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!