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 feeling...how 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 like...like 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.

Setting the Context for Status: Discussing a Real Social Issue

This morning, after warming up with fun, high-energy Word-at-a-Time partner stories, I asked the class to circle-up as we do every Monday morning for our improv workshop.  However, instead of beginning with "Ball", we sat down for a talk and a moment of silence.  For some of my students, it was the first they heard of the shooting that took place two days ago outside a supermarket in Arizona.  For others, it was an opportunity to reflect upon a tragedy they'd heard about in the news time and time again.  I briefly explained what I knew--who had been killed, who had been injured, and who had been taken into custody for the crimes.  Although the motives of the perpetrator remain uncertain, the horrific effects of those actions are clear and hit home for every one of us.

The twenty-six of us sat together in a circle.  In complete silence, and in solidarity with much of the country, we reflected upon the incident in our own ways.  A couple of students bowed their head in prayer or closed their eyes for a private moment.  I kept seeing the face of the little girl who had been killed, thinking about my own daughter and falling short in my attempts to imagine the new, awful reality her family has been facing since Saturday.  I looked around the circle to see faces exhibiting anger, disbelief, confusion and sadness. 
I felt proud to be a member of this community of learners.

What resonated most in our discussion that followed our two-minute period of silence was the cacophony of questions: Why had he done such a thing?  What drives a person to commit such a heinous crime?  Why have we only heard about the "high profile" people who were injured or killed?  Had anyone seen the gun before--but just not done anything about it?  What will happen next?

These are the types of questions that set a meaningful context for exploring "status".  When we are confronted with real issues, with the horrors of a national tragedy or the tears of a friend, we are motivated to explore and tackle the structure and possibilities for change that exist within personal relationships.  Improvisational theater offers a framework for understanding and shifting how we relate to one another--character status. 

Up next:
Introducing Status: Understanding Ourselves, Relationships, and the Key to Social Change,
the introductory lesson and my students' reflections on the experience

Debriefing, Part Three: Supporting Equity

Great!  So...you've got those kids talking and processing now.  You've worked to focus the discussion on your social or conceptual goals, and you've organized the type of debrief so that it will fit your time frame.  A couple of kids say things that you hoped and thought they would say, and one or two say things that completely blow you away.  You're feeling pretty good about yourself, aren't you improv coach/teacher/rockstar?

As well you should.  You just taught an engaging, fun, intellectually complex lesson.  However, if you take the time to look at the balance of power in the conversation, at whose voices are heard, you might notice something quite disturbing: a small percentage of the students are actively participating in the debriefing discussion.  What about everyone else?

I came to see this as a huge issue after facilitating a recent session in someone else's classroom.  We were reflecting on the incredible ideas presented and connections made by her students when she said, as an aside, "Yeah, but it was the same three kids who always talk in class discussions."  Doh!  In my excitement about bringing improv into the classroom, I forgot to employ the variety of strategies I've learned as a classroom teacher to promote equitable discourse.  And then I took the time to reflect upon my own class environment.  In more cases than I wanted to admit, I had facilitated the class through inequitable processing conversations--hearing certain voices far more than others.

In past years, I would have hidden in shame at this realization.  Realizing I had made a mistake, I may have hoped no one would notice.  As I've learned to embrace my failures, moving towards celebrating them, I'm here to shout out to the improv and education world: I made a mistake!  Time to fix it.

Strategies to Employ When Structuring Conversation
The Default
Far too often, teachers rely on the default structure of any classroom discussion: teacher asks question, students with ideas who are willing to share raise hands, teacher calls on one student at a time who then answers the question asked (usually while looking only at the teacher), teacher verbally responds, teacher calls on another student.  Wow--that's a lot of teacher.

Other Options
  • Students journal (and or just sit and think quietly) before sharing out ideas--giving players who are more internal processors the time to consider their reactions and the applications of the game(s).
  • Students think about the prompt, share their ideas with a partner or triad, and then share out.
  • Go around in a circle (as a "whip") and ask everyone to share something--a word, a sentence...
  • Use a ball or a stuffed animal to toss to the person who is talking.
  • Have students call on each other instead of having the conversation dominated by the teacher.
  • Give each student one or two talking sticks--to toss in when they'd like to speak.  This option warrants a detailed explanation.
Talking Sticks
As a part of any given conversation, we are all challenged in supporting equitable participation.  For some of us, it is intimidating to say anything.  For others, it is hard to hold back from dominating the entire conversation.  What to do?
While this is not necessary (or recommended) as a strategy to use every day, or even every week, it can be helpful to employ a technique that supports all members in tackling their communication challenges.  At times, it really IS essential to hear from all participants; we all benefit from the thoughts and connections made by each member of the group.  This strategy requires a good amount of debriefing time--at least 15 minutes.

As you begin the conversation, pass out craft sticks to everyone in the group.  Let each person choose one or two sticks: If they have one stick, they MUST say at least one thing in the conversation.  If they have two, they must say one thing and they MAY say two things.  They may agree with each other, disagree, add something to what someone else said...they may say one word or go into a detailed explanation when they throw in a stick.  If two or more people throw in sticks at the same time, they simply negotiate who will talk first and take turns in a respectful manner.

There will be uncomfortable silences in this conversation.  These are necessary to create an open space for those voices that are too often absent from the discussion.  There will be students who are going insane--who have used up their two sticks and have the "perfect" thing to say.  Tough.  They'll just have to wait until everyone has used up at least one stick.  Equity is not pretty, people.  But it is satisfying, it is important, it is illuminating.

When all the sticks have been thrown in, open up the conversation to allow for a free exchange of ideas.  As the students have been talking to each other, the teacher shouldn't be needed to talk in between each student.  As a respectful, thoughtful community, your group of improvisers will impress you with their insights as well as how they manage the discussion.