Thinking Ish-ly

Last night, I emerged from my daughter's bedroom...feeling the weight of her head on my arm, hearing her slowing breath, thinking about what really matters.  Thank you, Peter H. Reynolds, for your beautiful picture book which helped me refocus my energy and attention on what really matters.  Through seeing a "flower" as "flower-ish", through allowing mistakes to become offers, we not only learn to take care of ourselves, but we find ourselves capable of embracing innovation and vision.

Here is an excerpt from Reynolds' wonderful book:
Ramon felt light and energized.
Thinking ish-ly allowed 
his ideas to flow freely.

He began to draw what he felt--
loose lines.
Quickly springing out.
Without worry

As I read those lines aloud to Luna at bedtime, I made a noticeable p a u s e.

We adults need to remember to live...ish-ly.  Sometimes, our flowers don't look like the flowers in the vases in front of us.  Our flowers are not wrong.  Our mistakes are our gifts.  If we can open our eyes to the possibilities facing us, to those opportunities we hadn't yet considered, we can become the visionaries our students deserve.

We must also remember that Ramon was not able to see the gifts in front of him without support.  He needed a guide (in the book, it is his younger sister...his fan) to help him see his work in a new light.  My hope is that this is who I can be for my students.  I know that, on our best of days, this is what they are to me.

Stretching Into Character

While working with any group, taking the time for a physical warm-up is awfully helpful.  When working with a group of six-year-olds, I'd argue that it's absolutely essential.  As we dance our way through a unit on wizards and all things magic and fantasy, I thought it a perfect time to delve into the wonderful world of fantasy characters and storytelling. However, first...we MOVE.

The Wizard Stretch
I brought the group into a circle for some stretching and visualization.  The benefits of this warm-up were offered on multiple levels:  First, I was able to focus my group on the activity at hand and me as the instructor.  Second, all of the players (including the coach!) got a lovely, necessary stretch break from our day.  Third, I began supporting the kiddos through seeing themselves as characters...and not just playing themselves.  At least as important as the physical and focus goals, we began to jump into fantasy as a play space.

Our Wizard Stretch involved the following:
  • Reach up, up, up to grab some stars.  Squeeze them between your hands and let the star dust rain down on the land below.
  • Reach up to the top of your head to feel your pointy wizard hat.  Notice that you are currently an apprentice wizard and that your hat is very tiny.
  • Reach down near your toes to pick up two rocks on the ground.  Bring your closed fists behind your back and sqeeeeezzzzeee until you've crushed them to magically make some jewels.  
  • Open your treasure chest and place the jewels inside.  
  • Feel your wizard hat.  It's gotten a bit taller.
  • Reach forward to stir the potion you've been brewing on the hearth.
  • ...and so on.
Become a Fantasy Character
I then asked the players to close their eyes and be ready to become a new character...someone who is not them and who is not anyone they know.  With their eyes still closed, I asked them to imagine themselves as trolls.
  • Imagine what your face looks like.
  • Imagine (...but don't say aloud!) what you like to eat. 
  • What do you like to do at night, Troll?
  • ...and so on.
When they opened their eyes, I asked them to all look at me with their most troll-like facial expression.  I asked them to (without opening their mouths), walk around the classroom like a troll.  Finally, I asked to hear their troll sounds.  Eep--they were terrifying.  After they returned to their spots, I asked these first-grade trolls a variety of questions, including their favorite snacks, hobbies, and vacation spots.

Then came the fairies.
Of course, now that they were character experts, we had to apply the same process to a new type of character.

As we began the next step, I was reminded of one type of character distinction: heavy vs. light.  When I develop improvised characters, I often ask myself, Where is the center for this character?  How heavy or light is she?  Does she flow or stomp?  (There is a wonderful resource for looking at character physicality based on four different dimensions.  Check out BioMotionsLab to see the interactive tool!)

Character Switch
As a last, semi-performance activity, I set up a line.  One end of the line was the Troll spot, and one was the Fairy End.  I paired up students who wanted to perform, and I told them who would be the troll and who would begin as the fairy.  While the rest of us watched, Emily began to stomp down the line as a scary, heavy, mean troll.  At the same time, Delilah pranced toward her as a light, winged fairy.  When they encountered each other in the middle of the line, they walked around each other as if engaging in a duel.  Delilah took on Emily's troll-like characteristics, and Emily pranced to her new fairy home.

In 25 minutes, a group of six-year-olds and I got to play in the world of fantasy.  I can't wait to begin to tell developed stories next!

(Thanks to Rich Cox of ImprovImpact for the link to BioMotionLabs.  He presented this resource at the Applied Improv Network meeting in San Francisco last December.)

Character Interview: A powerful, fun tool for all

The Setting: An Imagined Classroom Frieze
The other day, I introduced improvised puppet shows to my K/1 class as a part of our Ideal Classroom Storyline experience.  This was challenging for young children on a number of levels:
  • They were playing in an imaginary, yet defined and structured, setting.
  • They had an audience (in this case, a small group).
  • They were playing a character that was neither them nor a character borrowed from a published source.
  • It was an imaginary, fictional situation, yet it was in a realistic context: set in a classroom, human character, etc.
For those readers with experience teaching primary grades, I imagine you're thinking, "Are you KIDDING, Carrie?  You're doing this with 5- and 6-year-olds at the beginning of the school year?"  Yep.
As the exploratory puppet shows progressed, I side-coached, nudged and asked some questions.  Throughout the six mini-shows, you may have heard me saying the following:
  • Try to keep your show in one area of the [pretend/frieze] classroom.
  • You've been eating snack for a while now.  Let something happen.
  • Did you notice that John (the character) ignored you, Hive (also a character)?  What are you going to do about that? 
A number of issues emerged organically as a part of these first attempts at character interactions in our Storyline.  Of course, many of these issues are present in our daily classroom experiences as well.  They range from students running around the classroom, to someone eating all of the community snack, to kids hitting each other in the classroom, to a new friend being quiet and letting someone else do all of the talking.  When I felt the scenes begin to stagnate, I often asked for the scene to pause so that we could interview a character.

As I heard my voice become too prominent in these discussions, I realized that I had reminded myself about a powerful, flexible tool: The Character Interview.  Once I started asking the children playing characters questions AS THEIR CHARACTERS, I remembered to back off and hand the tool over to my students.  They asked some amazing questions of the character puppets, including:
  • Why did you hit that kid?
  • How did you feel when that happened to you?
  • Why are you running around the classroom?
  • What should you do instead of eating everyone's snack?
Whether you're integrating improvisational theater into a content area, developing characters to play with over time, or connecting to characters in literature, The Character Interview is a tool that is perfect for K-12 students to use on multiple levels.  It instantly involves the audience members as thinkers and contributors, and it pushes the players to sink into becoming the character--empathizing, explaining, and justifying their actions.  

Story Spine: my scaffold, our first experience

This week, I introduced storytelling to my K/1 class using a modified Story Spine.  Kenn Adams explains the Story Spine in his wonderful book, How to Improvise a Full Length Play.  While I LOVE this structure because of its inherent causal relationships...and while I use it ALL the time and find great value in its numerous applications...I have created a different structure for introducing storytelling to primary students. 

Carrie's Modified Introductory Story Spine
Once upon a time...
S/he liked...
But s/he was afraid of...
One day...
And then...
And then...
Later on...
By the end of______...

Every time I've included *** I assume the storytellers will elaborate with as much detail as is necessary for the story.  I like specifying that the main character has likes and fears with this structure.  As I guide little ones through telling stories (and as I often guide older players), I remind them to keep the main character central to the story.  I also guide the storytellers to incorporate the likes and fears throughout the story.  It's a delicate dance, my friends.

Our in-class storytelling involved much drama, fantasy and peril.  It also elicited emotional responses from my students.  It's hard for ANY storyteller to give up her or his OWN story for the story of the group.  Beginning improvisers have a tough time with this, as well.  Add in a healthy dash of early-childhood egocentric nature into the mix, and voila: you have a potential crisis on your hands.  Luckily, we have a super-hero strategy to the rescue: THE PAIR-SHARE.

Me: Show me, using your thumbs, how well you liked telling that story together.
Lots of thumbs up, a few to the side, a few emphatically shoved DOWN. 
Me: Oh,'s hard to let your ideas go, huh?
Head nods.
Me: Did some of you have OTHER ideas for the ending of that story?
Every hand shoots up.
Me: Great.  Every story has many, many possibilities.  Tell your partner what your idea was.
Lots of excited talking and listening.
Me: It turns out that there are an infinite number of possible stories to tell.  And so many ways to tell those stories.  There is no wrong way to tell it, huh?  Now that we're transitioning into Activity Time, I wonder if some of you will want to tell that story--or a different story--with a friend or two or three.  Hmm...maybe some of you will want to act it out.

And then the princesses took over the center of the classroom.  With a few Loch Ness monsters mixed in for good measure.

Improv and Project-Based Learning: The Background

I love using games to build concepts and an understanding of the principles of improv in the classroom.  The applications are vast and impressive...and my experience has only scratched the surface of their possibilities.  Whether used as stand-alone activities or as a part of a workshop, I will always integrate improv games into my teaching.

However, I've been eager to explore a different approach to the use of improvisational theater in the classroom as well: project-based learning through a collaboratively-created context.  In her seminal book on improv, Improvisation for the Theater, Viola Spolin recommends using actual props, costumes and a specific stage space for young children.  Although many 5-8 year-olds naturally play using space object (mime) props,  costumes, and settings, the abstract nature of these representations is difficult for some in any situation; they are challenging for many when presented in a structured classroom activity.

Jeff Cresswell's book, Creating Worlds, Constructing Meaning: The Scottish Storyline Method, describes both the philosophy and methodology of this PBL approach to learning.  He provides detailed descriptions of Storyline units, including his reflections about the process and the students' broad and deep learning.  My team of K/1 colleagues is currently embarking upon a Storyline of "an ideal classroom / ideal school" in which each of our five classes discusses and then creates a frieze of our dream classroom, and then our students develop characters to interact within this space.  I'll be discussing our experiences with this process on this blog in the coming weeks.

Lastly, my work with Storyline is guided by Dorothy Heathcote and her Mantle of the Expert approach to education.  For the next week, I'll be posting quotations and my thoughts related to Heathcote and Bolton's Drama for Learning.  Here is Gavin Bolton's summary of Heathcote's principles upon which her work is based:
"- If you are in teacher education, you must continue to work directly with that you are constantly practicing what you are asking others to do and evolving theoretical principles from that practice.
- Drama is about making significant meaning.
- Drama operates best when a whole class together shares that meaning making.
- The teacher's responsibility is to empower and the most useful way of doing this is for the teacher to play a facilitating role (i.e., the teacher operates from within the dramatic art, not outside it).  The regular teacher/student relationship is laid aside for that of colleague/artist."

These principles are being played out in my classroom in a number of ways.  This morning, my students began developing their characters for our Dream Classroom Storyline.  For some of them, the concept of creating a character who was not borrowed from a movie or book--and who was not directly modeled after a fellow classmate--was a brand-new task, something they had previously never considered doing.  They each began by choosing a skin color for their character, followed by painting a person stencil on card stock.  (They did this to represent themselves at the beginning of the year, as well.)  Next week, they'll finish designing this person and add a craft stick onto the back to make it into a puppet to use in classroom dramatizations throughout our Storyline experience.  At another center, they completed a cloze paragraph describing this character...and what others should know about her/him.

These characters will develop and evolve as we move forward through this work.  I cannot wait to see how they influence my students' storytelling and problem-solving: in puppet shows, in oral storytelling, in writing, in visual art and design, in skits... The possibilities for our group of kindergarteners and first-graders are nothing short of magical.

The Process

We never do anything well till we cease to think about the manner of doing it.  
William Hazlitt, as quoted by Tim Orr

Tim began our 3-day intensive improv workshop with this quotation.  He explained that this workshop was not about "getting it right."  Rather, he explained, this was about the process, the work.  As I tackled the monumental task of showing intense action sequences in improvised theater with a group of performance-level improvisers, I began to shed some of my concerns about "getting it right."  I allowed myself permission to see the experience as an opportunity to experiment... to engage in scenework I had previously thought might be impossible for me as an actor on stage using only space-object props and locations.  This weekend's training was a game-changer for me as a performer; Tim's reminder about the process was grounding on a multitude of levels.

In the classroom, I hope and expect that I urge my students to embrace this philosophy.  The process of education should be seen as a journey rather than as a series of products.  My students should be honest with themselves about the challenges they face, and my work with them should guide them through genuine learning.  Rather than faking that they understand something, rather than punishing themselves for failure, I want my students to feel proud of their work through the struggle of learning.

And then there is the joy of learning: the delightful, unexpected moment; the laugh with one's peers; the mastery of something one has worked on and to which they have dedicated a sustained effort.  Improv brings this joy into the classroom.  As does reading.  And singing.  And playing with numbers.  And, and, and.  A classroom should be a place of work, of accomplishment, of challenge, of pleasure.

Thank you for the reminder, Tim.  Our learning is not about a collection of things.  Nor is it about what comes easily.  Learning (the art of improvisation, of reading, of ____), is about working through what is difficult until it becomes second nature.  As my students learn to write their letters or show a funny face in front of the whole class, I am struggling through the process of how to show a character riding on a horse-drawn carriage along a winding, mountainous another character jumps from the rope hanging off of a hot-air balloon basket.  We all tumble into the space-object ravine below the cliff edge, dangling over the precipice of what is both horribly difficult and delightfully worthwhile as performers.  Through this struggle, I experience the joy of learning.  And doing.

Tim Orr performs and teaches at BATS Improv in San Francisco; he performs in various other groups as well, including 3 For All. The course I referred to in this post was "Advanced Wheres/Action Intensive", a 3-day intensive offered for a private group in Marin County, CA.


As I settle into teaching in a primary classroom, I'm amazed to see the lessons these kiddos teach me every day.  Today, I'll be discussing one such lesson:  START already!

If you wait for the entire class to be ready to play the game, you may end up waiting all day.  Now, I don't mean to say that it's okay to let your class talk over you and disrespect you as a teacher.  If you're trying to get the words out of your mouth to actually describe how to play a game, but certain kids keep interrupting, they may not be ready to play at that moment.  However, you can also choose to reward focused behavior--showing the rest of the class that PLAYING is fun and worth it.  The others will likely join in as soon as they're ready.

Last week, I tried like the dickens to describe how to play some games to a small group of first-graders one afternoon--the day before a huge, exciting field trip.  However, at that very moment, it just wasn't going to happen.  Their focus and ability to listen was...not present.  It was a "run 'em around the track" sort of day.  I felt frustrated at the time, but have since been able to refer back to the moment in class: "The first-graders know that, in order to play a game, we have to be able to listen to the directions for the game."  It's nice to have that experience as an anchor.

Since then, I've been eager to squeeze in more stand-alone games...especially with my eleven first-graders in the afternoon.  Now, this is a wiley bunch of little ones.  Getting them to all be in one place, relatively still, and quiet is a challenge at any moment of the day.  At the end of their long day, it's darn near impossible.  SOOOOO, I tried a new strategy: Just start.

As some kids in the group were still doing their class jobs (sharpening pencils is awfully hard to stop doing, you know), or putting on shoes, or cuddling stuffed animals, those who were ready circled up with me in the middle of the room.  I invited the others to come and play as soon as they were ready.  Of course, as those kids saw the rest of us having fun together, they found a way to finish up their activities, join in, and figure out the rules by following others' examples.

Here are a couple of games I taught using this method.  Although I played these games at the end of the day with some amped-up, exhausted six-year-olds, I believe you could teach these activities in this fashion to any group of players.  Just start by explaining the rules to a few players, side-coaching and redirecting as necessary so that this core group really does understand the game and can model for the new players who join in.  "Just starting" allows you to coach rather than manage, to enjoy the act of playing and connecting rather than policing your players' every movement.

Pass the Face
Turn to the player next to you and show an exaggerated expression.  This person copies your facial expression, shows it to the group, and then adjusts that face to form a new (probably related) facial expression...and then turns to the next player in the circle.  And so on.  It's a quick, silly game which can illustrate focusing on your partner, basic mirroring elements, and Yes and.

Sound Ball
This game is (at first) easiest with younger players and more outgoing/experienced teen and adult players.  However, if you stick with it your group will open up and will begin to experiment with a wide variety of sounds.  First graders have no problem exploring a wide range of off-the-wall noises!
The first player throws a space-object ball to another player with an accompanying sound (and perhaps gesture).  The second player "catches" the ball and the sound, repeating the sound--closely mirroring the sound that was thrown.  The second player then sends a new sound to a third player.  And so on.

Not sure what to play?  How to begin.  Here's some advice: Just start.

Yes, And! The Principle in Action with Little Ones

Here I am--delighting in and figuring my way through the wild world of Kindergarten and First Grade.  I found it amusing...if not startling and somewhat unsettling...that my colleagues had been using the games I'd recently taught at our staff retreat while I still hadn't really delved into using improv in my K/1 classroom.  I suppose I needed to find my bearings, invent myself as a teacher with this age group, and develop some routines.  However, that realization was just the kick in the pants I needed to jump into some improv games with the little ones.  I'm happy to report on one "failure" and one tremendous success--both perfect examples of applying the Yes, And!  principle of improv to teaching.

I had been teaching K/1 for less than a week when Bradley showed up as an uneasy 7th-grade TA.  He was assigned to be my Teacher's Assistant as an elective, and he didn't seem all that sure about the placement.  On this day, I, of course, was still running around trying to figure out how to be this type of teacher, so I occasionally told him some things I needed done...and then he left.  Fast-forward three days: Bradley and I had begun figuring out how this little working relationship might function, the kids found out it was his birthday, and I asked him to join us in a game.  I decided to warm-up some basic skills for the game while some of the class was finishing up some work...and I encouraged them to join us when they had put their number journals in their cubbies.

Here's a quick summary of the game I had INTENDED to play with the class:
Two Circles
The group splits into two circles.  One player decides to begin and points to someone else in their circle, saying that person's name as they point to them.  And so on.  If someone hesitates, says the wrong name, or messes up in some other way, they run over to the other circle and say, "Hi, I'm (insert their name here).  It's a little public way to acknowledge that one has "failed", the failure is truly embraced, we all move forward and include each other in each circle.  Silliness abounds, and the game is more fun when mistakes are made and there is a lot of movement.
I've taught this game to educators at two Professional Development trainings in the last month, and those teachers have been playing it with their classes with great success.  One of my K/1 colleagues told me about how she and a classroom volunteer scaffolded her class in playing this game, and I was inspired to just go for it.

Here's what really happened in MY class:
For some reason, the kiddos thought saying the name "Bradley" was Hi. Lar. Ious.  Every time someone said his name, the entire group erupted in laughter.  Bradley, often stoic and expressionless with little kids, began to crack a smile, too...and then we all just kept laughing.  I have no idea why it was funny; it just was.  So...if a little bit of something is good, a lot is that much better, right?  Well, if you're six years old, that is darn true.  My class ended up turning my one-circle warm-up to Two Circles into The Bradley Game.  In this game, you point to Bradley, say his name, everyone laughs hysterically, Bradley points to someone and says their name, and they then point to Bradley.  And on and on.

There was a part of me that wanted to stop and redirect the game.  I had a PLAN, darn it.  Didn't they know that?  And then the improviser part of my teacher brain kicked in.  Hold it, control freak!  (That was the voice of the Improviser to my Type-A self.)  Are your goals being met? (Practice names, build community, take some risks, speak out, enjoy the school environment.) Yes.  Yes, and.  The kids just invented a game.  Cool.  Given, I'm not going to be teaching The Bradley Game at my next dinner party, but to a group of six-year-olds at that very moment, it was just perfect.

A few days later, I taught the class the perennial favorite, "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt".  We sang our little hearts out during morning circle, and I showed them the international sign for increasing and decreasing volume: the raising and lowering of one's hand.  It was an official and sanctimonious moment--I even thought about drinking a cup of tea to mark the occasion.  But I digress.

That afternoon, we played the game, "Laaaaaaa."  This is a game which builds the ensemble environment through a group mind / group voice task.  The class finds one note and sings a continuous Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.  Individuals take breaths when needed and then just join back in.  After a moment, teach a visual hand cue for "stop / silent", and then practice ending at the exact same moment.  When the group has mastered starting, sustaining and stopping, add in a volume adjustment hand signal.  Luckily, we had already introduced this signal earlier the same day with our singing during circle time.  (You can later introduce signals for adjusting pitch or rhythm or...)

Sometimes, it just feels like magic.  When the game works as planned, when everyone is contributing to a cohesive whole, when all voices are heard, when we are all trying and delighting in our success...when a perfect little improv game takes a total of five minutes of teaching time and can act as closure for the entire day.  Magic.

Taking the Plunge

If we are doing our jobs, our students are taking risks every day.  If we are doing our jobs well, our students are feeling supported and encouraged to move beyond their comfort zones--understanding that being open to the possibility of failure, innovation, and learning is preferable to a life of closed off "safety".  The question I'm asking today is, How are you embracing risk-taking as an educational professional?  We may ask our students to push and trust themselves, but I argue that it is just as essential for us to do that as teachers.

As I facilitated a workshop at the NCTE Whole Language Umbrella "Literacies for All" summer institute last weekend (Teachers, Students, and Families Together: Nurturing Literate Communities), my colleague* and I asked the participants to move beyond their expectations, beyond their comfort zones, for three hours with a group of folks they really did not know.  When one attends a conference, one expects to spend a lot of time sitting, absorbing, note-taking...hopefully discussing and forming new connections as well.  One does not, however, generally expect to be asked to learn how to hold a space-object drink, yell out math problems, and declare "Woo hoo!" in front of a group of educators from around the country.  It is my firm belief that it makes little sense to simply talk about improv; we must participate in the playing of improvisational theatre games to understand their impact.  To know how to debrief and process improv activities, we must understand how the work (and play) affects us on a personal level--from the inside.  Thankfully, all of the session's participants were up for the journey.  We left the workshop feeling connected; each of us had something new to take away.  And, hey, we knew everyone else's name!

Last week, I took the plunge in an entirely new way.  Joining the club of countless colleagues who are up for risk and adventure, I switched grade levels: moving from my 7/8 classroom to the land of K/1. As I now prepare for Back to School Night, work out options for centers, and download tons of children's music, I am full of that familiar mix of excitement and fear, of enthusiasm and anxiety.  This is a good sign.  Just as I feel that tightening of my stomach backstage right before a show, I experience a daily moment (or two or seventeen) of uncertainty...and this is a healthy place to be professionally.  Keep me away from the comfort of complacency; bring on the challenge of something new.

Whether you are taking a risk by jumping into a new grade level, attending a conference, trying out a new lesson, or leading a club, it may feel awkward as you begin.  However, as we keep ourselves steeped in the vitality of change and the evolution of ourselves as professionals, I'm here to say that this feeling of awkwardness is absolutely worth it.  When faced with an opportunity...say yes.

*Thank you, Sierra Bradley of Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, for your fabulous work as my co-presenter at NCTE's WLU conference.

Saying Yes, One In-depth Workshop, and Emotional Coaching

Last week, I was scheduled to co-facilitate a professional development intensive for teachers in San Francisco.  Due to factors beyond my control (burnt out + broke teachers + an educational environment that devalues genuine professional training = relatively low enrollment in this course), the course was cancelled.  I was disappointed, but I looked at this unexpected change in scheduling as both a personal and professional opportunity to take advantage of some bonus time. 

However, I was then thrilled to hear that a few of the participants wouldn't take no for an answer.  They contacted me and requested a small, local, one-day training customized to meet their needs.  Following my improviser's mantra, I said, simply, "Yes!"

When you can look at changes such as these as opportunities, riding the waves rather than fighting them and drowning in a sea of attempted control, you find yourself experiencing less stress and more delightfully surprising moments than a rigidly scheduled life will provide.  Last Monday, I did the following with this small group of committed, energetic teachers:
  • Introduced and reflected upon the Principles of Improv--discussing how they impact the participants personally and as teachers
  • Played a bunch of community/ensemble-building games
  • Worked within some structures for building narratives
  • Applied some of these strategies to ensemble-building and personal direction reflection
  • Experimented with emotional ranges and shifts in games and scenes
  • Played and laughed hysterically with some performance games.
  • Coached on how to coach and integrate improv into the classroom--classroom management, behavioral expectations, feedback and debriefing
So...what would you like to hear more about in a future blog post?  Comment or email me, and I'd be happy to write about what's most helpful and relevant to my readers.

Speaking of requests, one of my readers recently asked me to provide some details on "Emotional Coaching".  I referenced this game in a recent post about character work, and we used this same strategy in the workshop I offered for teachers last week. Although I think he gave it a different name, I first learned and practiced this exercise with Rafe Chase at BATS Improv in San Francisco.  Similar games are described in a variety of improv books, including Unscripted Learning by Lobhman and Lundquist.  It's a useful exercise for deepening and grounding your acting in reality and emotions, and it can be used as a performance game--in the classroom and on the professional stage. 

The logistics of Emotional Coaching are as follows:
- Brainstorm a wide variety of emotions with your group.  Alternatively, you can come to class with a written list of emotions that you've created.  However, I think the brainstorming process is engaging and primes the group for thinking about a range of emotions.  It also prompts an interesting discussion of, "What is an emotion?"  For example, I was once in a group that used "sleepy" and "gassy" as emotions.  But, I digress...
- There are a multitude of emotion warm-up games you can play next.  If you have time, I recommend playing with facial expressions, posturing, intonation, and non-verbal interactions.  You can also incorporate levels of emotions into various warm-ups.
- Emotional Coaching Activity One: Pair up all of the players and have each duo decide who is A and who is B.  Choose one to act and one to coach.  The actor will be having a conversation with a (fictitious?) friend or family member on the phone.  The coach will use the brainstormed list and any other emotions that come to mind to tell the actor how and when to switch emotions.  The coach will usually move to an obvious next step in emotional shifts, although occasional juxtapositions can be interesting. 
Side coaching for this game includes reminding the actors to really FEEL the emotions...showing them to the audience using voice, pausing and being silent, using emotional noises, etc.  You may also side coach to remind the players to be a character who is not actually.
In my case last week, all of the players played themselves in what sounded like real conversations they have with family members.  It deepened the level of playing and personal connections, so I went with it. 
Switch so that the actor is now the coach and vice-versa. 
- Emotional Coaching Activity Two: Have two players in a scene as the actors and two players act as their coaches.  For example, player C might coach for player A and player D might coach for player B.  Encourage the actors to start out without any problems, and have the coaches start switching the emotions after a minute of so.  The trouble will come; don't rush it.
What makes these scenes so rich is the give-and-take, the adjustments of status, the connections between the characters/players.  To enable this true emotionality to emerge in the playing, coach the players to have as much eye contact as possible throughout the scene. 

When debriefing this activity with students and teachers alike, the players tend to love this exercise.  They felt--and the audience watched--real emotions up on that stage.  Isn't it somewhat surprising that these genuine feelings emerged through a seemingly artificial scenario with someone yelling out "angry" and then "hurt" and then "loving" during a scene?  As a player, I've also felt that sense of freedom and delight during and after these scenes.  Perhaps it is because the planning part of our brain is free to rest during this game.  We have so much to which we have to pay attention, and we have no control over the emotional shift that is inevitably about to occur; we can simply focus on the moment at hand.  Perhaps it is also that our emotional coach takes us to places we wouldn't have ventured if left to our own devices.  This element of surprise is what keeps the scene alive, and it's what brings us somewhere new. 

Becoming Someone Else

Be yourself.  Find the true you.  Don't try to be someone you're not.  
These are the encouraging words I use to coach my students as they traverse the challenging waters of (pre-)adolescence.  Parents, friends, the media...they're often trying to get us to be a version of ourselves that fits their needs.  This is all a bunch of bologna, really.  Being true to oneself--in fact, finding and developing one's identity--is one of the main goals of the crossing the bridge between adolescence and adulthood.
So, how does all of this fit in with theater arts--improvised and/or scripted theater? 

Be someone who is NOT you.  Stay in character.  How would your CHARACTER be feeling right now?
As I side-coach through games and scenework, I find myself contradicting my own words of guidance.  How does this make sense?  Oh, yes, but it does...

A few weeks ago, my eighth-grade students chose how they would like to perform as a part of our showcase before their promotion ceremony.  Three students decided to perform as an improv troupe.  As I write this, I am struck by how impressive this choice--in and of itself--really is.  I've known adults who have practiced improv for years and are still intimidated by performance.  When I formed a new troupe, we rehearsed and built our group dynamic for six months before we performed.  These three had all of ten days to get to know each other in a totally different way, decide on performance games, work through warm-ups, build a knowledge base about characterization and scenework, and figure out their dynamic.  A tall order for anyone...and one these students took on without a second thought.  Incredible.  But, I digress.

Back to character stuff:
As with many, many new improvisers and new groups, The Three were struggling with common issues about halfway through their rehearsals--always playing similar characters, starting out (and then staying) negative in scenes, and not allowing their characters to change.  I stepped in to coach on a number of levels.  First, we played with characters using gibberish, accents and a wide variety of names.  Next, we played completely positive scenes--silently and then reintroducing spoken language.  As a part of this, we explored Johnstone's concept of "Platform" and "Tilt"*.  Finally, we came back to scenework through Emotional Coaching and Open-Ended Scenes.
[If any of my readers would like me to more fully describe any of those sessions, I'd be delighted to do so.  Just request it via the comments section of the blog or email me directly.  Ooh...digressions...back to character, Carrie!]

After a few Emotional Coaching scenes, Meg and Billy played in one of the most elegant, lovely scenes I've ever witnessed.  It started out positive, developed some natural conflict, and ended with a surprising twist: Billy's character said "I love you" to Meg's character.  And then Meg's character was genuinely affected.  There was eye contact and a real sense of relationship.  Their relationship changed in a meaningful...and eventually obvious...way.  It was beautiful improv.

The thing that is so incredible about all of this is that we are talking about two 13-year-old kids rehearsing an improv scene in front of a peer and a teacher.  None of the three students knew each other all that well.  They were just true to the artform, true to their characters, true to that version of themselves that was not really them.  For a moment, those two students--those two actors--moved beyond their own identities to embody characters who spoke through them and related to one another.  That is what theater can do. 

As we express the emotions and show the actions of someone who is not really us, I believe we come that much closer to finding our true selves.  We can allow different, temporary versions of ourselves to be changed.  And perhaps this character evolution will open a window into the shifts that may be possible in our own dynamic identities which are all too often smothered in a static sense of reality.  Or, heck, at least it's darn entertaining theater.

I believe Meg summed it up perfectly at the end of the day with our Core 7th/8th-grade class.  I asked the class what they thought was special about our school, what they treasured, and/or what they would miss as they were moving on to a new school.  When it was Meg's turn to speak, she told the class, "I feel like improv has given me the gift to take chances and do things that I wouldn't normally do.  Today, I was in a scene where my character told another character that she loved him.  It wasn't even that weird.  We were two different characters, we were real, and then it was over.  I love that I can be a different character, not be judged and then go back to being myself."

*Keith Johnstone introduces these concepts in Impro and then fully analyzes them in Impro for Storytellers

Curricular Integration: Essay Writing

Sometimes, I'm in the middle of a lesson and need to adapt my plan to meet the needs of my class on this particular day.  However, sometimes I find the need to adapt an existing activity--or create a new game to support the needs of my curricular or social objectives.  Hooray for improv!  This approach to teaching not only offers a plethora of options for activities to integrate into content areas, but it values risk-taking on the part of the educator as well.  As a professional, you can and should challenge yourself with the unknown.  Make something up.  Try it out.  This is being an improvisational teacher.

A while back, we were in the middle of writing response-to-literature essays.  I did not want to read a bunch of book reports or book reviews.  Rather, I wanted to nudge the class towards substantive analysis with clear support. What I received for Round One was a collection of pretty mediocre essays.  Improv to the rescue!

I couldn't remember an appropriate game to meet my needs.  So...I just made one up.  That's part of the beauty of teaching using improvisational theatre.  The whole process supports me in thinking outside the box to develop the right, game-based approach to meet my needs.  Trust me...this was not an elegant, engaging performance game.  My goals for this piece were simple: Provide a clear thesis statement and illustrate support that's relevant to the thesis.
Here's what I came up with on that morning a couple of months ago:
In groups of three, they all come up with a one-sentence thesis/opinion statement for the topic I've given them ( lunch at school or something).  They stand in a line and say their statement in unison.  Then each player says a statement of support beginning with the word "because".  While each support statement is being said, the rest of the group illustrates that statement with a tableau/frozen pose on different levels.  They end their "scene" (or mini-essay) by repeating the thesis statement in a line.
No, these were not amazing scenes.  Yes, they did get smoother and more interesting to watch the second time around.  And yes, we soon moved on to a new game which illustrated another key point...and was awfully fun to watch.  This is the beauty of the warm-up game--even if it's not all that interesting to watch, it's helpful and then over before you know it.

This is an absurd, super-fun game which I love to play, am delighted to watch up on stage, and is a fantastic way to experiment with being more concise.  Getting to the point is helpful in all writing, but it is essential when composing and revising a thesis statement for an essay.  The students start out with a scene, and then you can move on to applying this skill to their written work.

Here is how the game is played: Split the class into pairs and give them a scenario for a scene.  Tell them their scene will be timed--it has to fit into a two-minute time slot.  After the scenes are over, ask everyone to replay their scenes (simultaneously, as in the first round).  However, this time their scenes will be only one minute long.  Repeat this process, but cut the time in half again: to 30 seconds.  Then cut it to 15 seconds.  Finally, cut them to seven seconds.  They will be absolutely ridiculous at this point...and very fun to watch.

Debrief with the group to find out what they noticed.  Ask how it felt to cut it down.  Ask which scene they felt worked the best.  Then ask them to make the leap to essay/thesis statement writing.  My students felt that the 30-second scenes were the most concise without losing the essential meaning.  We then rewrote their original essay thesis statements, shooting for the "30-second versions".  With this common experience and vocabulary, my entire class was able to understand the value in reducing unnecessary verbiage while retaining the core meaning.  Their resulting writing was far more elegant and interesting to read.

Adaptation Midstream

Last week, as I began to launch our class's improv workshop, I had a clear understanding of the goals for the day's session: back-to-basics orientation, groupmind, and part-of-a-whole systems thinking.  I had prepared activities and thought through related warm-ups for the whole group and pairs to enable all students to access the goals of the day.  Many of these activities came from Viola Spolin's "Orientation" chapter in Improvisation and the Theater, and I had customized warm-ups to support the core ideas.

However, as an improvisational teacher, I'm always open to switching my plans midstream.  I'll come in with specific goals and more games than I'll ever need in a given workshop, but it's my job to notice when the group needs to go in another direction.  I'm still guiding the ship, but we're all paddling together...and we just may end up on an island I hadn't planned to visit.

This is exactly what happened.  We began with "Ball", but the game was so wildly successful as an opener (the group collectively counted to 58 right off the bat--we usually only get to 11 or 12 in the first round), that I felt the group was clearly communicating and working together already.  I did notice some different types of communication and decision-making happening, though...and I decided to explore these patterns with the group as we moved forward.  I think this new workshop flow all began with an idea I had about supporting the kids in using sound effects with Part-of-a-Whole/The Machine--a game in which each player is part of a whole machine.  However, as we progressed through the various games and activities, the content and style of their communication emerged as the core focus for this workshop.  Hello, new island!

Gibberish Ball
My class can be timid about looking "silly", so I wanted to wait before using sound effects or even playing Sound Ball.  Instead, I began with a round of Gibberish Ball.  I knew I wanted to play around with gibberish in scenes, so I thought it made sense to toss around some ideas for different styles of nonsense-speak.  Actually, gibberish isn't really "nonsense".  Without using traditional verbal speech, we communicate meaning through our intonation, body language, etc. using different styles of gibberish.  With this game, I intended to illustrate that gibberish could sound like various languages, could be a series of beeps and blips, could be guttural or could be anything. 
In this game (and in all "virtual ball" games), player one throws a sound (and perhaps a movement) to player 2 while all players are in a circle.  Player 2 then catches/repeats what player 1 sent and sends an entirely different gibberish sound/sentence to player 3.  And so on.  It should all move rather quickly.
Side coaching ideas:
"Think about what your character is feeling.  Say it again like you REALLY mean it.  Commit!"
"Eye contact helps.  Do it again with eye contact."

Gibberish Ball felt somewhat successful.  We brainstormed some different gibberish styles, laughed a bunch, and made eye contact.  At the same time, I felt like we had just lost some of the momentum the group had built with our initial Ball session.  To get the kids interacting more, I quickly split them into pairs for some brief partner scenes.

Partner Scenes
All of these scenes are happening simultaneously.  As such, these games are not intended for performance.  Rather, they allow all students to participate in a less stressful manner--taking risks, exploring characters, playing with how to communicate.  The kids each played in three scenes, and they had two different partners over the course of those three scenes.  Each time, I asked them to decide who was "A" and who was "B".  This allowed me to randomly assign who was to speak first, speak in gibberish, etc.  For all scenes, I asked partners to start positively--their characters like each other and are happy to see each other.

Both Speaking in Gibberish
Since we had just brainstormed different styles of gibberish, I asked partners to perform a scene entirely in gibberish.  Player A was to speak first, and their manner of gibberish speech would define the "language" the two would be speaking.  I gave them a specific context: their characters were siblings and there was a cat in the scene.  I told them the cat was not going to die in the scene.  (Middle schoolers love to kill pets in their improv scenes!)

One Speaking in Gibberish
The players then thanked their partners and turned around to meet their new partners, immediately choosing who would be A and B for the next scene.  I then told them that B would have the first line, and that the line would be in gibberish--preferably a different style of gibberish than their first scene.  Player A would interact and communicate in English, but it would be as if the two were speaking the same language (otherwise, the entire scene would be about trying to understand each other).  I also gave a context for this game.  I told them they were good friends out on the yard during lunchtime.

One Communicating in Emotional Noises
The players found an ending to their last scene, and I then explained the last round of scenes.   The students stayed with their same partners, but this time the player who had been speaking English in the last round could ONLY communicate using emotional noises.  I began this explanation with a series of emotional noises (sighs, laughs, gasps...) to illustrate what the heck I was talking about--and to show that they could show a range of emotional expressions.  Again, I gave a basic context for the scene.

I had hoped we'd have time for a performance game, but the scheduling gods were against me on that morning.  We did, however, have time for a final debrief.  As we circled up, I asked the group to think about which of the three scenes felt the most real.  Their responses were quite thought provoking:
  • The emotional noises allowed the characters to really change.
  • The emotional noises helped the two people connect to each other.
  • The time when we were both speaking gibberish felt the best because we could understand each other; we were speaking the same language.
My second question was about communication and control.  I asked if it mattered whether how one was communicating--if one person was in control of the scene or the relationship.  Their responses mirrored what I've heard in adult workshops:
  • The person speaking English could control what was being said and interpreted.  They could just make up what they wanted.
  • I disagree.  The person who was speaking gibberish could control the scene if they really committed to what they were doing and showed a lot of emotion.
Ack!  Out of time!  Alas, such is the life of a teacher...
As I run out of time for an in-depth debrief and/or performance game, I make a mental (and physical!) note to return to these concepts and questions.  How do we communicate?  How do we connect to one another?  Who is in charge of a conversation, of a relationship?  Can this ownership be shared?  How?  What roles can sound effects play in a scene?  What roles can we play as we slow down, stop talking so much, listen and react in meaningful ways?

My next steps will be to revisit gibberish/emotional noises, play with silent scenes and eye contact, play some Sound Ball, and use sound effects in Part-of-a-Whole.  Sounds like a fun workshop!

Spolin's Wisdom: The Fight for Creativity

Hooray--I'm back to blogging!  After performing in a ton of shows, muddling through STAR tests, etcetera, etcetera, I can sink back into writing about integrating improv into education.  Ahhhh....
I've been reading a bunch of fabulous work by inspirational theater folks: Augusto Boal, Neva Boyd, and Viola Spolin have been my recent teachers as I dig into their texts again and again.

I'm always reading and rereading ideas, theories and activities published by other coaches and educators.  Viola Spolin wrote the bible of Improv: Improvisation for the Theater.  While it's both dense and often overwhelming, this book offers new insights into learning, play, and drama integration every single time I pick it up.

I was thinking about classroom management related to integrating improv as I came across this passage in the "Understanding the Child" chapter:
"The teacher-director who forces set patterns of thinking and behavior (a 'right' or a 'wrong' way of doing things) on child actors is restricting them most severely; both the individual and the art for will suffer... If we remember that rote teaching...[is a summary] of another's findings, our students can then grow and unfold in a free atmosphere.
Today more than ever before we are faced with the need for developing crating and original thought--in the sciences as well as in the arts."

While I have often spoken out against curricular pacing guides, formulaic "learning" and calls for robotic "teaching", I haven't often thought of classroom management and academic expectations in the above terms.  Although Spolin is referring to the young child's rigid view of "right" and "wrong" in staging (e.g. Never turn your back on the audience), neither should this rigidity exist for the teacher in a classroom in which risk-taking and innovation are valued. 

Rather than telling a group of learners and players to "speak up", a coach/teacher can show them that "the audience needs to hear your voice" through play and imagining.  Instead of constantly admonishing students and expressing our frustration with disruptive behaviors, we can find ways to explore these issues with the class.  We can demonstrate these challenges through discussions of what works in told/read stories and plays, and then we can make the connection to learning in a classroom context.  Through these explorations, we can discuss volume, commitment, characterization, side-conversations, and calling out (upstaging a fellow player).

At the same time, maybe these kids have got something right.  Maybe a dinner scene doesn't always have to involve "cheating out", and perhaps the kinesthetic or vocal or playful students really CAN learn and communicate in ways that are quite different from our narrow "sit in your chair and be quiet" set of expectations.  As a teacher, if I take the time to take a deep breath and give the students the space to show me a different way, if I accept that maybe I don't really know everything and that perhaps my assumed rules need to be tossed aside, I may be delighted by the new road upon which I can travel with my students.  And isn't that sense of delight what keeps us going--as teachers, as professionals, as members of this class community?

When Kids Are In Charge

I just came across this wonderful op-ed piece in the NY Times.  I love that it not only highlights project-based learning, but shows genuine student engagement and the joy that comes when independence is coupled with academic rigor.
Check it out:
Let Kids Rule the School

Adaptation and Flexibility: At the Heart of Integrating Improv

What is at the core of integrating improvisational theater into the classroom?  Is it embracing innovation and multiple possibilities?  Is it building an environment in which taking risks and "failing forward" is supported and celebrated?  Is it the development of a classroom environment in which fun and joy are as treasured as academic rigor?  Yes and yes and yes.

And, at the heart of this entire production is you--the teacher--the ever-flexible, adaptable, creative teacher.

This is not the sort of teaching we do as robots.  We are not marching through a scripted curriculum, on page 173 with the rest of our grade level.  We are teaching with our hearts and minds; we are applying our professional expertise to make curricular and pedagogical decisions in real-time.  We determine our curricular (academic or social or...) objective ahead of time, draw on multiple resources, assess the needs of the group, and adapt as necessary to best support this specific group of kids at this specific moment.  And then we wing it.

This is not "winging it" as folks might imagine after reading about "the failure of public education"--stories of the bogeyman dressed up in the mask of an ill-prepared, insensitive, moronic public school teacher.  (These folks are, by far, the extreme minority of educators, by the way.)  No, no.  I mean the sort of "winging it" which involves tremendous preparation and thought, which involves trusting yourself and your professional expertise, which involves being in the moment with your students...and then being confident and present enough to adapt to meet the needs of the group.

As teachers who are integrating the principles and activities of improvisational theater into our classrooms, the adaptations we make take various forms:
- Adapting our plan in the middle of a lesson to better support and challenge our students.
- Adjusting existing games to meet our specific goals.
- Inventing new games and activities to support our curricular and social objectives.

In my next few posts, I'll be exploring these forms of adaptation. 
MY HERO: The Flexible Teacher

Skills for Life: Improvisation Arises in Debate

I love to dig into project-based learning experiences.  Through PBL, students not only gain deep knowledge of a relevant subject through intensive study, but they build collaborative and problem-solving skills in a meaningful context.  There are a plethora of project-based learning contexts to explore; one of my favorites is debate.

In a few weeks, I see students transform from individuals into teams, from apathetic and ignorant to engaged and informed, from timid to confident.  These are lofty goals for any educational arena: for debate, for classroom discussions, and certainly for improvisation. 

Students make numerous mistakes throughout the process, and the day of the debate is no exception.  Research may be sporadic, speeches may be too short, partners may have gone home sick, entire papers may have been forgotten at home.  While these same situations might feel devastating to an adult at a business meeting, my students had an advantage: They had been trained in the philosophy and art of improvisational theater.

As I walked around the room observing the intense, supportive, and courteous debates, I saw evidence of our work and play in improv shown through the behavior of these middle school debate teams.  With only a few notes, many students were able to confidently improvise persuasive speeches.  They adeptly cross-examined and answered each others' questions.  What may have been most impressive was the combination of commitment and risk-taking shown throughout the experience.

How are these skills useful?  While I can think of a wide variety of applications in school, in social groups, and in the workplace, I'd love to hear your ideas for the relevance of improv and debate.  Is arguing worth weeks of class time?  You'd better believe it.

Surrounding Oneself With Inspirational Educators--CAG Today

If you find yourself needing some inspiration, take the time to step out of your comfort zone: Attend a conference.  Not only will you learn some new strategies and think about your students in surprising ways, but you'll find yourself amongst like-minded teachers.  If you're waiting for others to treat you like a professional, treat yourself like one.  Although we often have to pay our own way to attend a conference (Grr...), it is well worth the investment of time and money. 

This afternoon, I was fortunate enough to present at the California Association for the Gifted (CAG) conference.  While an hour felt like an absurdly short time in which I attempted to offer an overview of the applications of improvisational theater, I found myself energized to be playing with (and, of course, talking to) a room full of people seeking innovative options for reaching all of their students.  I look forward to working with some of these fabulous teachers in the months to come!

Combatting Teacher Burnout

Every teacher has that moment--pick one:
"I don't want to be doing this right now."
"These kids are driving me crazy."
"Can't we just stop...right now?"

I'm here to tell you, if you're asking that question, the answer is yes.

Take a moment to be with your class.  The lesson you're slogging through can wait.  If it's worthwhile, you'll get back to it...and you and your students will get much more out of the activity.

Just play a game.  Debrief it...or not.  Take the time to enjoy your students as people--smile with them; appreciate their humor and their gifts; let them laugh or be challenged with you.

If you're feeling stressed, the class is probably picking up on that energy.  (Perhaps you're feeling this way because you're picking up on their anxiety levels.)  Whether it's a five-minute game or a forty-minute experience, the break will be well worth your time.

This is a tough time to be in education--as a student and as a teacher.  In the world of union busting politicians, budget crises, furlough days and constant attacks on educators, we need times to remember why we're in this profession.  A smile on that student's face might be just the ticket.

Convince Me! (In-the-Moment Curricular Integration)

"Convince me!" shouts the teacher, while standing on a stool in the front of the room.  The class is full of energy: pairs of students stand ready to improvise compelling (or at least committed) arguments for the thesis that just been stated.  As if in a relay race, one half of each pair stands with her/his hand raised, ready to accept the pass-off of their shared persuasive speech.

This image shows a snippet from my classroom throughout the past few weeks.  Used for different purposes, this made-up game supported the conceptual development of work in both Science and English...and it got middle school kids out of their chairs and involved in some active, engaged learning.  If you can handle the noise, it's just an awful lot of fun as well.

How did this game evolve?  As a Teacher/Improviser, I not only adapt given games to meet the needs of my classroom, but I am keen to notice times in which an improv game will enrich the learning experience.  If I don't already know of a game that will suit my purpose, I just make one up.

Step One: Finding a game to "spice up" what must be done.
As I launched into a new geology unit, I knew I wanted to find a way to hook my reticent Earth-scientists-of-the-future in to caring about the new subject matter.  Rather than taking a "walk through the chapter" or utilizing one of the other strategies in my teacher tool belt I often go to when launching a unit of study, I decided to opt for an interactive, slightly competitive game.
Borrowed from the "Bluff the Listener" game (from NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"--a personal favorite) and Balderdash, I invented a game in which groups of students had to come up with two false (yet somehow convincing) and one accurate answer to a question that came ahead in the chapter.  One question was, "What are the differences between a young and old mountain?"  The groups had about five minutes to come up with their collective answers (using any resources they could think of), choose three people to perform these answers, and then rehearse and give feedback on those performances.
Next, we had a volunteer from another group sit in the middle of the room in front of the panel of three students who convincingly offered their answer.  The volunteer guessed which was correct, and then the student with the accurate answer identified him/herself.  The process was quick and fun...and I, of course, cleared up any conceptual inconsistencies as we proceeded through the game.

Step Two: Build a Warm-up
I am lucky enough to teach two back-to-back periods of the same subject, and my lessons invariably improve over the course of the day.  So...thinking that the process of offering convincing arguments needed a little work, I invented the warm-up game described at the top of this post.  Students worked with their lab partners, standing up, and they chose who would be "A" and who would be "B".  I instructed one of them (A or B) to raise their hand as if they were about to high-five their partner.  I encouraged them to look directly at their partner with an "I've got your back here, buddy!" sort of expression.  Then, the other half of the pair was told to CONVINCE ME, to offer reasons that the opinion statement I was about to provide made sense.  Whenever they wanted back-up, they could high-five their partner, and s/he would take over--after one word, after seven sentences, in the middle of a word...whatever was needed.
Examples of opinion/thesis statements: Cats are the best possible pets.  Everyone should have a pair of rainboots in their wardrobe.  Spring is the perfect season.

As we moved on to the bluffing game, energy was already high and they were primed to offer convincing arguments.

Step Three: Apply to Another Area of the Curriculum
The next morning, I realized this Convince Me Relay game would be beneficial as a warm-up to working on our thesis statements for Response to Literature essays in my English class.  We began our writers' workshop with this activity, followed by a game in which players were encouraged to act out a scene utilizing as many thesis statements as possible.  Immersed in persuasive language, we launched into writing with our full energy and a positive attitude.

Integration Points to Consider
  • Teaching using games makes learning more fun--for the students and for the teacher.
  • Adapt games to meet the needs of your group.
  • If the right game doesn't exist for your needs, make it up!
  • "Yes, and..." yourself.  If a game worked for one purpose, experiment to see if it'll work for another area.  The similarities and differences may both delight and surprise you.  The students who have used this game in one area may offer insights you hadn't considered when they use it in a different context.
Keep on playing!

Science Fairs: Makin' Me Crazy, Essential...and Dwindling

Science fair season makes me insane.  As THE science teacher for my school's 6th-8th-graders, I end up taking on an insane amount of work--for my school science fair and as I bring a group of kids to the county science fair.  One might ask the question, "Is it worth it?"  Definitely.

Throughout the process, my students learn to think like scientists.  The early stages--and the redesigns--borrow much from our work in improvisation: I encourage students to try out lots of possibilities, to own and learn from the mistakes.  From the simplest question to the most complex, these kids get to take on a project that is of interest to them--something that they own.  And then they get to present their findings.  Although we all experience a rise in stress during the process, it's the good kind of stress.  We push through the challenges to actually accomplish something.  In the best of circumstances, we innovate.

And then I come upon a newspaper article telling me that science fairs are dwindling in America.  In "It May Be a Sputnik Moment...", the New York Times presents data that I've seen confirmed in the county science fair I attended last week.  As the pressure for high stakes testing increases, fewer schools are participating in science fairs. 

What do we lose when we limit our students to small boxes that lead to narrow testing?  Presentation skills.  Scientific thinking.  The joy of owning one's learning.  Innovation.
Now, those are things worth fighting for.

Look, Look Away, Look Back

We returned to our explorations of Status today with a simple character and relationship warm-up.  While I had planned to have this be the actual warm-up for today's workshop, my class had other things in store for me.  I suppose a better way to say that is, "I responded to the needs of the group this morning.  It was essential that we focus on group mind, connecting, and an ensemble focus on one goal after a particularly difficult week."  Okay...we played Ball for 30 minutes.  And it was completely worth it.

Ball presented challenges we hadn't dealt with for some time: a lack of engagement and commitment from some, others taking over, folks acting as if we were playing dodge ball and trying to make their classmates look bad... It was pretty much a mess.  Although I usually set a goal of 25 or so, I decided to set a challenging goal of 43.  We couldn't get there.

We processed what was happening together.  And then we mixed up the configurations and tried some more.  My side coaching included,
If you hear my voice standing out from the crowd, y'all need to be louder.  This should be one voice.
Balance commitment and 'taking over'--but don't shy away from it.
Look like an improviser.  Be ready.

The student's notes included,
Make your partner look good.
Everyone count together.
This is NOT dodge ball, people.
Ball is a passing game.

After 20 minutes, I asked if they wanted to skip Ball for the day.  The far majority of the players WANTED to keep going, to figure it out as a group and to surpass our goal.  And I decided to mess with them a little bit.

Rather than fully processing the numerous social interactions and status plays that were happening amidst Ball, I decided to delve into a little Status adventure of our own.  I first did this warm-up activity with John Remak in his Foundation One class at BATS Improv in San Francisco.  It made me think about characters--and myself--in new ways back then, and it offered my students plenty of insights as well.  All in less than ten minutes.

Look OR Look, Look Away, Look Back
To explore the subtler nuances and non-verbal interactions embedded in the status of relationships, I randomly assigned half the class to Look (make comfortable eye contact with each person they passed) or to Look, Look Away, Look Back (to look down or to the side after first making eye contact, and then to try to regain that initial eye contact with each person).  They walked around for a while, and I side coached:
Slow down as you walk.  This is not a race.
Take a moment to connect with each of your fellow players.
Be real and notice how you're your character is feeling.

After a few minutes (and a few pauses with side coaching comments followed by re-starts), they switched roles.  We then went straight into a processing session.  My notes from the students' debriefing comments follow.  I think they speak for themselves.

Carrie: What did you notice as you played both of these roles?  How did it make you feel?
Jennifer: I found it easier for me to Look, Look Away, Look Back...and I also found myself smiling a lot, in kind of maybe like an uncomfortable way.

Jimi: It felt kind of weird for me to look away, because I don't usually do that.

Eric: I wanted to add onto what Jimi said.  It was just weird when you look away and you know that, like, someone is still watching you.  It's kind of creepy.

Jimi: ...When you look away, it's kind of like you're exposing yourself to...

Carrie: What did this make you think aboutWhy did we do this?
Diana: It made me think about...if you're, like, walking up to friends, you're more likely to keep longer eye contact than someone that you're nervous around.

Kiana: It made me think of status, because when you looked up and looked away and looked down, it made me feel you shouldn't be looking at that person 'cause they're higher status.  But if you looked up, it's like you can't believe you brought yourself down low enough to look at them.

Sage: I think it's like a lot of other improv games...just basically to raise your awareness of people and your surroundings.

As always, I am left with a feeling of inspiration and wonder after an improv workshop with my students.  They not only appreciate a chance to connect and reflect, but they rise to the challenge of doing so in meaningful ways.  Speaking of challenges, we ended this morning's class with a big, "Wooooo!"  Surpassing our goal of 43, we all transitioned into the next class with smiles on our faces.  Fifty-four...oh, yeah.

Introducing Status: Understanding Ourselves, Relationships, and the Key to Social Change

I have been waiting all year for just the right time to facilitate this workshop with my class.  After building community for half the year, and with my students' inherent interest in issues related to inequity, justice, and finding their place in the world, I knew that it was time.  Jumping into STATUS...

After playing "Ball", connecting as a whole ensemble with a common, clear focus, I randomly numbered off the class into two groups.  Half of the students became our audience, and the other half became the performing players.  I gave them a context that would involve many players, probably splintering off into a number of sub-scenes--break in-between classes out on the yard.  I suggested that some folks might be playing basketball, while others would be talking or eating...or just interacting in ways that felt real to them.

While I initially told them they would need to use names other than their own, I let this requirement go as I saw them naturally using their own names later in the scene.  Coming up with character names may have presented more of a distraction than I had assumed.  The players touched upon the crux of the activity without the need for new character names.  They adjusted their relationships and ways of interacting with one another based simply upon the cards I taped to their backs: Ace was high and Two was low.

The improvised mega-scene began with a number of smaller scenes: Pairs or small groups of players were interacting with each other, chatting or offering compliments or completely ignoring one another.  Although it had the staccato pace of something forced and new, the groupings were remarkably true to form--some were left alone, while others were surrounded by friends and admirers.

As the pace began to lull, I side-coached an idea to move the scene forward.  I suggested that someone might like to play basketball.  Before I knew it, an event had organically developed from the group itself.  The ENTIRE ensemble was instantly involved in one of the most painful, intense, status-rich events that exists on the schoolyard: picking teams

Two of the kids with the highest numbered cards immediately rushed to the front of the group, proclaiming themselves Team Captains.  They invited other high-status players to join them, smiling and clapping as they chose them to be a part of each team.  These team captains held their bodies upright and walked amongst the rest of the players with an obvious confidence.  They had no doubt that, once selected, the other players would join them in their groups.  They asked others to move or turn around so they could see the back of their shirts, dismissing them when reminded of their lower status. 

The other players exhibited a variety of non-verbal messages, as well.  Those with mid-level status either looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, or shifted from side to side, appearing nervous and uncomfortable as they waited for approval and acceptance.  One girl actually erupted into applause and squeals of delight as she pranced over to her group after finally being chosen.  Those with lower status cards on their backs gazed toward the floor, allowing themselves to be pushed around and physically isolated from the rest of the group.  One boy even stuck out his lower lip to express his discomfort and disappointment with his situation.  These are seventh- and eighth-graders.  Appearing cool and mature tends to be their focus in many activities, yet the power of this extreme social situation evoked responses we would normally expect from younger students.  I am not surprised in any way; I exhibited some of the same behaviors as an adult when playing this game myself!

The players' words and actions were at least as compelling--and disturbing--as their non-verbal interactions.  The student whose card was second-to-last ended up being one of the harshest bullies to the student who had the lowest status in the game.  In his distraught state at being treated with such disrespect, he attempted to increase his status by being hurtful to the one who was closest to him in the game.  When the two teams both refused to accept the player with the lowest status--tossing him back and forth as if he were a human yo-yo with no feelings, I knew the scene would have to end soon.  I ended the game as the player with the Ace card, a student who had said few words during the entire game, told the player with the Two card to stand "in the back," entirely separate from all of the other students.  The latter quickly scurried away, affecting a pout and eliciting laughter from all of us.  I brought the game to a close.

As an adult observer, this scene was troubling to say the least.  As someone who remembers the social tightrope of middle school, it was as real as it was horrifying.  As an improviser and educator who thinks about status all the time, it was illuminating and inspiring.  I am proud of my students for taking risks and being honest about how people treat each other.  Beyond the scope of the scene itself, however, I was blown away by the complexity and truth with which they handled the debriefing session that followed.

As the players discussed the way the scene made them feel, as well as their motivations for acting the way they did in character, they analyzed a number of nuances that exist in group behavior--at our school and in society at large. 
Carrie: How does it feel in High-status Land?
High-status player 1: Weird.
High-status player 2: Powerful. 
High-status player 3: I rule you all.
Carrie: You rule?
High-status player 3: Heh, heh, heh. (And then he immediately lowered his status by sitting back on the desk behind him.)
Carrie: How does it feel--to be the ruler?
High-status player 3: Fun.
High-status player 1: Weird.
High-status player 3: Different.

Carrie: Uh...Low-status folks?
Low-status player 1: Terrible...never felt worse.
Carrie--to the student with the Two card on his back: How did that feel?
Low-status player 2: Sad.
Carrie: Even though you knew they were joking?
Low-status player 2: Yeah.
Low-status player 1: Can I say something?  ...The high status people thought they could push the low people around.

And he made this observation only moments after he, himself, had bullied the one person in the game who was of lower status than him!  These interactions are complex, troubling, and thought-provoking.  We have so much to discuss--now and throughout the rest of our year together.

Here is an excerpt of the processing discussion--some of the audience players' thoughts and observations:

This is just the beginning of our work with status.  The first step in this entire process is to NOTICE--to seek to understand status and how it plays out in fictional characters, in our own lives, in our local and global communities.  The second step is to really begin to THINK about status, and thinking brings about ideas for change.

“It kind of makes me think that, like, sometimes, at our school, like people actually act like they do have cards on their backs so people might just judge people on their status…like, ‘You’re a great person.’  And they treat you (others) like, ‘You don’t have such good status,’ and people still treat you badly.”

“I was kind of thinking, since I was the low person…I was thinking that if that’s actually how low people are being treated, and a lot worse than that…and if that’s how it feels to be low, that, like, I must not be that low, actually, because I know that my friends are really nice to me.”

“It made me think about how real the social status thing really is, because everyone—or almost everyone—has like a number on them or whatever, but they can’t help it.  And how easy it would be for someone to just drop that.  But no one does, so…”

And--now what!?
Our next step is to translate these insights into opportunities for ACTION.  We will explore how status is dynamic rather than static--how status can and does vary within a single scene between two characters, and how status changes based on with whom and where and when a given character is interacting.  As we understand the changing nature of status, we can then explore how to adjust the ways people view and treat one another so that equity is at the core of our relations.