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.