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!"
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!