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...

Walk-and-Stop
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.

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