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 ( 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.

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