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.]

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