincing space objects is challenging.   We began this exercise by passing around common objects with our eyes closed; we really noticed how each object felt in our hands--its texture, its temperature, how to manipulate it, etc.  Rather than something mundane like a pencil, we opted for things such as an umbrella, a doll, and a power strip.
It's extremely helpful to hold an actual object right before developing a scene in which that object appears.  For example, I don't think I had really noticed that I always hold onto the metal rod of an umbrella with my other hand.  I used that little gem in the scene that followed.

We then created two types of scenes: those in which the object appeared but was not central, and those in which the object was the main focus of the story.  Each offered new opportunities.  Some of us preferred the subtle integration of the object, and others preferred the overt focus on the object.  How would this look in a classroom?  I'll report back!

When thinking about space-object work, I like to remember what Regina Saisi and Lisa Rowland of BATS Improv have told me time and time again: "We're creating magic up here on this stage.  In a moment, we create an entirely new reality out of open space."  These realistic settings and "props" support the setting, which supports the narrative, which allows us to connect and feel with the happenings on the stage.  It IS the point.

Time to Come Together

"Classroom Community"
It's one of those terms that we throw around every once in a while...assuming we have it and all is well.  So often, we're feeling busy and pulled in a multitude of directions with teaching.
Class play - district meeting - parent conference - shared literature - writing project - book fair - science test - and on and on and on...
Yes, all of those things are incredibly important.  However, without class meetings, without meaningful connections and conversation, it's all in vain.  Because I have not dedicated my life to teaching curriculum.  I have dedicated myself to these children--to supporting them in becoming giving, pro-social, whole people.  And that must be my top priority.

It had been a while since we'd had a class meeting.  This afternoon, I asked my students to write down issues that they feel we need to address as a class community.  Their anonymous responses broke my heart.  Their concerns about cliques, about bullying, about "popularity" and hurtful behavior instantly brought me back to my days as an insecure, fragile seventh-grader.  Hey--they brought me back to my insecure afternoon last week!

We all spend time feeling hurt and disregarded, powerless and frustrated.  However, in an improv rehearsal--and in a classroom--we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  We can examine the power dynamics that exist, and we can shake it up.  We can find connections we didn't know existed, and we can develop new ones.  We can be better people. do we do this?  To start, we have class meetings and TALK about what's going on.  We make sure that each person's voice and perspective is heard and valued.
And we play.

I believe it's not enough to just talk ABOUT making new connections and redefining roles.  We need to mix up the social soup by randomly assigning partners and groups.  We need to share our stories and play silly games to help us laugh together.  We need to really listen to one another, accept those offers, and co-construct scenes.

I'm developing a sort-of game plan right now.  We're about 1/3 of the way through the year, in the middle of a major play with another class of 6th-8th-graders, and we've got the holidays breathing down our necks here.  We're coming off of the Halloween and World Series highs--and I've got more seventh-grade break-ups going on than one could imagine.  We all need a collective deep breath.

Whenever I can fit it in, we'll be playing games together.  From "poison peepers", to "category die", to "cosai", I'll bring in some of my class's favorite games.  I'll MAKE time to debrief and process these games with the kids--because that is where the power of improv lies.

As soon as we get back from Thanksgiving and can build in the concentrated time for workshops.
In our workshops, we'll focus on "Yes, and..." as well as "Make Your Partner Look Good".  We'll do some gibberish scenes, and explore how communication works.  We'll begin to really examine relationships between characters, and we'll start to delve into the scary and important world of "status".  We'll spend time getting to know each other and our stories (including playing more Portkey:, and we'll try to develop groupmind ("Counting to 10").  We'll focus on eye contact and mirroring--and shake our booties with some Diamond Dancing.

We have our work cut out for us this year.  It promises to be a great ride!

Professional Book Club (and an introduction to status)

Want to do something revolutionary?  Try taking charge of your own professional development.
Get a group of teachers (and others who are interested) together, choose a focus and a book or two, set a date and BEGIN.  There is no way it will work out perfectly; the time won't work for everyone and the reading won't happen for all the folks who do show up.  So what.  Spend some time with your colleagues (preferably off-site), talk about ideas and strategies, and make some connections with those you see in the staff room every day.

What did we do?  We chose two books, related to the arts in education: Literacies, the Arts & Multimodality, a collection of papers, essays and articles edited by Peggy Albers and Jennifer Sanders; and Impro, the seminal work on improvisational theatre by Keith Johnstone.  We meet monthly, and we look for connections between the two books, and of course between their theories and our practice. Over the next two months, I'll be reflecting on both of these books.  However, I'd like to give the first word to someone who teaches with me at Mary Collins School in Petaluma--Gena Richman.

In our last discussion, we spent quite a while pondering status.  This is one of the most compelling areas of improv (and life!) for me, and I find it is an excellent way to analyze characters/social relationships and motivate social change.  I was wondering about the moral responsibilities of a teacher who may or may not choose to discuss status with students of various ages.  I asked, "At what age can we begin to discuss such a loaded topic?"  Here are her reflections and notes about her experiments in class after our last book club conversation:

"...I have to say though, my mind is still on the book chat (Impro, by Keith Johnstone) on status. In my class of 7-9 year olds, I used a Viola Spolin game, "Echo" to try out the notion of "a little above, a little below". The game is played with two rows. First person in row 1 says a word or phrase that row 2 repeats in descending volume (like an echo, child by child and then switch roles. They adapted to it quite well. I feel confident they (intuitively?) know gradations of sound. might I transfer that concept to action/conversation/verbal/non-verbal in terms of status?" 

When can one begin to tackle "status"?  Is it always beneficial, or can it be damaging?  When must we address "status"? 

Endless Opportunities From a Simple Game

Teaching on Halloween (or the last weekday before Halloween) is a mess.  The kids are unfocused, they're running around after each other and painting on beards with stage make-up...and they're amped up on sugar.  You can fight it, or you can use it.

I had other plans for Science today.  We were going to discuss current issues that are related to science in some way...but they were just not there on this rainy, Giants-crazed Friday morning.  First, grade some work together and discuss how heat energy is transferred.  Then, time for an energizer game!

What I love about this game is how universally applicable it can be.  It can work for very young children all the way up to adult improvisers.  As teachers, we can use it as an energizer and/or focuser.  But we can also use it to engage learners with content: From understanding characters and relationships in literature, to comprehending scientific concepts, to building connections between historical figures, this simple activity offers students access to academics via spontaneity and drama.

- Assign students to work in pairs.  Today, I had them work with their lab partners in an effort to build those connections.  You could also have them count off.  It's nice to have these initial pairings be random or assigned.
- Ask them to make eye contact with their partners.  Let them know they'll be making decisions without talking; no one will be leading or directing.  They'll just make it happen--together.  They may have an initial idea about how to do what you ask, but their partner might do something that'll cause them to need to revise their plan.  Together, they will show what you ask.

- Start with "fork and spoon".  Move on to any of the following...improvising yourself as you go:
  • good and evil
  • sweet and spicy
  • salt and pepper
  • water and wind
  • dog and cat
  • teacher and student
  • light and dark
- Have each pair partner up with another pair, making groups of four.  These groups can show one or two concepts, including "the four seasons", "the water cycle", "the scientific method", "the arc of plot development", "beginning, middle, and end".
- Move into groups of eight, showing a more complex concept/thing such as "a classroom".
- Have the entire class come together, instantaneously creating something with multiple layers.  Today, we showed "The Golden Gate Bridge".

Try your best to leave time to process with the group, or come back to the processing during the next class.  (I'll be doing the latter, as we went right up to the second lunch began today.  It was just too much fun!)  Ask them what they noticed about how decisions were made--in pairs and in groups of different sizes.  Encourage them to use the interactions in this game as a metaphor for their work in the classroom.  You can also explore the content of what they showed.  I found it intriguing that nearly every "teacher" was pointing a finger at a "student" who was crouched down.  Hmm...

What are some ways you could envision applying this game to your work in the classroom or your group?  Have you explored other simple games and found them to offer opportunities for in-depth exploration?

*Although I've played games similar to this with a variety of names, I first played it with this name with Rich Cox at an Improv for Educators workshop at BATS Improv.

The Myth of Charter Schools by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books

The Myth of Charter Schools by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books

As someone who teaches at a public charter school, I both support alternative education and the public school system. Check out this review by Diane Ravitch. I agree with her on most accounts: that we need to move away from simplistic teacher blaming and realistically analyze the plight of American education--poverty, lack of resources, and the de-professionalization of teaching. If public schools had the kind of resources with which many private schools are provided, I believe student success would soar.

Our students need books. They need healthy food. They need medical care, and attention, and support.
Our teachers need comprehensive preparatory programs. And respectable salaries. And support for innovative practices.

Rather than constantly fighting those who blame us for our students' test scores and fail to see our heroic efforts, let's join together to brainstorm ways to integrate creative practices into teaching and learning. Let's determine meaningful methods of assessment using a variety of approaches that relate to genuine learning. Let's celebrate our successes and build coalitions for positive change.

Mirroring and The Power of Eye Contact

Yesterday, I kicked off our class play--partnering with my colleague's class of sixth- and seventh-graders.  Yep, that's 54 6th-8th-graders.  Holy excitement!

So...what does one DO with 54 pre-adolescents and teens in half an hour?  Their emotions ranged from overjoyed to terrified to reticent to uneasy.  Their focus on social standing trumped their concerns about the quality of their acting and characterization.  Our task: to build an ensemble environment, one in which we can begin to break down social barriers and just allow kids to be kids.

Rather than beginning in a circle, I opted to have everyone spread out in our multipurpose room, finding their own space.  I wanted them to feel centered...and I hoped to encourage all members to amp up their level of commitment and risk-taking in a safe environment.  We began with a quick physical warm-up--stretching and jumping (and a bit o' yelling).

We moved onto a standard focusing game: "Who's the leader?"  In this game, everyone is in a circle and one player moves, claps, etc. while everyone else follows her/him.  One of the players was excused when they began moving and then has three chances to guess the leader.  This works best if you side coach throughout: Leader--make bold, big choices!  Change it up!  All--don't give away who the leader is.  Stay with the group!  Guesser--guess quickly!  You have ten seconds.
It's just fun.

I then counted everyone off so that each person had a random partner.  The partners spread out around the room, and I urged them to make bold, different choices but to always Make Their Partner Look Good.  The task was to Mirror each other.  They chose who was A and who was B.  I told them that A would start as the leader...and that the leader would always move slowly enough so that B could follow them EXACTLY.  Eye contact is paramount here.
Side coaching suggestions: Look straight at each other.  Slow down so that she can follow everything you're doing.  Only choose movements that are reversible.  Play with facial expressions.  Try out some different levels.
Switch who is the leader after about three minutes.
Urge them to find an ending position.
If you have time, do it again with different partners.  Near the end, keep ringing a bell to switch who is leading.  At some point, they might not know who is leading.  That's the good stuff, that is.

I ended with a small performance: Who is following?  I called on eight volunteers to do the mirroring activity as four pairs in front of the audience.  The audience-players had a focus: guess who is leading and who is following in each pair.  I encouraged the performers to make it really hard for us to tell who was leading.  (They chose in secret.)  After a couple minutes, I asked the audience who thought each person was leading.  The results were quite mixed.

What did I notice? Those who were most successful with mirroring had the best eye contact.  These weren't the kids who were traditionally the "best" performers; they were those who were willing to engage with their partners.  Allowing yourself to make real and sustained eye contact requires opening yourself up to another person; this can be an intimidating challenge.  However, I think this is one challenge that's worth taking.  Isn't that what progressive education, what innovation in business, what revolutionary practices hope to achieve--genuine connections between individuals, the co-creation of something new?  We'll be returning to eye contact and mirroring next week.  There's a lot more to be revealed in those mirrors.

Voice Rest as an Opportunity

About six months ago, I really started increasing my time on stage.
About four months ago, I started sounding like Janis Joplin.
About two months ago, I couldn't get through a performance without completely losing my voice...and then I was seriously hoarse for two days.

After seeing an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor--and then a Speech Pathologist--I learned that I have very small nodules on my vocal chords.  I created these through improper use of my vocal instrument.  While I know what a diaphragm IS, I apparently haven't been using it correctly.  Working on that...

However, the Speech Pathologist told me I needed to begin my treatment with 5-7 days of Voice Rest.  Yep, this big mouth had to try to not speak for at least five days.  Heh.

I learned a lot throughout this experience.  I appreciated the challenges experienced by those around me who do not have full command of all of their senses.  Although I was fully aware of what was going on around me, my limited ability to communicate verbally encouraged others to treat me as someone who was disabled--perhaps someone to be pitied or talked down to...or even avoided.  As a result, I found myself becoming more timid.  My three-year-old daughter was confused and angry when I would not talk to her--or would talk to her in a limited fashion.  It became her personal challenge to get me to talk as much as possible.

I also found tremendous benefits in this experience.  I appreciated the moments of silence, of introspection.  I found myself waiting to talk until I actually had something of value to say...talking to express something essential rather than talking just to fill up space.  And I now sound like myself again.  Yay--my voice is back!

This morning, I came back from our fall break to teach a mini-workshop with my core class of seventh- and eighth-graders.  As I've noticed with this class before, their focus is impressive and their commitment level is their greatest challenge.  We're still working on this--it'll be our challenge throughout the year.  However, I find  it's necessary to notice the gifts as well as the difficulties faced by any given group.  When I assigned my class 24 hours of silence--beginning this afternoon--I was initially met with incredulous stares and concerned questions.  But, by the end of the day, they seemed almost giddy about the idea; they were ready to take on the challenge.  Jimi already surprised me with his observation: "I think it will give us a chance to REALLY listen...not just wait for our turn to talk."

What they may lack in enthusiasm and "commitment", they more than make up for in insight.  I can't wait to see what they notice after their 24 hours.

Dangling Toes and Jumping In...How One Teacher Applied and Modified These Games

I am delighted to share the authorship of this posting with Laurie Burghardt-Noia, a teacher at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts.  A bit of context for this writing: I coached a three-hour workshop at SRCSA a couple of weeks ago--to seven committed teachers (and a fabulous classroom volunteer) on a Saturday morning.  Yesterday, I was a guest teacher, providing one-on-one professional development coaching for Sierra Bradley, a fifth-grade teacher at the same school.  What follows is an email from Laurie to Sierra.  I am consistently impressed with the creativity and professionalism shown by teachers who have the freedom and chutzpah to dangle their toes in uncharted territory...and then jump on in by experimenting with their own modifications to meet the needs of their classes.  Huzzah, Laurie!  Thank you for sharing your process with us.

"Today I played *BALL* with half my class while the other half was at dance. They did really well and loved playing.  We were able to count together up to 30, we did the names in order game, and the animal names game, and also two balls at once. Two balls at once was quite challenging but the kids were able to do it. It was a great focus and team building activity. Everyone was working together to make it successful. My 3rd graders are such a great group of kids, you're going to really love this group next year.

The first time I tried playing *ball* with my class, I had a couple kids sabotaging the game (throwing wild, or dropping the ball on purpose) We were playing *whole class* at the time. Then I split them into two separate groups and made it a bit of a competition to see which group could keep the ball going the longest. They did much better with smaller groups and making it competitive.

Last week we played the story spine game. I had 7 kids at a time model the process for the rest of the class and then I had them work in pairs and take turns adding to their story spine partner created stories. The kids were having so much fun while also creating some pretty good stories. (translation: the stories made sense AND were creative and funny) There was a whole lot of laughing going on and EVERYONE was fully participating, it was a wonderful moment/activity.

I really enjoyed Carrie's workshop because she gave me activities that I could use with my kids immediately. Would you please pass along my request, I'm serious, I would really REALLY like to purchase some time from her. Perhaps several of us could offer to pay for an hour each and make it worth it (to her) to come to our school for a day?

The theater games are so perfect for our story theme.  I really like the idea of keeping theater as our arts focus for another year."

An update: Thankfully, Laurie and her colleagues have to neither beg nor pay for individualized coaching out-of-pocket.  Their wonderful principal has scheduled a full day of professional development with me in early December.  I can't wait to come back!

Energy Explosion

In my class of seventh- and eighth-graders, I can sometimes be heard side-coaching using the following comments:
"Commit to your character."
"Put all of your energy into this!"

Not so with today's guest teaching experience.  This class of 29 fifth-graders have got Commitment down.  It was like an energy explosion in Sierra Bradley's classroom this morning. 

Today's challenge: to harness the energy of a large group of kids, 3/4 of whom are fighting tooth-and-nail for center stage, right before lunch.  Solution #1: Ball.

We spent half of today's workshop on my five-minute warm-up.  I had 4-8 activities planned for the session, but I quickly determined that I would be seriously adjusting my plan.  Once we started tossing the ball and counting together, I observed and assessed the group in action.  We had kids diving in front of each other.  Others stepped back to watch.  Four kids cried because they didn't get the ball as much as they wanted.

I was able to introduce three Principles of Improv in the first five minutes.  We started with "Woo Hoo!", and we practiced celebrating failure; we discussed the importance of risk-taking in and outside of the classroom.  I then commended them on how they really seemed to have "Commit!" down, but I suggested that they set a goal to work on "Make Your Partner Look Good."  We reconfigured our circle, made sure everyone was in the space equally, and began to count all together.  Things got better.  Kids laughed and helped each other out.  Most participants tried to throw the ball to kids who hadn't yet touched it.

At one point, I believe I said, "The person next to you is just as important as you are.  You are not more valuable than them, and they are not more valuable than you.  We are in this together."

I could have played Ball with them for an hour...but we were just done.  What followed was an incredible discussion about the challenges and joys they experienced while playing our warm-up game.  They made some impressive metaphoric connections regarding the applications of this play to a variety of social experiences--in sports, in their families, in the classroom.  As we sat in a circle of 30+ sweaty, wiggly bodies in a small space, these fourth-graders opened up about their challenges in mathematics, in feeling left out, in trying to leave room for others to play and learn.  Quite impressive, Ms. Bradley.

Although I could have processed with them all day, I knew we had to jump up and get back to work/play.  Solution #2: "What Are You Doing?"

We began by spending some time doing some Space-Object practice.  Although I had to use my teacher voice to calm down the rampant, wily upstaging that started our next round, the kids were able to settle into a meditative-like zone in which they could visualize and practice making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  They got to develop a character, feel a knife spreading peanut butter, sneak a taste right out of the jar, and then say something silly with a bite of space-object pb & j in their mouths.  They needed that.

What Are You Doing is a fun workshop/mini-performance game that helps with Space-Object work, providing offers as gifts, character development, and thinking quickly and spontaneously.  The kids got into two lines that curved around and made a performance space in the middle of the circle.  Player 1 mimes some action.  Player 2 then says, "What are you doing?"  Player 1 says ___________ (an action that is NOT what she was doing).  Player 2 then mimes that action.  Player 3 then asks, "What are you doing?" Player 2 says ___________ (an action that is NOT what he was doing).  Player 3 then mimes that action.  And so on.

The class did amazing work here...especially when I gave them their focus as Audience Players--"Look to determine if you can SEE what each player is holding/doing."  We ended with lots of laughing and risk-taking and gift-giving.

There are so many directions I'd go next as the classroom teacher.  Luckily, these kids have a teacher who's committed to the power of taking risks herself, of integrating theatre into curriculum and team-building.  I have no doubt that this class will return to Ball.  They'll probably spend a good amount of time watching each other and building on their skills in commitment to any given game and analysis of the applications of improv.   I imagine they will soon begin to move beyond their initial reading of Ball as a competitive game in which there can only be a limited number of winners.  But these things take time.  Time and commitment to trying things out and then trying them again.  As the year progresses, I envision them counting and cheering and laughing together.  Play on!

Improvised Workshops--why I don't believe in a manual

"A 'how to do it' procedure will become apparent with the use of the material.  Yet, no system should be a system.  We must tread carefully if we are not to defeat our aims.  How can we have a 'planned' way of action while trying to find a 'free' way?"
- Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p. 18

In this textbook-heavy world of teaching, I have often been asked for a manual--a list--of what to do and in what order.  However, my goal is to be improvisational in my coaching--of students and of teachers.  It would be entirely hypocritical to be encouraging folks to be engaging "in the moment", to "do what comes next" while marching along a step-by-step, entirely predetermined plan.

Does this mean I am suggesting walking into a session as an unprepared facilitator?  Quite the opposite, in fact.  If my goal is to help participants (and myself) to be intuitive, then I must first identify a set of potential goals for the workshop.  (For example--character development or narrative structure or conflict or listening...).  I then brainstorm possible games for general warm-ups and skill-building warm-ups, followed by games and activities to support the workshop's focus/goal.

During the workshop, I listen and watch like a hawk!  In the spirit of Yetta Goodman's "kidwatching", I notice what emerges in the needs of individuals and the group.  While I'm ready to adjust the workshop's focus if needed, I also have a number of different directions I can follow if we begin to head down a given path. 
Rather than seeing instructional design as a single channel, I prefer to envision a braided stream.  (Hello--science integration!)  The needs and energy of a group may adjust our direction, but I am still here to guide the ultimate path of the workshop. 

I'll follow up with specific examples later this week.  I'll be guest teaching/ coaching at two schools in Santa Rosa--in one fifth-grade classroom and in one second-grade classroom.  I can't wait to report back!

Building On Each Other's Ideas--at the heart of narrative

Stories are about interaction.  In building relationships and watching them evolve (with our families, at work, in the grocery store...), we create narratives every day.  As a teacher, I feel honored to be the person to help my students tell their own stories and connect to the stories they read.  As a coach, I aim to support my students in co-authoring stories in improv scenes.

Which role do you tend to play?  Are you often the leader, the one whose voice is heard most often?  Do you always think you're the protagonist in the story?  Or do you usually defer to those around you as a supporting side character?  When you have the chance to play improv games, to engage in scenework, to reflect on your role in the workplace or at home, consider who you tend to play.  And then try to play someone else.  There is value in all-of-the-above.

When I coached two different workshops at K-8 charter schools recently, we spent a substantial amount of time co-creating narratives--one in gibberish and one using word-at-a-time strategies.  Engaging in these activities illuminates opportunities for learning about ourselves and interpersonal relationships.  I found it interesting that some felt they were "in charge" of the story if they were speaking English rather than gibberish, while other dyads felt that the person speaking gibberish tended to drive the story with the emotional content they introduced.  In creating word-at-a-time partner stories, certain participants' stories ALWAYS contained similar content.

I do not mention these examples as criticisms of the play.  Rather, they are my observations of the power of individual tendencies to affect group interactions.  Yes--we are valuable as individuals.  And yes--we create pretty amazing things as members of groups.

Check out this cool article from an NPR story highlighting a recent study on group intelligence from Carnegie Mellon University:

- I am a Tree
I believe I described this game in a recent blog post, so I'll be brief here.  The basic idea is that there are three people in the center of the circle (or on "stage") at a time.  The first person says and shows, "I am a _____," the next person says and shows, "I am a ______ (related to the first thing)," and the third person says and shows, "I am a ____(related to the first TWO things--joining them together.)  The first person then says, "I'll take the (chooses person #2 or person #3)", and returns with that person to the circle.  We start the next group of three with who is left in the middle.

For example,
Person 1: I am a tree.
Person 2: I am a squirrel.
Person 3: I am an acorn on the tree that the squirrel's eating.
Person 1: I'll take the squirrel.

Person 3: I am an acorn.
Person 4: I am a sunflower seed.
Person 5: I am possibility!
        And so on...

- Orlando Monologues
I just learned this from a fellow player in a class I'm taking at BATS Improv: "Performing the Harold."  My description is probably different from how other folks do it, but that's what's it's all about, right?

Ask for a personal object from the group/audience.  Three people then take on characters' perspectives and perform monologues inspired by the object.  As in I am a Tree, the third player's story will likely connect the other two, creating one collaborative narrative.

Example: The first character reflects on his love for the woman who wore this shoe.  The second is the perspective of the shoemaker.  The third shows the experience of the woman who owned the shoe.

Whether in gibberish, saying a word at a time, or adding-on, co-authoring stories offers opportunities for synergistic group moments.  As we connect with each other and share the stage, we can grow as a community of a community of learners.

Scenework: now we're really getting into it...

At the beginning of any workshop or class, I start with games.  They help us get to know each other--as students, as improvisers, as an ensemble.
When we're ready, I move onto an area of focus.  We may jump into telling stories or "sharing decision-making" or building rich environments on stage.
When we're ready for the plunge, we dive into the terrifying beauty of scenework.  As a student improviser, starting scenes from scratch was pretty much the scariest thing I had to do.  Now, I love it.  Most of the time.  There is always something new to learn in creating scenes with my fellow players.

Last Monday, my class was ready for the plunge.

To really go for it, I introduced two of the Icons of Depth and Complexity: Big Ideas and Multiple Perspectives.  (I was introduced to these at a GATE training.  See for more information.)  I asked the kids to use one of these and/or one of the elements introduced below in their Reading Response Journal for the week.  More on this in a later post...

I then introduced the class to a core piece of the BATS Improv curriculum: CROW.

We defined and took a few notes on these throughout the class workshop period, introducing concepts as they were relevant to the tasks at hand.
To warm up (after Ball, of course), we showed RELATIONSHIPS in a "Thank you Circle".
Each player took a turn coming into the middle of the circle, defining a character by making a human sculpture/tableau.  The next person would then add to the sculpture, identifying their character's relationship with the character before them by the shape they created with their body.  The previous person would then say, "Thank you." And so on.  Every person in the circle participates in very quick, two-person tableau scenes.
Side coaching suggestions: Make eye contact!  Show your character's emotions with your facial expression.  Make it bigger!  Use a different level.

We then defined and practiced the CHARACTER piece of CROW.  The class broke up into two concentric facing circles, making pairs for their scenes.  In these one-minute scenes, I instructed the players to name each other at least three times.   We rotated and practiced with a few different partners.
Side coaching suggestions: Be a character who is not yourself.  Justify WHY you're saying her name.  How does your character feel about this character?

Quick CROW
 I let the kids choose their own partners for this last bit--challenging them to show all parts of CROW (Who are they?  How are they related?  What do they want?  Where are they?) as quickly as possible in a scene.  They practiced this in two different 2-3-minute scenes, and then we took some time to process the workshop together.

When asked what they got out of the day, a number of kids mentioned how hard it is to do scenes.  Yup.  It is hard.  So is teaching.  And learning...and pretty much anything that's worthwhile.  When we see the pros do it, it seems like a piece of cake.  And then we jump in and find out that it really DOES take training and practice.
Annabella also said something that stuck with me at the end of the workshop: "It reminded me of the picture book project we just finished.  CROW kind of breaks down how to make a scene into the different parts.  It's like planning and understanding how to make a story."

When I've taught CROW in improvisational theatre classroom work before, the kids take a while to hold onto it.  However, when I ask them towards the end of the year which lessons were most valuable for them as developing writers, CROW invariably wins out over all of the other lessons I've taught throughout the year. 

This last week has been insane: getting ready for Science debates, and facilitating a professional development book club, and working on report cards dominated every moment of my academic time.  As I ease into my year-round schedule's beloved fall break, I'll finally have the time to read through my class's Reading Journals.  I can't wait to see what they noticed.

You Have to Read This

Want to read something ironic?  Cheeky?  Scathingly intelligent?  Inspiring?
Check out anything by Alfie Kohn. 
I especially recommend this new blog post published by The Washington Post.  Check out the link...and consider the real meaning of "student motivation".

Schools Would Be Great If It Weren't For The Kids

Setting Up An Improv-Friendly Classroom

Thinking about doing some improv with your students?  Jump on in!  Although I certainly don't recommend following any "rules" about the right way to do this, I thought I'd share some things that have worked for me during the past few years...

Have a place where the kids can "circle up".  Organize your desks in a circle, or rehearse moving your desks quickly and in an organized fashion so you have a large space to play in a circle.

Have a place for in-class performances.  Delineate a "stage space", and specify where audience players will sit.  Don't let kids sit where the wings of the "stage" would be; honor the space as a performance area.

Show off the Principles of Improv.  I have full-sheet posters up right above my board.

It's incredible to see when and how those principles can be applied, and more deeply understood, because they're such an integral part of who we are and what we do in the classroom.  Just this week, we've addressed the application of the Principles of Improv to science studies, collaborative work, and creative writing.  Nice.

"Beyond Verbal" Workshop

Wow.  I had such an amazing time coaching this afternoon's staff meeting workshop.  The faculty at Mary Collins School at Cherry Valley--a K-8 public charter school in Petaluma--is a dynamic and impressive group, and I feel honored to be able to work and play amongst such professionals.

Even with committed, creative teachers staff meetings can feel difficult.  At the end of a long day with students and parents, it can feel oppressive to deal with countless essential logistics and details.  It can feel nearly impossible to take on discussing curriculum or pedagogy in substantive ways.  And...having fun?  Heh.

As we began, I could see so many of the emotions experienced by my students during a workshop...and by me when I take classes myself.  Some seemed tired and/or disengaged.  Some seemed reticent or unsure about taking risks.  Some were enthusiastic and couldn't wait to begin.

Of course, I started by playing Ball.  We got to stumble upon "Woo hoo!" right away, and we quickly identified the importance of "Make your partner look good."  Rather than lecturing about the Principles of Improv, we discovered them through playing and being together.  And, man, once I set a numerical goal, the group energy focused and intensified: We quickly went beyond our goal.  And we clapped and laughed as the final "failed" attempt brought the game to a close.

The Tools of an Improv Coach: Ball, Notebook for Planning and Reflecting, Bell, Stuffy
Our focus for today's workshop was "Beyond Verbal".  Through warm-ups, partner scenes, discussions and performance games, we explored various means of communication.  We discussed the relevance of Principles of Improv to ourselves, and to teaching and learning.  Experimenting with gibberish and "dubbing", we discovered how folks can communicate meaning and emotional content without words.

In preparation for today's session, I played with the ideas for something like six different workshops.  From classroom community/collaboration, to movement, to narrative, we could have gone in wildly different directions together this afternoon.  I suppose we'll just have to explore those in follow-up sessions!

Thanks for an inspiring afternoon, Mary Collins teachers.

Improv Game AS the Class Meeting

With Labor Day on Monday (my scheduled day for my class's improvisational theatre workshop), we didn't have a chance to get to improv this week. students just weren't having it.

After hints, demands, and outright begging from some, I decided to combine my weekly Friday class meeting with an improv game I love: Portkey. Of course, the kids loved the name because it was a reference to Harry Potter.  In the series, a portkey is an entranced everyday object that transports folks to another place.  In class, it's a perfect way to share memories and connect with one another.
Here's how it goes--
I start by asking for an everyday object.  Since I apparently have a deep love for throwing things, I have a kid get our class stuffed animal, think of an object (say, "Ice Cream Truck"), and throw the word and stuffy to me.  I then tell the class a TRUE story about me, starting with "Ice Cream Truck brings me to... "By the end of my story, I find a new word (hopefully an object) to throw to someone else.  They start with, "________ brings me to..."
In a small class, I make sure everyone is thrown to...and they just have to think of something when they're thrown a word.  Yesterday, we had about 1/3 of the kids share stories.  When each person finds a new word at the end of their story, I say, "Who has something for _______ (donut or car or house or...)?"

We had a limited amount of time for our class meeting, but in twenty minutes we shared genuine laughs and some difficult, personal stories.  Afterward, we took a few minutes to process the value of the game.  Deanna said, "I got to know some of you better.  It was a nice way to share our time."  Leon told us he thought it was a great way to get ideas for writing memoirs.  Jimi simply explained, "It's nice to just laugh together sometimes."  When asked which skills were involved, three other kids then spontaneously made connections to the value of Principles of Improv.

I can't think of a better way to end class on a Friday afternoon.

*I first played Portkey with Rich Cox in his Improv for Educators workshop (co-designed and taught with Josephine Mong), and later with Lisa Rowland in her Foundation 2 class I TA'd.  Both classes were offered at BATS Improv in San Francisco.  Rich got the game from Matt Smith at a workshop in Seattle. I'm certain they got the game from someone else.  Yep--we like sharing!

Daily Surprises: Curricular Integration Offered By Students

I am often taken aback as I see the brilliance our students offer up when we take the time to really listen...and to give them the space to think and communicate with one another.  Of course, I spend time planning how and when to integrate theatre arts (especially improvisational theatre) into the classroom to meet discrete curricular objectives.  However, I believe we can feel too bogged down with the task of how to integrate...and these efforts may be limitingIf we teach a craft--say, improv, for example--we need to also trust that the students will make connections on their own.  The principles of improv and the power of these activities offer up a plethora of opportunities to make connections and to think abstractly.  In addition to planning lessons in which we integrate improv to support content standards, let's give our students a chance to make connections on their own.

Here are two examples from last week alone:
Narrative Structure
My 7th- and 8th-grade English class has been studying and creating picture books as a way to tackle all of the basics of narrative--plot structure (including tension and climax), character development, theme, and so on.  As we reached the home stretch of this unit of study, I guided the class through a processing session on what they had learned about narrative and/or picture books.  They silently added to our list on the white board, and then they made connections between ideas.  (Thank you, Lisa Rowland--of BATS Improv--for the fabulous and simple white-board-with-many-markers strategy!)
A number of concepts were taken directly from our work in creating characters, stories and scenes in improv workshops--most notably, "A character who changes and learns something."  That little gem is in the upper, left-hand corner.  A bit below that bit of wisdom is, "Make mistakes and learn from them."  Hmm...that sounds an awful lot like the "Woo hoo!" principle of improv. 
As I look at the list, I get ideas for my own scenework as an improviser.  "Make the reader (or viewer) care about your character" is awfully perceptive.  I'll hold onto that one. 

Class Meeting
To not only develop our skills as communicators, but also our sense of community, we have class meetings for a variety of purposes.  Of course, we have meetings in which we talk about logistics and plan for school events.  However, the most meaningful meetings might be called Character Education by some; these are the meetings in which we build real human connections, where we discuss and solve serious issues that affect our school.
As we were talking about romantic relationships (what is and is not appropriate at school), the discussion progressed to a couple of students suggesting that "drama" between couples be kept to a minimum while at school.  Stacey said it perfectly: "I mean, it's like the principle of improv thing--Just keep it simple.  Do what needs to happen, and don't add in a bunch of drama that we don't need here."

Thank you for inspiring me with your insightful connections, class. 

Curricular Integration: Response to Literature

" do all of these principles connect to curriculum?"
"If I'm not a Theater Arts teacher, can I really use improv in my classroom?"

Let's chat.

I find ways to connect improvisational theatre to content every day.  You'll find ways you didn't plan for when you began this little journey.  When you do, tell me about them!

One clear link is in understanding character.  As we create and develop characters in scenes, we are better prepared for developing complex characters in our writing and analyzing them in literature.  We can also apply the Principles of Improv to literary analysis.

This week, I asked my 7th- and 8th-graders to identify one Principle of Improv they thought best represented the protagonist of their book.  Of course, some entirely forgot about this requirement when they set out to write their letter in their reading journals.  However, about 2/3 of the students in my class were able to articulate their understanding of a character in new, interesting ways.  Here are a couple of examples:

About Ender's Game:
"If I had to pick which improv thing (sorry I forgot what it was called!) best represented Ender, it would probably be Listen, because Ender tends to be a very quiet person.  But that doesn't mean he doesn't think very carefully about what has just been said."

About The Red Badge of Courage:
"I think the principle of improv that best represents the youth is 'commit!'  I think this because in the first battle he has trouble committing to putting his life on the line.  In the second battle he comes back with perseverance and determination to stay and commit to this war.
As I was thinking about the principles of improv tying into the youth's life, I thought that so many of them showed up as a struggle (with) the youth's experience in war.  For instance, 'Make Your Partner Look Good' is a crucial part to war because you do need to stay with your comrades and have their backs so that they don't get hurt.
I also think 'Yes, and...' is crucial for two parts: The first being what his officials tell him to do.  He has to accept it and not do his own thing (agenda) because he could affect his batallion..."

To process these observations, I write back to my students in their reading journals--asking questions and offering my own ideas.  I'd like to bring it back to the whole class and share out what we've noticed with characters embodying these principles.  How have these principles supported them in their growth throughout the book?  Can these principles be taken too far--be problematic, immoral, even?  So many things to to teaching!

Yes, and...

I like to have a base to work from before jumping into play focused on this Principle of Improv.  "Yes, and..." might be one of the toughest principles to truly put into action.  That said, it's probably one of the most powerful to apply to our interactions in the classroom...and in life.

Here's the basic idea: In any game, in any scene, in any interaction, we are presented with "offers".  As I brainstormed with my class of 7th- and 8th-graders today, an offer in a scene might be an accent, a setting, a relationship, a character name, etc.  An offer in class might be an idea for a group project, an agenda item for a class meeting, a mathematical problem-solving strategy, etc.  Rather than rejecting offers, or even accepting them but really promoting our own agendas, this principle urges players to truly accept the first offer presented.  Further, "Yes, and..." asks participants to build on the offers we've just accepted.  This is the power of true collaboration; in YesAnd-ing each other, we validate and co-create ideas.  Pretty amazing stuff, really.

There are countless approaches one could use to introduce this principle, but here are the games I chose for today.  Whatever method you develop, allow the class to warm-up, connect, build some skills and concepts, play, and (hopefully) perform.

- Warm up with "Ball":  Assess the class's (and individuals') level of engagement; side-coach to encourage collaboration and awareness.

- Conveyer Belt: This is a simple game in which pairs of students take turns giving each other space-object "things" for one minute each.  The "receiver" in the game enthusiastically accepts each offer as a gift, perhaps saying why that thing is useful to them.  Warm-up by asking the pairs of students to make eye contact with each other for 30 seconds or so.  Then, do a quick space-object check-in: Have all of the students look at you and hold out their hands.  Ask them to imagine holding a ball in their hands.  Encourage them to "feel" the ball--this is a light ball with a bumpy texture.  Now, encourage them to imagine that this ball is quite heavy--a medicine ball or a bowling ball.  Now, it's turned into a ball-shaped pile of feathers.  Ask them to toss the feathers in the air.  Have them be that specific when they hold objects they're passing in "Conveyer Belt".  The dual focus of this game: space-object introduction / accepting offers with commitment.

- Party Planning: After fully introducing the concept of "offers", I had the entire class stand in a circle, and I asked five kids to stay standing while the rest of us sat down.  I told them everyone would be performing today, and that this first group would be planning a party--with enthusiasm, and as characters who were not their everyday selves.  The catch: they had to vehemently reject EVERY offer the other players put out there.  We went through two rounds of this performance game...and oh, boy--it was fruitless.  With everyone sitting down, we processed how it felt to be in a group in which all offers were rejected.  As audience members, we noticed that not much was said.  Folks in these groups didn't really see it as worth the risk to put out offers they knew were just going to be shot down.

- Ad Agency: Another group demonstrated a similar activity, this time developing a marketing and advertising campaign for an object that had never existed before.  (The audience suggestion I took: a magical caterpillar.)  The catch: they had to accept every offer, BUT they had to then push forward their own agenda/ideas.  I call this "Yes, but..."
Some audience members noticed that this felt quite similar to the rejection games we had just witnessed, while others believed it felt slightly more positive and productive than the first two rounds.

- Yes, and... Party Planning and Ad Agency: The last two groups got to model the two games using the "Yes, and..." principle of improv.  I participated with one group and side-coached for the second, encouraging players to listen to each other, genuinely accept EVERY offer, and then add to each offer before moving on to the next idea.
If I had more time this morning, I would have moved out of the circle and taken volunteers to further demonstrate Yes, and... using these games in additional performances.  There's always tomorrow, eh!?

Our processing was pretty incredible during and after today's workshop.  We noticed how difficult it is to maintain eye contact with someone for less than one minute...and reflected on how we tend to avoid real connections with one another.  After talking about the various principles of improv, I closed today's workshop with tossing a stuffed animal around and asking some kids to share out a principle they either find easy or challenging to apply to their improvisational or classroom work.  I heard, "I have a hard time listening," and "It's natural for me to commit to what I'm doing and really put myself out there."  One of the last words of today's improv session was from Justin: "'Yes, and...' is not easy for me.  I automatically reject ideas rather than building on them.  It's something I'm working on."

Such honesty after an hour's workshop with 12- and 13-year-olds!  As a society, we tend to disregard this age group.  We put them into a box, complain about how much time they spend texting and checking out Facebook, and assume adolescents are apathetic folks who are incapable of genuine human interaction.  Instead, let's give them opportunities to truly engage with one another and reflect on what's natural and what's challenging for them as individuals.  These are the people who will be leading and caring for us in a short while.  Let's trust them, and support them, to interact and evolve in meaningful ways.

The Fear and Thrill of "Not Knowing"

I've been in the midst of parent-teacher conferences this week, attempting to balance on that precipice between comfortable and professional, between seeking to learn from families and providing information gleaned from my observations and assessments. In chatting with parents, I'm overwhelmed by the impressive majority of students for whom improv in the classroom is an absolute delight: They revel in the chance to play, to challenge themselves, to interact. My suspicions and theories about the value of integrating improvisational theatre have, generally speaking, been confirmed by my students and their parents.

However, there are two students for whom improv is not a is downright difficult. For Paul, a student who enjoys being social and doesn't mind being silly or the center of attention, engaging in improv at school is a chore he puts up with. For Daniella, a child who is focused on appearing cool and collected...even withdrawn, improv takes her out of her comfort zone and requires her to participate and engage with her peers.

I believe it is the potential power of improv that is so daunting for these students. In taking risks, in jumping into the abyss of THE UNKNOWN, we must trust others to laugh with us and not at us. We must be okay with not appearing cool. This is a lot to ask of a thirteen year-old.

How can this experience be turned around? Click on the link below to read an interview with an unlikely career improviser--a trained lawyer who became an improvisational actor and finds "not knowing" to be thrilling rather than terrifying.
Click here: A Conversation with Dave Pasquesi

I don't know all of the answers...and that's the point in all of this, isn't it? I'll be engaging in a journey with these students. We'll unpack what is comfortable and uncomfortable--and the value of each--through journaling and discussing the impact and application of our improvisational experiences and experiments. I'll pay special attention to the games and activities that engage these two students. When are they smiling? When are they engaged with their partner and showing clear eye contact? Perhaps these are the students who have the most to gain from this work...from this play. Onward!

Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong

When reading Daniel's reading journal this evening, he and I began a discussion about cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon in which folks explain away their mistakes so they don't have to claim personal responsibility for errors. Daniel just finished reading The Red Badge of Courage, and he and I have been chatting about the classic novel's relevance today.

A couple of years ago, NPR highlighted Eliot Aronson's book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). Check out this article for an excerpt of the program. Why bother owning our mistakes? Comment if you like--why do you think we should own, even embrace, our mistakes?

Why Use Games?

"We have so much curriculum to cover. We don't have time for games." "These kids need to be academically challenged. They don't need to be playing" "My students have significant academic gaps--I can't possibly stop teaching content to play a game."

Oh, yes… You have time. Games are important--essential, really. You don't have time to not play games with your students.

There are endless types of games, and they offer numerous and varied benefits in the classroom. While many improv games act as energizers, others offer opportunities to more deeply understand curricular content and connections between ideas. Games build class community, bringing your students together to work as an ensemble--supporting each other rather than acting against one another in a constant battle of social and academic upstaging. Games can focus a wily group, and they can teach essential principles through hands-on, meaningful engagement. A teacher with a repertoire of games under her belt is prepared to be flexible, dynamic, and provide differentiated instruction for her students. Plus…she has more fun.

Two Ways to Integrate Games

Stand-alone Game:

  • Choose an intention: focus, energy, interpersonal connections, explore content, curricular connections.
  • Use a game to fit your specific purpose, integrating it into the lesson at the appropriate moment. You might use a game to initiate a lesson or series of activities, in the middle of an instructional period to access a concept or act as a "restart", or as a closing activity.
  • Experiment with discussing the purpose of the game with your students before engaging in play.

  • Create a focus for the improv workshop, and use games to help build up to that focus.
  • Start with team-building, connecting games; then move into games that build a specific set of skills that will be helpful for the goals of the day.
  • Be flexible--have a number of games to choose from, and be ready to adjust at a moment's notice if your class needs you to go in another direction. In a workshop environment, it's helpful to include a mix of partner, small-group and whole-group games.
  • Play! Act as a coach part of the time, and become a player at various points. Sometimes, offer yourself as an example. At other times, engage with the group and make mistakes as they do. They can learn from you as you muddle along with them. As your class sees you take risks and fail gracefully, they will feel safer in doing the same.

I was teaching my 6th-8th-grade Science class the other day, and we had two things to accomplish: organize paperwork (going over a test, filing, and the like) and introduce key content through a PowerPoint lecture. We often have labs and/or lively discussions about relevant material, but this was just one of those days when we needed to get through some things. We certainly had a lot of material to cover, but I understood that our attention spans are limited. If a teacher doesn't work proactively to liven things up and break the potential monotony of organizing and receiving information, he is going to lose about half of his class. The "lost" kids might not be disruptive (although they could go nutso at the drop of a hat in a middle school classroom…), but they have developed creative ways of being disengaged and distracted while listening to a dedicated, well-meaning educator drone on an on and on. As I was about to launch into my all-important lecture, I could feel the tension rise…and my annoyance level begin to increase. Instead of giving the class a "talking to", I pulled them into the center of the room for a quick game.

Sometimes, I have a plan with a clear intention. At this moment, I just knew I had to do something. I told the kids we needed a quick, energizing game which could also act as a focusing exercise for the group. I asked the class if they had any suggestions, and then I dismissed the ones which would be energizing but not focusing. (Devin told me about a game called "Train Wreck", which sounded awfully fun but I didn't think would offer us a chance to regain our focus. I hope to learn it from him sometime soon.) We landed on "I Am a Tree", and we even connected to some science content during our 6-minute playing. Sweet.

I love this game. Everyone stands in a circle, and one person starts by coming into the center, saying "I am a tree," showing themselves as a tree by the way they hold their body--miming it. Another person jumps in and is something connected to a tree ("I am an apple," perhaps). A third person hops on in and is something connected to both of those ("I am a branch" or "I am a worm"). The first person says, "I'll take the _______", bringing one of the other players(the apple or branch) back with them to the circle. We are left with another beginning from the player who is left in the center: "I am an apple." And so on.
Side coaching suggestions: "BE the ______. Show us what that looks like." "(To the third person--) How can you be something that's connected to ________ AND ________?" "Wait two turns before going out again. Share the stage."
Principles of Improv: Yes, and…; Listen; Commit!

Post-game Processing
Sometimes this takes one minute, and sometimes you can sit down in a circle and have an in-depth discussion as a whole group. You can choose to journal first, connect a game to a principle of improv or two or three, or connect it to content during the discussion. Play with leading the discussion and also with being a participant on even ground with the players. Looking for a great, quick way to have some closure with the group after a game? Try this: Have your students think of the ending to one of these sentences:
"I learned _______.
I think __________. or
I wonder __________."
Toss a ball or stuffed animal to five people, end with some words of wisdom from the players, and move on. Come back to process more later…or don't. Use the game in a way that is useful to you, to your class, to the moment.