Endless Opportunities From a Simple Game

Teaching on Halloween (or the last weekday before Halloween) is a mess.  The kids are unfocused, they're running around after each other and painting on beards with stage make-up...and they're amped up on sugar.  You can fight it, or you can use it.

I had other plans for Science today.  We were going to discuss current issues that are related to science in some way...but they were just not there on this rainy, Giants-crazed Friday morning.  First, grade some work together and discuss how heat energy is transferred.  Then, time for an energizer game!

What I love about this game is how universally applicable it can be.  It can work for very young children all the way up to adult improvisers.  As teachers, we can use it as an energizer and/or focuser.  But we can also use it to engage learners with content: From understanding characters and relationships in literature, to comprehending scientific concepts, to building connections between historical figures, this simple activity offers students access to academics via spontaneity and drama.

- Assign students to work in pairs.  Today, I had them work with their lab partners in an effort to build those connections.  You could also have them count off.  It's nice to have these initial pairings be random or assigned.
- Ask them to make eye contact with their partners.  Let them know they'll be making decisions without talking; no one will be leading or directing.  They'll just make it happen--together.  They may have an initial idea about how to do what you ask, but their partner might do something that'll cause them to need to revise their plan.  Together, they will show what you ask.

- Start with "fork and spoon".  Move on to any of the following...improvising yourself as you go:
  • good and evil
  • sweet and spicy
  • salt and pepper
  • water and wind
  • dog and cat
  • teacher and student
  • light and dark
- Have each pair partner up with another pair, making groups of four.  These groups can show one or two concepts, including "the four seasons", "the water cycle", "the scientific method", "the arc of plot development", "beginning, middle, and end".
- Move into groups of eight, showing a more complex concept/thing such as "a classroom".
- Have the entire class come together, instantaneously creating something with multiple layers.  Today, we showed "The Golden Gate Bridge".

Try your best to leave time to process with the group, or come back to the processing during the next class.  (I'll be doing the latter, as we went right up to the second lunch began today.  It was just too much fun!)  Ask them what they noticed about how decisions were made--in pairs and in groups of different sizes.  Encourage them to use the interactions in this game as a metaphor for their work in the classroom.  You can also explore the content of what they showed.  I found it intriguing that nearly every "teacher" was pointing a finger at a "student" who was crouched down.  Hmm...

What are some ways you could envision applying this game to your work in the classroom or your group?  Have you explored other simple games and found them to offer opportunities for in-depth exploration?

*Although I've played games similar to this with a variety of names, I first played it with this name with Rich Cox at an Improv for Educators workshop at BATS Improv.

The Myth of Charter Schools by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books

The Myth of Charter Schools by Diane Ravitch | The New York Review of Books

As someone who teaches at a public charter school, I both support alternative education and the public school system. Check out this review by Diane Ravitch. I agree with her on most accounts: that we need to move away from simplistic teacher blaming and realistically analyze the plight of American education--poverty, lack of resources, and the de-professionalization of teaching. If public schools had the kind of resources with which many private schools are provided, I believe student success would soar.

Our students need books. They need healthy food. They need medical care, and attention, and support.
Our teachers need comprehensive preparatory programs. And respectable salaries. And support for innovative practices.

Rather than constantly fighting those who blame us for our students' test scores and fail to see our heroic efforts, let's join together to brainstorm ways to integrate creative practices into teaching and learning. Let's determine meaningful methods of assessment using a variety of approaches that relate to genuine learning. Let's celebrate our successes and build coalitions for positive change.

Mirroring and The Power of Eye Contact

Yesterday, I kicked off our class play--partnering with my colleague's class of sixth- and seventh-graders.  Yep, that's 54 6th-8th-graders.  Holy excitement!

So...what does one DO with 54 pre-adolescents and teens in half an hour?  Their emotions ranged from overjoyed to terrified to reticent to uneasy.  Their focus on social standing trumped their concerns about the quality of their acting and characterization.  Our task: to build an ensemble environment, one in which we can begin to break down social barriers and just allow kids to be kids.

Rather than beginning in a circle, I opted to have everyone spread out in our multipurpose room, finding their own space.  I wanted them to feel centered...and I hoped to encourage all members to amp up their level of commitment and risk-taking in a safe environment.  We began with a quick physical warm-up--stretching and jumping (and a bit o' yelling).

We moved onto a standard focusing game: "Who's the leader?"  In this game, everyone is in a circle and one player moves, claps, etc. while everyone else follows her/him.  One of the players was excused when they began moving and then has three chances to guess the leader.  This works best if you side coach throughout: Leader--make bold, big choices!  Change it up!  All--don't give away who the leader is.  Stay with the group!  Guesser--guess quickly!  You have ten seconds.
It's just fun.

I then counted everyone off so that each person had a random partner.  The partners spread out around the room, and I urged them to make bold, different choices but to always Make Their Partner Look Good.  The task was to Mirror each other.  They chose who was A and who was B.  I told them that A would start as the leader...and that the leader would always move slowly enough so that B could follow them EXACTLY.  Eye contact is paramount here.
Side coaching suggestions: Look straight at each other.  Slow down so that she can follow everything you're doing.  Only choose movements that are reversible.  Play with facial expressions.  Try out some different levels.
Switch who is the leader after about three minutes.
Urge them to find an ending position.
If you have time, do it again with different partners.  Near the end, keep ringing a bell to switch who is leading.  At some point, they might not know who is leading.  That's the good stuff, that is.

I ended with a small performance: Who is following?  I called on eight volunteers to do the mirroring activity as four pairs in front of the audience.  The audience-players had a focus: guess who is leading and who is following in each pair.  I encouraged the performers to make it really hard for us to tell who was leading.  (They chose in secret.)  After a couple minutes, I asked the audience who thought each person was leading.  The results were quite mixed.

What did I notice? Those who were most successful with mirroring had the best eye contact.  These weren't the kids who were traditionally the "best" performers; they were those who were willing to engage with their partners.  Allowing yourself to make real and sustained eye contact requires opening yourself up to another person; this can be an intimidating challenge.  However, I think this is one challenge that's worth taking.  Isn't that what progressive education, what innovation in business, what revolutionary practices hope to achieve--genuine connections between individuals, the co-creation of something new?  We'll be returning to eye contact and mirroring next week.  There's a lot more to be revealed in those mirrors.

Voice Rest as an Opportunity

About six months ago, I really started increasing my time on stage.
About four months ago, I started sounding like Janis Joplin.
About two months ago, I couldn't get through a performance without completely losing my voice...and then I was seriously hoarse for two days.

After seeing an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor--and then a Speech Pathologist--I learned that I have very small nodules on my vocal chords.  I created these through improper use of my vocal instrument.  While I know what a diaphragm IS, I apparently haven't been using it correctly.  Working on that...

However, the Speech Pathologist told me I needed to begin my treatment with 5-7 days of Voice Rest.  Yep, this big mouth had to try to not speak for at least five days.  Heh.

I learned a lot throughout this experience.  I appreciated the challenges experienced by those around me who do not have full command of all of their senses.  Although I was fully aware of what was going on around me, my limited ability to communicate verbally encouraged others to treat me as someone who was disabled--perhaps someone to be pitied or talked down to...or even avoided.  As a result, I found myself becoming more timid.  My three-year-old daughter was confused and angry when I would not talk to her--or would talk to her in a limited fashion.  It became her personal challenge to get me to talk as much as possible.

I also found tremendous benefits in this experience.  I appreciated the moments of silence, of introspection.  I found myself waiting to talk until I actually had something of value to say...talking to express something essential rather than talking just to fill up space.  And I now sound like myself again.  Yay--my voice is back!

This morning, I came back from our fall break to teach a mini-workshop with my core class of seventh- and eighth-graders.  As I've noticed with this class before, their focus is impressive and their commitment level is their greatest challenge.  We're still working on this--it'll be our challenge throughout the year.  However, I find  it's necessary to notice the gifts as well as the difficulties faced by any given group.  When I assigned my class 24 hours of silence--beginning this afternoon--I was initially met with incredulous stares and concerned questions.  But, by the end of the day, they seemed almost giddy about the idea; they were ready to take on the challenge.  Jimi already surprised me with his observation: "I think it will give us a chance to REALLY listen...not just wait for our turn to talk."

What they may lack in enthusiasm and "commitment", they more than make up for in insight.  I can't wait to see what they notice after their 24 hours.

Dangling Toes and Jumping In...How One Teacher Applied and Modified These Games

I am delighted to share the authorship of this posting with Laurie Burghardt-Noia, a teacher at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts.  A bit of context for this writing: I coached a three-hour workshop at SRCSA a couple of weeks ago--to seven committed teachers (and a fabulous classroom volunteer) on a Saturday morning.  Yesterday, I was a guest teacher, providing one-on-one professional development coaching for Sierra Bradley, a fifth-grade teacher at the same school.  What follows is an email from Laurie to Sierra.  I am consistently impressed with the creativity and professionalism shown by teachers who have the freedom and chutzpah to dangle their toes in uncharted territory...and then jump on in by experimenting with their own modifications to meet the needs of their classes.  Huzzah, Laurie!  Thank you for sharing your process with us.

"Today I played *BALL* with half my class while the other half was at dance. They did really well and loved playing.  We were able to count together up to 30, we did the names in order game, and the animal names game, and also two balls at once. Two balls at once was quite challenging but the kids were able to do it. It was a great focus and team building activity. Everyone was working together to make it successful. My 3rd graders are such a great group of kids, you're going to really love this group next year.

The first time I tried playing *ball* with my class, I had a couple kids sabotaging the game (throwing wild, or dropping the ball on purpose) We were playing *whole class* at the time. Then I split them into two separate groups and made it a bit of a competition to see which group could keep the ball going the longest. They did much better with smaller groups and making it competitive.

Last week we played the story spine game. I had 7 kids at a time model the process for the rest of the class and then I had them work in pairs and take turns adding to their story spine partner created stories. The kids were having so much fun while also creating some pretty good stories. (translation: the stories made sense AND were creative and funny) There was a whole lot of laughing going on and EVERYONE was fully participating, it was a wonderful moment/activity.

I really enjoyed Carrie's workshop because she gave me activities that I could use with my kids immediately. Would you please pass along my request, I'm serious, I would really REALLY like to purchase some time from her. Perhaps several of us could offer to pay for an hour each and make it worth it (to her) to come to our school for a day?

The theater games are so perfect for our story theme.  I really like the idea of keeping theater as our arts focus for another year."

An update: Thankfully, Laurie and her colleagues have to neither beg nor pay for individualized coaching out-of-pocket.  Their wonderful principal has scheduled a full day of professional development with me in early December.  I can't wait to come back!

Energy Explosion

In my class of seventh- and eighth-graders, I can sometimes be heard side-coaching using the following comments:
"Commit to your character."
"Put all of your energy into this!"

Not so with today's guest teaching experience.  This class of 29 fifth-graders have got Commitment down.  It was like an energy explosion in Sierra Bradley's classroom this morning. 

Today's challenge: to harness the energy of a large group of kids, 3/4 of whom are fighting tooth-and-nail for center stage, right before lunch.  Solution #1: Ball.

We spent half of today's workshop on my five-minute warm-up.  I had 4-8 activities planned for the session, but I quickly determined that I would be seriously adjusting my plan.  Once we started tossing the ball and counting together, I observed and assessed the group in action.  We had kids diving in front of each other.  Others stepped back to watch.  Four kids cried because they didn't get the ball as much as they wanted.

I was able to introduce three Principles of Improv in the first five minutes.  We started with "Woo Hoo!", and we practiced celebrating failure; we discussed the importance of risk-taking in and outside of the classroom.  I then commended them on how they really seemed to have "Commit!" down, but I suggested that they set a goal to work on "Make Your Partner Look Good."  We reconfigured our circle, made sure everyone was in the space equally, and began to count all together.  Things got better.  Kids laughed and helped each other out.  Most participants tried to throw the ball to kids who hadn't yet touched it.

At one point, I believe I said, "The person next to you is just as important as you are.  You are not more valuable than them, and they are not more valuable than you.  We are in this together."

I could have played Ball with them for an hour...but we were just done.  What followed was an incredible discussion about the challenges and joys they experienced while playing our warm-up game.  They made some impressive metaphoric connections regarding the applications of this play to a variety of social experiences--in sports, in their families, in the classroom.  As we sat in a circle of 30+ sweaty, wiggly bodies in a small space, these fourth-graders opened up about their challenges in mathematics, in feeling left out, in trying to leave room for others to play and learn.  Quite impressive, Ms. Bradley.

Although I could have processed with them all day, I knew we had to jump up and get back to work/play.  Solution #2: "What Are You Doing?"

We began by spending some time doing some Space-Object practice.  Although I had to use my teacher voice to calm down the rampant, wily upstaging that started our next round, the kids were able to settle into a meditative-like zone in which they could visualize and practice making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  They got to develop a character, feel a knife spreading peanut butter, sneak a taste right out of the jar, and then say something silly with a bite of space-object pb & j in their mouths.  They needed that.

What Are You Doing is a fun workshop/mini-performance game that helps with Space-Object work, providing offers as gifts, character development, and thinking quickly and spontaneously.  The kids got into two lines that curved around and made a performance space in the middle of the circle.  Player 1 mimes some action.  Player 2 then says, "What are you doing?"  Player 1 says ___________ (an action that is NOT what she was doing).  Player 2 then mimes that action.  Player 3 then asks, "What are you doing?" Player 2 says ___________ (an action that is NOT what he was doing).  Player 3 then mimes that action.  And so on.

The class did amazing work here...especially when I gave them their focus as Audience Players--"Look to determine if you can SEE what each player is holding/doing."  We ended with lots of laughing and risk-taking and gift-giving.

There are so many directions I'd go next as the classroom teacher.  Luckily, these kids have a teacher who's committed to the power of taking risks herself, of integrating theatre into curriculum and team-building.  I have no doubt that this class will return to Ball.  They'll probably spend a good amount of time watching each other and building on their skills in commitment to any given game and analysis of the applications of improv.   I imagine they will soon begin to move beyond their initial reading of Ball as a competitive game in which there can only be a limited number of winners.  But these things take time.  Time and commitment to trying things out and then trying them again.  As the year progresses, I envision them counting and cheering and laughing together.  Play on!

Improvised Workshops--why I don't believe in a manual

"A 'how to do it' procedure will become apparent with the use of the material.  Yet, no system should be a system.  We must tread carefully if we are not to defeat our aims.  How can we have a 'planned' way of action while trying to find a 'free' way?"
- Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater, p. 18

In this textbook-heavy world of teaching, I have often been asked for a manual--a list--of what to do and in what order.  However, my goal is to be improvisational in my coaching--of students and of teachers.  It would be entirely hypocritical to be encouraging folks to be engaging "in the moment", to "do what comes next" while marching along a step-by-step, entirely predetermined plan.

Does this mean I am suggesting walking into a session as an unprepared facilitator?  Quite the opposite, in fact.  If my goal is to help participants (and myself) to be intuitive, then I must first identify a set of potential goals for the workshop.  (For example--character development or narrative structure or conflict or listening...).  I then brainstorm possible games for general warm-ups and skill-building warm-ups, followed by games and activities to support the workshop's focus/goal.

During the workshop, I listen and watch like a hawk!  In the spirit of Yetta Goodman's "kidwatching", I notice what emerges in the needs of individuals and the group.  While I'm ready to adjust the workshop's focus if needed, I also have a number of different directions I can follow if we begin to head down a given path. 
Rather than seeing instructional design as a single channel, I prefer to envision a braided stream.  (Hello--science integration!)  The needs and energy of a group may adjust our direction, but I am still here to guide the ultimate path of the workshop. 

I'll follow up with specific examples later this week.  I'll be guest teaching/ coaching at two schools in Santa Rosa--in one fifth-grade classroom and in one second-grade classroom.  I can't wait to report back!

Building On Each Other's Ideas--at the heart of narrative

Stories are about interaction.  In building relationships and watching them evolve (with our families, at work, in the grocery store...), we create narratives every day.  As a teacher, I feel honored to be the person to help my students tell their own stories and connect to the stories they read.  As a coach, I aim to support my students in co-authoring stories in improv scenes.

Which role do you tend to play?  Are you often the leader, the one whose voice is heard most often?  Do you always think you're the protagonist in the story?  Or do you usually defer to those around you as a supporting side character?  When you have the chance to play improv games, to engage in scenework, to reflect on your role in the workplace or at home, consider who you tend to play.  And then try to play someone else.  There is value in all-of-the-above.

When I coached two different workshops at K-8 charter schools recently, we spent a substantial amount of time co-creating narratives--one in gibberish and one using word-at-a-time strategies.  Engaging in these activities illuminates opportunities for learning about ourselves and interpersonal relationships.  I found it interesting that some felt they were "in charge" of the story if they were speaking English rather than gibberish, while other dyads felt that the person speaking gibberish tended to drive the story with the emotional content they introduced.  In creating word-at-a-time partner stories, certain participants' stories ALWAYS contained similar content.

I do not mention these examples as criticisms of the play.  Rather, they are my observations of the power of individual tendencies to affect group interactions.  Yes--we are valuable as individuals.  And yes--we create pretty amazing things as members of groups.

Check out this cool article from an NPR story highlighting a recent study on group intelligence from Carnegie Mellon University:

- I am a Tree
I believe I described this game in a recent blog post, so I'll be brief here.  The basic idea is that there are three people in the center of the circle (or on "stage") at a time.  The first person says and shows, "I am a _____," the next person says and shows, "I am a ______ (related to the first thing)," and the third person says and shows, "I am a ____(related to the first TWO things--joining them together.)  The first person then says, "I'll take the (chooses person #2 or person #3)", and returns with that person to the circle.  We start the next group of three with who is left in the middle.

For example,
Person 1: I am a tree.
Person 2: I am a squirrel.
Person 3: I am an acorn on the tree that the squirrel's eating.
Person 1: I'll take the squirrel.

Person 3: I am an acorn.
Person 4: I am a sunflower seed.
Person 5: I am possibility!
        And so on...

- Orlando Monologues
I just learned this from a fellow player in a class I'm taking at BATS Improv: "Performing the Harold."  My description is probably different from how other folks do it, but that's what's it's all about, right?

Ask for a personal object from the group/audience.  Three people then take on characters' perspectives and perform monologues inspired by the object.  As in I am a Tree, the third player's story will likely connect the other two, creating one collaborative narrative.

Example: The first character reflects on his love for the woman who wore this shoe.  The second is the perspective of the shoemaker.  The third shows the experience of the woman who owned the shoe.

Whether in gibberish, saying a word at a time, or adding-on, co-authoring stories offers opportunities for synergistic group moments.  As we connect with each other and share the stage, we can grow as a community of professionals...as a community of learners.