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.

On the Value of Performance

My stomach has an uncomfortable, familiar, subtle ache. I can't quite focus for any length of time.
How could this possibly be a good thing?

I am gearing up for a performance.

After three rehearsals, my new group is about to perform in front of a decent house at the Bayfront Theatre in San Francisco, competing in a "Cave Match" at BATS Improv. As the minutes tick away and my performance becomes a reality, nervousness gives way to excitement, to drive, to adrenaline. I wait in the wings of stage left as my first improv coach and early inspiration for this work (acting as Lightician, etc.) cues the theme song I picked out earlier in the day; the ultra-cheesy beat pumps and I jump up and down, making faces at my fellow players waiting on stage right. We run out to the front of the stage, and I announce the beginning of our show.

Integrating performing arts offers a multitude of benefits: From building community, to understanding narrative, to processing information with depth and complexity, the social and academic possibilities of improvisational theatre in the classroom are endless. However, in the end, we do our students a favor if we offer them opportunities to genuinely perform. They may perform for each other throughout the year, and I suggest that you give everyone a chance (a nudge, really) to perform for a wider audience as well.

I recommend that we do not blindly throw our students to the wolves of performance. Rather, build up with whole-group games, with partner and small-group workshop activities, and then move on to low-stress performances in the classroom. Arrange your classroom during improv time so that there is a performance space, with a designated area for audience members to sit (the floor or risers should be just fine) and a "stage" area (a specific spot on the floor is okay) for performing players.

Talk with your class about having everyone being an active participant during in-class performances. There are performing players and audience players. What are the roles of your class's audience performers? Give them something to look for--certainly "what works" and "what may need adjusting" are good starts.
They may also need/be ready to take on specific identification goals such as...
  • Who is the protagonist in this story?
  • What role does the setting (the "where") play in this scene?
  • Who was changed?
  • What's the goal/objective of the scene?
It's nice to offer a balance between asking for volunteers for performance games and requiring that all players participate in their turn in a group performance. Give ample time for the latter, and support players with side-coaching and helpful suggestions to lower the anxiety level of participants who are feeling shy about taking these risks and/or completely blank when it comes to quickly thinking of an idea in front of a group. It's a delicate precipice, this world of performance. On one side we have risk-taking and positive challenges, and on the other side we have the chance to mortify and stress a certain group of students. As their coach, it is your job to act as their parachute as they jump into the abyss of performance. Make sure they feel simultaneously supported and nudged.

One way to encourage support is to openly talk with the kids about how it feels to be on stage and how it feels to be in the audience. If everyone performs at one point or another, they can develop empathy for one another...and give helpful, constructive criticism in an honest and respectful environment. Yes, this is a tall order in a classroom. We are setting the bar high, and our students are capable of handling themselves with respect and decorum.

When your class is ready--or when you're ready to coach them through a new level of challenge--take the risk yourself and schedule a performance for a few classes, for the whole school, or for a parent audience. I'll discuss ideas for successfully planning such a performance in a later post. Until then, play on!

In Their Own Words

From time to time, I will post some of my students' reflections--in writing or during discussions--about the value of using improv in the classroom. I will always use pseudonyms.
I find their words to be grounding and inspiring; it's remarkable to see how profound these children can be when given the chance.

These are two excerpts from students' letters of appreciation for a workshop and free professional show presented by BATS Improv in San Francisco.
They were written in February, 2010.

In Dana's Words, a seventh-grade student
"...Improv is important because you learn that failure isn't so horrible. You learn to Yes, and..., to acknowledge people, and go for it! You learn to trust, and Commit! If you commit to yourself, and to our partners, and to your career, you (can) do anything! Commit to what you say, even if it makes you feel like an idiot. Then it'll be even easier to learn from failure and move on. It's like a circle!"

In Mary's Words, and eighth-grade student
"...I think that without improv., I would be really very quiet and unhappy, but instead I'm social now, and really happy. My life today would be near impossible without improv."

Wow. All I can say So many teaching days feel overwhelming; it really is an almost impossible job. But our students can give us the strength and inspiration we need to be able to open doors for them. Let's give them those opportunities.

Commitment, Cosai, and Character


It's always surprising to me when I see middle school-aged children running around outside, yelling and laughing...who come in to play a game and are suddenly silent. I imagine it's because many of them have learned that the classroom is not an appropriate place for unbridled self-expression, for silliness. This dearth of enthusiasm is what also leads to passive learning--one of the evils in existence in education today.

Let's change that up a bit, shall we? At certain times, I'm here to encourage kids (and to encourage you to nudge them) to YELL. To be silly. To truly commit to the work--to the play--of improvisation and learning.

Types of Commitment
Commit to your character.
Really feel what it's like to be that person (who is not you). Show your fellow players--and show the audience--what s/he is feeling, what s/he wants. Be bold. Show your character.

Commit to playing and connecting with each member of your ensemble. Make eye contact. Laugh. Pass the ball to someone who hasn't yet played.

Be loud. Adjusting one's volume is a great little shortcut for increasing commitment.

Students get this part. They quickly make the conceptual leap between committing to a character or game to putting their best effort into their work or being present as a member of a group. Applying this principle of improv is one of my students' top goals for themselves.

Any game or activity (including scenework) will work for applying the principle of Commitment. You can focus on it for Ball, for I Am a Tree, Sound Ball...whatever. I went for it with "Cosai" yesterday morning.

- Cosai: This is a whole group focusing/energizing game. Energy is passed around the circle using hand motions, words/sounds, and eye contact. Introduce each of the following, one at a time, in order...
*Woosh (with a little "wooshy" hand motion)--pass to the next person in the circle, who passes it to the next, and so on.
*Baaa (hands up in a claw-like fashion)--turns the passing the opposite direction. The next person "wooshes" the other way. It's kind of like a Reverse card in Uno.
*Psaw (pointing to someone)--the player may pass the energy to anyone in the circle by saying "psaw" in a high-pitched voice and pointing at them. Encourage "pick me" eyes and eye contact.

After a while...encourage animated expressions, louder voices, etc. And then...
*Freak-a (hands up, waving wildly)--everyone yells and runs around waving their hands above their heads. The group then re-forms the circle in a different order. The player who called "freak-a" starts the woosh in either direction s/he chooses.

My class is working on understanding elements of narrative and authors' strategies in building stories. I believe the most important thing to understand about storytelling is character. We can't expect anyone to care about our story (or our scene) if they don't understand and care about the characters.

To help players understand characters, I led them through some simple exercises to help them find a variety of new characters within themselves. This took about ten minutes.
Guided Character Work--One Method to Explore
- Have everyone find their own "personal bubble" and spread out around the room.
- Keep the group silent except for when you ask them to vocalize or interact in a certain way. They need to be able to easily hear your voice as you coach them through this work.
Have them stand in "neutral position": arms unfolded and out of pockets, shoulders rolled back with a comfortable, upright posture. Ask all players to close their eyes.
- Explore finding a character through figuring out which part of the body is a character's "center". Ask all players to imagine their character's center is in the very center of their body--in their stomach or chest. Encourage them to imagine how this character is feeling, what s/he fears, what s/he values, etc.--while their eyes are still closed. Ask them to create a facial expression to match that character and open their eyes when they've done so. Then, have everyone walk around the room in character, avoiding interacting with other characters.
- Experiment with a few different character centers: tip of the nose, top of the head, bottom of the feet, knees... At certain points, have players verbally greet each other in character. Have them yell out what they hope for, what their favorite place is, what they would say if they found out they had just received a new get the idea.

- Now, have half of the class become audience players and be ready to watch the rest of the group. The performers should spread out in your stage area and find a neutral position. Ask them to choose a musical instrument in their mind...and to develop a human character based on that instrument. Guide them through exploring that character's emotional state, their vocal style, etc. Then, introduce a group scene (a school dance, a family reunion...) and have all of the players interact in character.
- Switch...and have the other half of the group find a character inspired by an animal.

Applications Beyond the Stage
So many! I asked my students to do some further analysis of characters from literature using these metaphoric analysis strategies. They also applied these methods to creating their own characters in original fictional picture books using greater depth. This afternoon, I asked my students to consider this as a journal prompt: Who are YOU as a character? Where is your center? What animal or musical instrument best represents you? Why? Are there different parts of yourself that are represented in different ways?

What are some ideas y'all have for applying character creation?

The US Education System Needs a Kick in the Pants

I love reading op-ed pieces and shouting out loud, "Yes! You've got a point there, mister."
Check this one out:

Our students need inspiration, motivation, relevance and innovation. We need to stop closing schools and start investing in our future. We need to celebrate daring pedagogical choices and encourage deeper thinking. We need to stop simplifying educational rigor to the lowest common denominator...and realize that questioning is vital, that risk-taking is the key. In short, we need a kick in the pants.

What we do NOT need is NCLB-inspired, competitive, teacher-blaming legislature that ties everything to one narrow standardized assessment. Although Race to the Top (and its legislative compadres) are well-meaning, I do not believe they will support innovation and positive change in education. Let's look at what it would take to transform teaching into a profession that is desirable, supported, and respected.

What would it be like if our schools had money? If teachers didn't have to work second jobs to pay the bills? Hmm...maybe more of our kids would go to college and be a part of constructive reform. Students of today could be taught by educated professionals who support academic risk-taking...preparing them to find jobs in a new economy, to work for social justice at home and abroad. Because, I think we outsourced most of the jobs for which teaching-to-the-test is preparing our youth. We could just ship off all of the kids to factory-rich countries so they could earn $2 a day. Now, there's an alternative path to consider...

The California Clapper Rail As the Teacher’s Teacher: In Support of Mixing Things Up

Educators are notoriously skilled jugglers. We are plate spinners. Mediators. Therapists. Multi-taskers. It can feel overwhelming to be everything to everybody.

I’ve spent the last three days taking part in an environmental education networking and teacher training workshop. STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed, part of The Bay Institute) gives teachers respect and support, resources and inspiration. As I sat amongst dedicated colleagues at the Aquarium of the Bay, watching a slide show presentation about a number of California’s endangered species, I thought to myself, “How on Earth am I going to write an improv blog post about this?” And then the poet within began her work. Bear with me on this one…I swear; it’s going somewhere.

Metaphor. It’s all about metaphor. Here’s the thesis I’m developing: The California Clapper Rail is a perfect representation for three kinds of students in our classrooms. This bird is scarce. Its habitat is fragile and has been imperiled by the desire of those in power to expand and be more productive. It creates a unique call, exhibits gender equity, and is often overlooked.

CA Clapper Rail Student #1: The Hider
This student hides amongst the marsh plants, hoping to go unseen. He does what she is told and rarely causes trouble. However, when she steps out of her cover to find nourishment, she ends up empty-handed or chomped to bits.

CA Clapper Rail Student #2: The Chatterer
This student can’t shut up. She needs to express herself, to get out of her seat, to be heard. She often finds that talking gets her in trouble.

CA Clapper Rail Student #3: The Elusive One
This student is hard to find. He is a motivated learner…a highly engaged, divergent thinker. What happened to him?

“Okay, lady. Where’s the improv connection?”
I’m getting to that!

I am here to argue that one type of improvisation activity can support these three types of students in the classroom: The Brain Fry. No, I’m not talking about hallucinogens here. By “Brain Fry”, I mean an activity in which you must embrace the idea that you will fail. In fact, a lot of the fun involves messing up, laughing and moving forward. It’s a therapeutic process, a bump in the monotony…and a way to increase brainpower.

Student #1 needs to interact; she needs to be seen and make social connections. Student #2 must find productive and appropriate ways to express himself. Student #3 must find her motivation once more; she can feel excited about coming to school. But beyond the particular needs of these student types, all learners (adults and children alike) require opportunities to disrupt the patterns and ruts in their brains. They need to build dendrites, to offer their brains opportunities for more synaptic connections.

And, darn it, our students need to laugh. Our children spend so much of their days either at school or doing schoolwork, and their laughter is too often viewed as troublesome. Let’s build in times in which their enjoyment IS the goal, in which connections and silliness and mistakes are celebrated rather than stifled. Bring on the Brain Fry!

These can be used as energizers at the beginning of your teaching week or day, or as opportunities to break up blocks of seatwork. I often use them as warm-ups to a weekly improv session with my 7th and 8th-grade English/Language Arts class. They can be a perfect way to start off a staff meeting, too.

- Billy Billy Bop: Silliness. Paying attention. Adding new expectations. Making mistakes. So much fun.
Gather everyone in a circle. Be the one in the middle and say, “Bop” as you point to various folks in the circle. Proudly tell them that they have succeeded in doing nothing. That’s exactly what’s expected: say nothing when the person who is “it” says “Bop.”
Next, introduce “Billy, Billy, Bop.” When this is said (while clearly pointing at someone in the circle and making eye contact with him), he must say “Bop” before you finish saying “Billy, Billy, Bop.” Go quickly, not in a predictable pattern or obviously around the circle, until someone messes up. She will switch places with you and then be “it”.
After a few folks, introduce one or two of the following:
** Monkeys: The person you pointed to, and the person to his left and right become “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” before you count to five (or ten—whatever you decide).
**Orchestra: The person you pointed to shows playing a cello, the person to her left plays a violin, and the person to her right plays the flute before you count to five. Show them how this will look first.
**Bowl of Jello: The people on either side of the person you pointed to open their arms around him, as if they’re the bowl. He puts his arms up in the air and sways back and forth, in a jello-ish fashion. Count to five!
**Elephant: The people on either side of the person you pointed to open their arms around him (differently than if they’re a bowl), as if they’re the huge ears. He puts his arm down and sways back and forth, demonstrating an elephant’s trunk. Sound effects might be nice. Don’t forget to count to five.
**Ask the class to make one or two up on their own.

A cautionary note: I’ve tried playing this with more than one person in the center, as with “Rumplestilskin”. It just didn’t work for me, as it quickly degraded into madness. We lost the focus on listening and just started yelling at each other. If you’re worried about equity in participation, offer this to the class and problem-solve this issue together. I’d keep this game as a warm-up or brief energizer—play it for ten minutes or less.

- Left Brain/Right Brain, AKA Photos and Problems: Break the class into groups of three. Model this with a couple of kids first—to inspire ideas, encourage thinking on the spot, showing how you embrace mistakes (“Woo hoo!”), and becoming part of the ensemble.
The person in the middle is on the hot seat, here. She holds a space/object photo album in her hands; encourage her to feel the weight of the large book. The person on their right asks her to explain various pictures. Encourage this person to provide specific offers. Rather than, “Tell me about that picture,” he can say, “Tell me about your grandmother and that purple hat,” or “I notice you’re standing next to a zebra here. Why was it at your house?” You get the idea. When the storyteller would like to change subjects or just mix it up a bit, she can mime turning the page in the photo album.
Once the hot seat player gets into the groove of telling stories about pictures. The brain fry really begins. While the storytelling stimulates what we traditionally think of as “right brain” activity, the person on the left will place demands on the hot seat player’s numerical skills. He will ask the player in the middle to answer very simple math problems…one after another after another. Both side players ask questions of the middle player at the same time! As you sidecoach, encourage the player on the left to listen for an answer, to repeat the question of he doesn’t get an answer, and to make sure to ask the questions quickly—one right after the other—to ensure that his fellow player gets the opportunity to fail. It should be a ridiculously good time.

Attention: Principle of Improv opportunity! In addition to practicing “Woo hoo!”, players get to work on “Commitment”. My rule for this game is that an answer MUST be accepted if a player says it like she means it. Thus, a perfectly acceptable answer to “What’s 2 + 2?” could be “Seventeen!” However, if there is any hesitation or question in her voice, it’s a no-go. Encourage players to “fake it until they make it”. Make sure to process how it felt to make mistakes and to be committed to answers, and discuss the applications of such work in the classroom or in life.

[I credit this game to Dave Dennison; I learned it in his Foundation 3 class at BATS Improv in SF.]

Innovation, Risk-Taking and Collaboration

I love the line, "...the core skill of an innovator is error recovery not failure avoidance." Thank you, Randy Nelson of Pixar University. Watch out errors--we're coming for ya!