Walk-and-Stop: Building Community Through Groupmind

What is your tendency, your role, in group situations?  Do you always lead?  Is it you who makes the calls for the group, who decides when to move on and what your goals will be?  Do you tend to pull back and rely on others to lead?  Are you uncertain about whether your ideas are right, whether others will listen to you?  Do you just like to go with the flow?

These are the questions I ask my students, my fellow players, and myself as I play a wide variety of improv games.  Analyzing these tendencies--and, more importantly, the impact of these choices on an individual's self concept and the group's efficacy, is the foundation for building trust and a sense of community.  Through experiencing and evaluating these dynamics in a low-stress setting of a game, we can collectively determine opportunities for affecting change.  And that, my friends, is the stuff social justice is made of.

During the past two days, I've facilitated two classroom workshops focused on groupmind and building class community--one with my class 26 of seventh- and eighth-graders, and one with my colleague's ten first-graders.  Many of the interactions and challenges were strikingly similar: certain students' tendency to take control, others' seemingly familiar off-task/distracting behaviors.  These are the realities we face in the classroom.  Heck, these are the realities we face with colleagues in the workplace, with family members at home!  Figuring out ways to analyze and navigate the tricky terrain of group dynamics is something we can apply to our lives in a wide variety of contexts...and this process is a gift we can offer our students.

In my 45-minute workshops, I employed a number of games.  I've described some of them before, and I'll offer explanations of others in the future.  Here are the lists of the flows I used yesterday and today...in case you're wondering.
7th/8th-Grades: Ball --> Pass the Pulse (only clapping) --> Knife & Fork --> 5-Second Scene Picture / Follow-up game: Walk-and-Stop

1st Grade: Pass the Pulse (clapping and then with name) --> Walk-and-Stop --> Cosai --> 5-Second Scene Picture

Although I could delve into numerous observations and reflections about each of these games (and their related processing sessions with the players), I'll focus my reflections on one game for now...

Our group of first-graders did an amazing job with learning "neutral position", and their initial wiggles evolved into moments of true, amazing focus.  However, I could feel that I was losing them at the end of two rounds of "Pass the Pulse".  I needed to get those kids out of the circle--and mixing around in an organic, unplanned fashion. 
We had two students in the group who were used to exercising control over their classmates--one overtly (We'll call her The Director), and one covertly (We'll call him The Guide).  As I began my session with this group, The Director tried to talk over me; she was trying to "help" by telling everyone else in the group exactly where they should be and how they should be acting.  Although this sort of behavior can be extremely frustrating for a teacher, I personally have a tremendous amount of empathy for The Director.  (Yes, she's a charming little reflection of myself as a six-year-old.  I've been working on these issues my whole life.  I'm still a work in progress!)  The Guide did not necessarily ask for his role as the leader; everyone just looked to him to make decisions for them.  He is a confident and articulate student, and others seem to rely on him to make things happen.  These two leadership styles offer many gifts to the class environment.  Yet, they hold can also others back from making their own decisions, from finding their own place as a leader within the group.

In my class of older students, we have similar dynamics.  Our Directors can be less obvious (and possibly more helpful) in their attempts to guide the group.  Our Directors and Guides tend to start most of the class discussions, and they fill the void of silence when analysis is required, when connections need to be made.  They are often the voice of the student body--in class and in the school community as a whole.  I appreciate what they offer and the risks they take in speaking up.  However, I strive for a more equitable classroom environment; I'd like to hear a broader range of voices and perspectives.

With this simple, 5-minute game, we experienced an evolution of group dynamics and decision-making.  The task is straightforward: Everyone walks in a given (fairly confined, but not too restrictive) space at the same time and at the same pace, and everyone stops at the same time.  And so on.  I asked that this be completed silently, that no one lead or direct, that we each pay very close attention to the movement and will of the group.  The goal of this activity is to act AS ONE.  This is not the place for a title character or a star-studded event.  This is a time for us to all "Make Our Partners Look Good", to act as an ensemble.  What's more, I asked players to be reflective about their tendencies and to challenge themselves to make different choices: If they tend to lead, try to follow.  If they don't always take initiative, try to take the first step.

As we began, in both groups, students looked to me to make the first move--to begin and to stop.  I assumed this role at first, but then I wouldn't lead and it was essential for a student player to step up.  Probably as expected, the common leaders (those who are first to speak in most activities) took the first steps and stopped the group.  However, as the game progressed, this undoubtedly changed.  New players assumed the leadership role, and the group began to make decisions as a whole rather than relying on one person to take the first step.  We discovered these tendencies together in our post-game processing discussion, one in which a wider variety of students participated than in our conversation about a shared book earlier this morning.

As we ended our session, we discussed the applicability of this game to an improv scene, to the classroom, and to life.  Rena explained that sometimes you have a certain plan, but the group decides something different so you just have to go with it and make it work.  Brad related the dynamics to playing a team sport.  I'm eager to return to this game in the coming weeks, to explicitly link it to issues of social justice, and to play and think with these communities of learners.

Family Connections

I just received one of the most heart-warming messages;  I have to share it!
My friend and colleague, Kerry Santia, teaches K/1 at my school.  I've also had the pleasure of teaching her two wonderful children.  Here's a message she sent me today:

Hey Carrie,

Hope you're enjoying your holiday.  We had one of the best Thanksgiving Days yesterday and it was partly because my kids taught us some of the improv games you've done with them.  We were are hanging around after the meal and the under 8 cousins were entertaining us with songs and skits when Dino decided to teach us "I'm a Tree."  We played it for a while and then Bella taught us "Big Booty"  - which we played around the bon fire for about 30 minutes.  

First of all, I loved the way my kids took the initiative (no coaching from me - honestly) to teach our group of 20+ between the ages of 5-70, and I've never seen my family laugh together as much before.  There was a lot of belly rolling laughter and just good clean fun under the stars around the bon fire.  A night we will remember.  Thanks for inspiring my kids to spread the improv love.


Find Your Characters

In asking players to portray characters--in scenes and in games--we are asking them to move outside of themselves... to empathize, to understand, to play.  My three-year-old daughter does this multiple times each day: First, I am informed that I am actually the baby and she is the mama.  Next, she is the big sister to her "babies" (an odd assortment of dolls and stuffies).  Then, she is a baby giraffe.  It goes on and on.

What happens to this imagination?

For many of us, and for many of our students, it takes real work to step outside of the character we play every day to find a new character to play for a moment.  What acting offers us is a chance to see the world from new perspectives, to interact in different ways and experience different relationships, to explore objectives and desires, to experiment with how to be.

This is no easy task.  I'm often heard side-coaching, "Play a character that is not yourself.  Show us someone we haven't seen before.  Be obvious; say what comes next as this character."  However, finding new characters takes some direct, intentional coaching.

I like to start by using metaphor as a method for developing character.  I learned most of the following activities at BATS Improv, with John Remak and Lisa Rowland.
You can guide the class through the following explorations in the classroom or in a larger space (preferably indoors):
- Find your center.  Not a different character--you.  It might be in the center of your belly, in your chest, in your knees.  Feel where your energy is centered as you walk around the room.  Don't interact with others as we do this...yet.
- Now, stop.  Clear that character--the character of you.  Now, imagine the new character you are going to play has their "center" in the tip of their nose.  Walk around the room as this character.  What does your facial expression look like?  What do you like most in this world.  How do you feel about strangers?  What are you feeling right now?
- Repeat this with other body part centers--knees, bottom of feet, top of head, belly, chin...whatever strikes you.
- Spend some time debriefing how it felt to be each of these characters.  You can talk about story ideas, relationships, characters' goals and motivations...the list goes on and on.

- Guide them through similar explorations of character using various colors or musical instruments.  At some point, ask the players to interact with each other in brief scenes--in pairs, small groups, and large groups (party scenes).  If you have a large class, have half of the class act as an audience and then switch it up.

I've been doing some of this work with my cast of 54 6th-8th graders as we prepare for tomorrow's play.  Mostly, I've been guiding large groups of student actors through some silent, thoughtful work on how to represent their character.  I ask them to close their eyes and imagine how their character would feel in various situations.  I ask them to imagine what it is their character wants most.  I ask them to show a body position that represents their character's personality.  This can be considered their "neutral" position, so that they can be in character even when they're just standing on stage.  I also have them show us a facial expression that shows who their character is.  In practicing this in rehearsal, they have something to fall back on when on stage.

In the classroom, we can do similar explorations in improv workshops.  However, we can also explore characters from literature, from historical events, who are/were scientists, as preparation for creative writing--the possibilities are endless.  For, aren't we all just characters?  And how powerful it is to experience interactions in someone else's shoes.

Sensory Explorations: Enriching Scenework, Building Narrative

I recently started a performance group with a small group of committed, talented improvisers in San Francisco.  We don't yet have a name, and we have the luxury of exploring advanced and foundational improv together in a safe, challenging setting.  During our first rehearsal, we took a substantial amount of time with "beginning" exercises...and we found that the quality of our narratives, connections, and characters benefited tremendously from these shared experiences.

I'd like to share them with you here, as I have no doubt that activities focused around the senses offer opportunities for deeper learning in a variety of curricular areas.  These exercises were pulled and adapted from Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater, an essential title for anyone studying or teaching improv.

What do the sounds in an environment tell us about that setting?  How do they support the development of character?  Can auditory input drive the narrative?  We explored these questions together after sharing the following experience:
Decide on one location in which the group can imagine a shared experience.  For our group, we chose "hospital room".  You could choose to "be" at a baseball game, in a grocery store, in a classroom...you get the idea.
Then, just sit together, making an effort to block out unhelpful background noises.  Close your eyes and "hear" the shared space.  Share out what you "heard" after a few minutes.  
We noticed so many surprising details from this activity.  Individuals in our group experienced entirely different emotional responses--the evidence of which was clear in our facial expressions.  Two of us began to envision distinct characters for ourselves, while others imagined looking down on a scene and beginning to see the problem (or "tilt") emerge in the narrative.

I could see using this activity to explore the setting of shared literature, to develop characters, as a pre-writing activity, or to connect with a historical setting.  How might you apply Shared Sounds?

Creating realistic scenes with convincing space objects is challenging.   We began this exercise by passing around common objects with our eyes closed; we really noticed how each object felt in our hands--its texture, its temperature, how to manipulate it, etc.  Rather than something mundane like a pencil, we opted for things such as an umbrella, a doll, and a power strip.
It's extremely helpful to hold an actual object right before developing a scene in which that object appears.  For example, I don't think I had really noticed that I always hold onto the metal rod of an umbrella with my other hand.  I used that little gem in the scene that followed.

We then created two types of scenes: those in which the object appeared but was not central, and those in which the object was the main focus of the story.  Each offered new opportunities.  Some of us preferred the subtle integration of the object, and others preferred the overt focus on the object.  How would this look in a classroom?  I'll report back!

When thinking about space-object work, I like to remember what Regina Saisi and Lisa Rowland of BATS Improv have told me time and time again: "We're creating magic up here on this stage.  In a moment, we create an entirely new reality out of open space."  These realistic settings and "props" support the setting, which supports the narrative, which allows us to connect and feel with the happenings on the stage.  It IS the point.

Time to Come Together

"Classroom Community"
It's one of those terms that we throw around every once in a while...assuming we have it and all is well.  So often, we're feeling busy and pulled in a multitude of directions with teaching.
Class play - district meeting - parent conference - shared literature - writing project - book fair - science test - and on and on and on...
Yes, all of those things are incredibly important.  However, without class meetings, without meaningful connections and conversation, it's all in vain.  Because I have not dedicated my life to teaching curriculum.  I have dedicated myself to these children--to supporting them in becoming giving, pro-social, whole people.  And that must be my top priority.

It had been a while since we'd had a class meeting.  This afternoon, I asked my students to write down issues that they feel we need to address as a class community.  Their anonymous responses broke my heart.  Their concerns about cliques, about bullying, about "popularity" and hurtful behavior instantly brought me back to my days as an insecure, fragile seventh-grader.  Hey--they brought me back to my insecure afternoon last week!

We all spend time feeling hurt and disregarded, powerless and frustrated.  However, in an improv rehearsal--and in a classroom--we have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves.  We can examine the power dynamics that exist, and we can shake it up.  We can find connections we didn't know existed, and we can develop new ones.  We can be better people.

And...how do we do this?  To start, we have class meetings and TALK about what's going on.  We make sure that each person's voice and perspective is heard and valued.
And we play.

I believe it's not enough to just talk ABOUT making new connections and redefining roles.  We need to mix up the social soup by randomly assigning partners and groups.  We need to share our stories and play silly games to help us laugh together.  We need to really listen to one another, accept those offers, and co-construct scenes.

I'm developing a sort-of game plan right now.  We're about 1/3 of the way through the year, in the middle of a major play with another class of 6th-8th-graders, and we've got the holidays breathing down our necks here.  We're coming off of the Halloween and World Series highs--and I've got more seventh-grade break-ups going on than one could imagine.  We all need a collective deep breath.

Whenever I can fit it in, we'll be playing games together.  From "poison peepers", to "category die", to "cosai", I'll bring in some of my class's favorite games.  I'll MAKE time to debrief and process these games with the kids--because that is where the power of improv lies.

As soon as we get back from Thanksgiving and can build in the concentrated time for workshops.
In our workshops, we'll focus on "Yes, and..." as well as "Make Your Partner Look Good".  We'll do some gibberish scenes, and explore how communication works.  We'll begin to really examine relationships between characters, and we'll start to delve into the scary and important world of "status".  We'll spend time getting to know each other and our stories (including playing more Portkey: http://www.improv-education.com/2010/09/improv-game-as-class-meeting.html), and we'll try to develop groupmind ("Counting to 10").  We'll focus on eye contact and mirroring--and shake our booties with some Diamond Dancing.

We have our work cut out for us this year.  It promises to be a great ride!

Professional Book Club (and an introduction to status)

Want to do something revolutionary?  Try taking charge of your own professional development.
Get a group of teachers (and others who are interested) together, choose a focus and a book or two, set a date and BEGIN.  There is no way it will work out perfectly; the time won't work for everyone and the reading won't happen for all the folks who do show up.  So what.  Spend some time with your colleagues (preferably off-site), talk about ideas and strategies, and make some connections with those you see in the staff room every day.

What did we do?  We chose two books, related to the arts in education: Literacies, the Arts & Multimodality, a collection of papers, essays and articles edited by Peggy Albers and Jennifer Sanders; and Impro, the seminal work on improvisational theatre by Keith Johnstone.  We meet monthly, and we look for connections between the two books, and of course between their theories and our practice. Over the next two months, I'll be reflecting on both of these books.  However, I'd like to give the first word to someone who teaches with me at Mary Collins School in Petaluma--Gena Richman.

In our last discussion, we spent quite a while pondering status.  This is one of the most compelling areas of improv (and life!) for me, and I find it is an excellent way to analyze characters/social relationships and motivate social change.  I was wondering about the moral responsibilities of a teacher who may or may not choose to discuss status with students of various ages.  I asked, "At what age can we begin to discuss such a loaded topic?"  Here are her reflections and notes about her experiments in class after our last book club conversation:

"...I have to say though, my mind is still on the book chat (Impro, by Keith Johnstone) on status. In my class of 7-9 year olds, I used a Viola Spolin game, "Echo" to try out the notion of "a little above, a little below". The game is played with two rows. First person in row 1 says a word or phrase that row 2 repeats in descending volume (like an echo, child by child and then switch roles. They adapted to it quite well. I feel confident they (intuitively?) know gradations of sound. Now...how might I transfer that concept to action/conversation/verbal/non-verbal in terms of status?" 

When can one begin to tackle "status"?  Is it always beneficial, or can it be damaging?  When must we address "status"?