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.