I failed! (And I'm proud of it.)

Woo hoo!
As a teacher, the responsibilities that loom are seemingly endless. From their emotional well-being to their enthusiasm for education to the vast pressures of standardized test results, we are considered responsible for so many aspects of our students' lives. The expectation that we will be perfect, that mistakes are somehow taboo for a teacher, has ballooned into a disturbing political and pedagogical trend: those with power are so afraid of teachers making mistakes that it is an absurd common belief that the only way to teach our children is through the implementation scripted curricula.

How about this? Let's train and support teachers as PROFESSIONALS, as intelligent and capable individuals with the power to make their own decisions. Let's encourage educators to take risks, to be creative, to work to genuinely connect with students and support them in delving deeper into ideas and interpersonal connections.

On Friday, I took a risk and it basically flopped. It was a fish gasping for air, giving one or two final flops and then lying on the dock waiting to be carried away. Woo hoo. I tried something new and it didn't turn out the way I thought it would. As an improviser, I am encouraged to celebrate my mistakes...to learn from them and move forward. It's taken years of active work to bring this into my practices as a professional.

Here's the story:
I took my class outside to read or journal on a Friday afternoon. At 2:40, I began a game that actually should have taken a full hour. "Tank" is a silly, boisterous game in which each pair of students has one of them blindfolded. That player has a soft ball (tied fabric) that only they can touch. Their partner can show them where to walk, but they cannot touch the ball. Balls that hit the ground can be picked up by blindfolded players. When a blindfolded player is hit, both partners are "out" and join the group of audience players.

The goals for Tank are fairly straightforward. I hope that players will trust their partners. I hope that they will take risks and take care of each other. I hope that the entire group will have fun and enjoy the silliness of the moment.

So, how did I fail? To start, just about everyone cheated. Kids were peeking from under their blindfolds, they were pretending they hadn't been hit, you name it. I'm sure they were cheating in ways I didn't even think one could cheat. Kids were yelling. A cacophony of "You cheated!" and "Hey, you're out!" wasn't exactly the euphonious sounds of harmony I had in mind.
We processed for about 30 seconds and the kids ran out the door at 3:07...to anxious, frustrated, waiting parents.

What's next?
Hide, right? Nah. I'm a professional, not some hack who waits for instructions from some outside source. My students and I have the power to figure this out. We're an ensemble, dang it. This is what we do.

The next step is to take some time when we have at least an hour to commit to analyzing, problem-solving and playing. We'll discuss the possible benefits and goals of Tank, and we'll analyze what happened when we played last time. We'll develop some expectations and goals for our game on that day, I'll provide intentional pairings, and we'll start by playing inside. We'll process what worked and what was hard, and then we'll move back outside for a big, old-fashioned "do-over". The most important step is to take time to talk about the skills involved in playing the game and how Tank may be a metaphor for learning...or for life.

I'm eager to hear the wisdom offered by these 11-14 year-olds when that discussion happens.

Calling Me Out...and trusting you to catch me when I fall

Driving back from rehearsal last night, my mind was on many things: Don't forget to pop by the store to get milk for Luna tomorrow. Prepare something for Back to School Night. Stay awake, woman!

But what I kept coming back to was the feeling of being backstage...the anticipation of the moment when I'll feel compelled to walk beyond the curtain, to become a character, to make a bold choice. The connection I feel with my other players is nothing short of brilliant--the knowledge that I am jumping into a potential abyss and that one of these guys will be there to catch me, to keep me from falling, to truly deserve my trust.
If Jon calls me out, I know we'll figure out a relationship between two characters. If Fred starts something and I add a sound effect, I have no doubt that he'll make it work. If I start to flail, Brett will come out, sit down and sniffle behind me onstage. Bam! A scene.

These moments happen for students as well. How can we help them to notice and celebrate the fleeting, tremendous moments of group mind, of synergy, of genuine support?
Still playing with that one... Share your ideas!

***I'll be performing with UnforeScene at BATS Improv in SF on August 15th at 7pm--The Bayfront Theatre at Fort Mason. Hope to see you there.***

Make Your Partner Look Good

This is one of the first principles that really resonated for me as an improviser. In "serving the scene" or "supporting the narrative", I learned to constantly work to figure out what my role is as a part of the whole. Rather than the scene being about me, I aim to do what works to fit the scene. In being gracious and supportive of my fellow players...and what their characters need in the scene...I am supported and end up looking better, too. Funny how that works.

As a middle school teacher, I am constantly struck by how individualistic our society (and adolescence, in particular) tends to be. So many of my students are focused on either standing out or fading into the background. Sometimes the group needs the outgoing player to be a supporting character; sometimes a scene needs the timid player to be the protagonist. Sometimes a game requires a partner to throw the ball so that it can be caught.

I used to spend a couple of weeks developing rules, norms and expectations with my students. It was a beautiful, if often tedious and sometimes frustrating experience in that we were able to share what we knew about what does and does not work in a classroom setting. I must say, we all know what we should do...and a middle school student is impressive in her ability to tell you what you want to hear. I now introduce principles of improv as the basis for our class norms. Rather than reiterating what we all know and choose to ignore in the midst of group interactions, it's been interesting to offer students a new way to look at their choices and perspectives in the classroom. "Make your partner look good" can be a transformative principle-turned-class-norm.

Becoming an ensemble is not easy. It takes work to establish the group as a functional, supportive, successful entity, and it requires fine-tuning when difficult behaviors and interactions arise. Yet, stepping outside of writers' workshop and science labs--and into the world of an improv workshop--allows the group to establish new goals. In working together and helping our peers to feel and look successful in a game or a scene, we learn to be there for one another across contexts.

While nearly every game helps develop this skill set, I'll highlight a few here that can be used across grade levels. Side-coaching is particularly important. Consider offering the following verbal cues: "Support the scene." "This is something we need to accomplish all together." "This part is not about you...it's about the game/group." "Go nice and slow so that your partner(s) can follow you exactly."
- Ball: I know you might be sick of reading about Ball, but I can't sing enough praises about this deceptively simple game. This one really doesn't work if the group doesn't work together. (See earlier posts for an explanation of Ball.)
- Physical Mirroring-: Warm up by having partners face each other a bit farther than arms' distance apart. One partner is "A" and the other is "B". "B" can start moving slowly enough so that "A" can mirror her exact movements. Call "switch" every so often. Sometimes, encourage partners to focus only on facial expressions or to switch levels or to explore something else that they may be avoiding. Encourage constant eye contact.
- Diamond Dance: The mirroring activity is the perfect warm-up for Diamond Dance. Prepare a collection of songs (CD, playlist, etc.) in different genres and at different tempos. Four players stand in a diamond on stage. They all begin facing forward, and the two on the side and one in the back mirror the movements of the player in the front. When he turns to the side, one of the side players is now in the front. The other three players now follow her movements. They keep dancing (moving slowly--non-traditional dance) throughout the entire song. As the song fades, they can all freestyle into a frozen pose at the end.
- Words of Wisdom: All players stand in a circle. One player says a word, and the next says the following word in the sentence, continuing until the group decides that the sentence is complete. When it is, the entire group says (with fingers touching and tapping together), "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." And another sentence begins with the following person in the circle.
As with the word-at-a-time stories, sometimes your word is exciting and sometimes your word is "a" or "the". What's important is that we say what comes next...that we support the sentence of the group...that we listen.

And listening is what I'll talk more about later this week.
Until then!

"Pick Me Eyes" and Exploring Narrative

"Pick Me Eyes," Counting Together, and "Ball is a passing game."
What helps "Ball" work? We explored this question yesterday morning...as we were stumped at "13" and suddenly jumped to "39". Yee haw! Was it a magical button of cooperation that I finally pushed? Nope. As about three kids said at once in our post-game, quick processing session, "We all started counting together. That just made it work." I agree with them...kind of.

There were three elements that coalesced to enable our class to succeed in ball yesterday morning.
1. I introduced "pick me eyes". (Thank you, Lisa Rowland.) It's amazing how much effort we put into forming the mask that says, "Ignore me, please," or "Oh, please, not me." Why are we afraid of being noticed? It's incredible to see the change that can take place when we encourage players to change this mask to a face that says, "Oh, please, pass it to me. I'm ready."
2. We all started counting together. The magic of whole-class engagement. It makes the biggest difference. A few lonely voices just don't work.
3. "Ball is a passing game." (Thank you, Dave Dennison.) Instead of throwing the ball AT someone, instead of randomly throwing the ball into the ether and expecting someone else to handle it once it's left your hand, we can make this game work if we pass with intention. This one piece can transform your work as an improviser...as a student...as a member of any community. This concept allows me to introduce a tremendously important principle of improv: "Make Your Partner Look Good / Work As An Ensemble" (More on this later!)

Someday, I'll write an entire book about the importance of playing Ball. However, I wonder if only I'll read that book--I can geek out on this stuff for days! It's just astounding to me how such an insanely simple game can embody so many lessons for the stage and for life. The surge of energy we feel in the room as we click ON from haphazardly tossing a ball into suddenly becoming a team with a common, focused purpose is nothing less than magical. We suddenly WANT our classmates, our fellow players, to succeed; we move beyond wanting to be the center and move into being a part of a successful group. Looking ready and open, counting together, passing to each other: This is how a classroom should be.

Exploring Narrative
We had so much fun playing with these games the past two days. It's a perfect way to jump into exploring some essential content...and laying the groundwork for meaningful scenes.
I provided some specific guidelines for all narrative games. Every story had to:
- Have a protagonist who
- Changed over time and
- Learned a lesson.
(Ha! They get to learn about main characters, character development, and theme in one fell swoop while having fun. Tricky, eh?)

- Word-At-a-Time Story: This is a great context for introducing being spontaneous and in the moment; it's also about co-creating something with a partner. Sometimes, your word is exciting (Dinosaur!). However, sometimes your word supports the rest of the narrative. (It turns out, "the" is a pretty darn important word.) Telling a word-at-a-time story teaches us about listening...and about saying what comes next. We don't need to be clever; we just need to say what comes next.
1. I start by telling a whole group word-at-a-time story in a circle. Ask for something (a color or an occupation or a type of food) and then make up a title to your story. Ours was "The Purple Jacket". Perfectly simple and open to possibilities. I reminded the class that our job was to tell a story with a protagonist who changed and learned something...and that word-at-a-time stories are often big "Woo hoo!" experiences. Ending with "...The moral of the story is..." is often quite helpful.
2. Kids then partner up and tell a new story (I give them all the same title) in partners. I modeled telling one with a particularly enthusiastic player. My body language showed my level of enthusiasm and engagement--knees bent, strong eye contact, etc. Try to avoid pauses. Just say what comes next. Aim for a 2-4 minute story, and end with "...The moral of the story is..."
Have partners choose who is A and who is B. Tell them who will start, to keep up eye contact, and to tell the whole story.
Side-coaching suggestions: "Keep strong eye contact." "Make sure your character changes!" "Find an ending soon...what's the lesson?" "Be louder." "Don't think. Just say what comes next!"
Process for a couple of minutes to find out what felt good and what was challenging. Ask a few kids to share their stories' morals. They will be thrilled to do so!
Switch partners and do it again. And again. :)

- Story Switch: This is very similar to word-at-a-time.
1. You'll start in partners with "Voice Mirroring". Encourage intense eye contact and tell kids to silently say what their partner is saying in their mind, anticipating what might come next. This will help them develop their connection to their partner before sharing the construction of a story.
2. Next, have them choose who is A and who is B. Decide who will start the story. Let's say B starts the story this time... Let her/him go for a minute or so before yelling, "Switch!" or dinging your little bell. This will allow the player to really get into the life of the protagonist and start developing a setting...and maybe even a problem. Side-coach to encourage this player to name the protagonist and provide lots of sensory details.
Yell "Switch!" a few times, reducing the amount of time between each switch until you start prompting them to come to a close with the story.
Switch partners and do it again.
2. After workshopping this for a bit, move it into a performance game. Ask for four volunteers to come to the "stage area" while the rest of the class becomes "audience players". Find a title and "conduct" the story by pointing to each player in turn. Sometimes, you'll switch in-between sentences, sometimes in-between words, and sometimes it'll be smack dab in the middle of a word. Have fun with it!
Do it a few times so a bunch of kids get to perform.

Play with these games and report back to let me know how they go. I'd love to hear back from ya!

The First Day

The first day of school is always full of such anticipation and wondering. Being a student can certainly feel exciting and exhilarating, but it can also feel daunting and oppressive. Questions such as "Who will I sit with?" are as important to kids as "Will I be successful academically this year?" I worked to be cognizant of these conflicting feelings as I prepared for this morning's activities.

This morning, as I hope will be my goal on most days of teaching this year, I entered the classroom as an improvisational theatre coach. Yes, my given title is Core/English Teacher for Grades 7-8 and Grades 6-8 Science Teacher. I'm on that. But I have learned so much from my own improv coaches in the past three years, and I seek to emulate some of their practices...incorporating a different type of enthusiasm into guiding students through an educational experience. In learning through games and scenework, I hope to see risk-taking and complex thinking increase while anxiety levels decrease. In applying the core principles of improv, I not only believe that my students will become deeper thinkers, but that they will have the opportunity to become better people. These principles have been transformative for me--both personally and professionally--and I love sharing them with my class community.

So...what did we do today?
We focused on a variety of principles, but I'd like to highlight one in particular:
"Woo hoo! Failure is okay; it's an opportunity. Celebrate it and move on."

This is probably THE most important principle of improv. As a recovering perfectionist, I am keenly aware of the fact that our fear of failure is what holds us back. So many kids (and adults!) beat themselves up for a bad grade...for saying something mean...for making simple mistakes. We fail in a multitude of ways every day. Woo hoo! Allowing ourselves to truly revel in these moments as gifts--as genuine opportunities to learn--is what frees us up to breathe and expand and move forward.

- Ball: This is how we start every improv workshop. It's a simple game in which we throw a soft ball around in a circle and the entire group counts together. Sounds kind of stupid, right? Yep--stupid and profound at the same time. In a 3-5 minute game, I can assess every student's level of engagement and we can do something TOGETHER, as an ensemble. We are done when we all work together--when we have met the goal I have figured out for the day after we have begun our work. More to come on this mundane, perfect game in later posts...

- Rumplestilskin: I start by asking the kids to offer a bunch of multisyllabic words. Today's game was entitled "Dioxin Nucleic Acid". Amazing. This is a name game borrowed from the Healthy Play folks (http://www.joyinlearning.com). The basic rules are that one person in the middle starts by going up to someone else in the circle, shaking their hand and saying, "Hi. My name is _____. Left (or center or right) Dioxin Nucleic Acid." If the other person says the name of the person to their left (or their own name if "center" or the person's name on their right if "right") before "Dioxin Nucleic Acid" is finished, they stay put. If not, "Woo hoo!" They fail gracefully, switch places, and find someone else to whom they can introduce themselves. Gradually invite up to 5 people in the middle of the circle to add to the chaos and increase the energy level of the game.

- You: This is another brain fry/name game. The class should be standing in a circle...which should be reconfigured after lots of movement from the last game. Point to a student, say their name loudly and clearly, and keep pointing at them until everyone has someone they're pointing at. The last student in the pattern will point back at you. Practice this pattern a few times until they are super-fast and it feels automatic. Then ask for a category for which there are many examples (I've done "fruits" or "states" in the past. This morning, Denise* offered "book titles". Perfect!) Create a new pattern, pointing at a student and saying a book title; make sure the last student points to you and says a book title. Important guideline: Explain that it is everyone's responsibility to not only listen for their turn, but that the pattern gets passed on after their turn. They can keep repeating the person's name/the book title, jump up and down, whatever...
Review the name pattern after the book title pattern feels automatic. Start the name pattern and then add in the book title pattern after a full successful round of names; you'll be doing both patterns at once. Variation: Add a new challenge level by having folks take the place of the person whose name they're saying. The brains start a'frying.

In these low-risk games, I talk about how it doesn't really matter if you fail. No one's life is at risk here. In fact, the POINT of the game is to see if you fail. And it's okay. Experiencing these moments of laughing when mistakes happen can be nothing less than liberating in a classroom environment. We all make mistakes every day. We'd might as well start admitting that this is the case. And laughing in the classroom is a beautiful thing.

In addition to lowering the affective filter and creating an environment in which it's okay to make mistakes and take risks, I think it's important to mix it up a little bit so that our cognitive capacity actually increases. Sitting still and completing predictable, rote activities hinders our abilities to build synaptic connections in the brain. Work on those dendrites, kids!

Always take time to process games with kids. The prompts I used this morning were, "Think about the games we just played and consider the skills and/or the principles of improv involved. What are some applications for those skills or principles? How might you use them in the classroom...or just as a human in the world?"
I am often stunned by the depth of understanding of our youth. They do not need to be spoon-fed information and connections. On the contrary, they have so much to teach me. My favorite (paraphrased) quotes from today:
"We needed to be able to think quickly. Sometimes, you just don't have all the time in the world to figure things out."
"We really had to listen to each other."
"We all had to work together."
"We had to work on our memory skills. This is important for our homework and for paying attention."
"We had to wake up and put a lot of energy into what we were doing."

And isn't that what we want our students to be feeling and doing every day in school? I'll be exploring this question, issues in teaching, and my own learning as a student of improvisational theatre throughout this year on this new blog. I hope you can join me for my musings as I embark upon the journey of teaching and playing and performing and learning.

I plan to post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
All student names are pseudonyms.