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Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 4 – Trust Your Impulse

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LeapIn the mainstream teaching world, even in this moment of seismic change and technological advancement, there is a fairly narrow conception of what a teacher is and what a teacher can be. To step out of these limiting parameters takes courage and support. We know that students develop enduring understandings in learning environments where teachers subvert institutional norms. This is perhaps the paradox of schooling. No one ever learns when we do it by the book.

Unfortunately we are conditionalizing teachers (and students) to do it exactly by the book. And we are at a point in schooling where teachers (and students) are afraid to do anything but the book. I was just with a high school teacher the other day who explained to me how her curriculum was “pretty lock step” which left her little room to innovate or “be creative.” A vice principal told me a story of a student teacher with whom she was working recently. Something had happened in the classroom, and the vice principal wanted the student teacher to reflect on that event. The vice principal asked, “How did that make you feel?” To which, the student teacher responded in the form of a stale, saccharine, five paragraph essay thesis statement. The influences of NCLB are deep and crippling.

Approaching teaching from the stance of an improviser provides tools for us to combat the numbing effects of scripted curriculum, market-based assessments, resource impoverishment, and burn-out. I spent the last three posts in my series Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning exploring the ins and outs of the first rule: Say “Yes…and.” We looked at what it means to accept an offer from someone else and how to build on that offer to deepen relationships, solve problems, and improve outcomes. For this post, we’ll unpack Rule #2: Trust your impulse. How do we push aside the inner critic, the self-consciousness, the anxiety and tap into the core of who we are to be the teachers we need and want to be? Read on to learn a warm-up game that helps to develop this skill; to explore why this rule can be difficult to adopt, and to learn the benefits of putting this rule into action as a student and a teacher.

I am; I Feel

It’s Monday. First period. Eighth grade. The students are filing into class. Since it’s February, they know just what to do. They circle up in the middle of the room. It’s tight. There are 26 of them, but there is enough room to form a circle without touching shoulders. To make this space, the molded metal desks are pushed to the periphery. Mr. Laswell, the students’ History teacher meets them in the circle. There’s banter. Students are laughing, finishing up conversations started at the lockers, poking fun. Mr. Laswell looks out at the group and welcomes everyone back. “How was the weekend?” Some students shrug. Others say “Good.” He continues, “Any good stories?” One student tells a quick story of losing her Iphone and then finding it in the washing machine just before her father hit the start button. There are audible sighs of relief. Mr. Laswell runs the back of his hand across his forehead and lets out a dramatic “Phew!” which elicits laughs from a few. He then claps his hands and says, “Alright. Let’s get started with I am; I feel. Sophia, start us off.”

There is a slight pause, eyes turn to Sophia, and then she steps into the center of the circle, making eye contact with other students. She says, “I am Sophia, and I feel…” and with that, she kind of leans in a bit, wriggles her body, shoots her hands straight up in the air and lets out a full-voiced “Whoooopalala!” Sophia then steps back into the circle. Without missing a beat, the rest of the group takes a step in and imitates exactly what Sophia just did, minus the “I am Sophia, and I feel.” The group takes a step back and the person to Sophia’s right steps in, and the game continues. “I am Levi, and I feel” and then a sound and action until everyone around the circle has a chance to announce themselves to the class and share how they feel at that particular moment in time. The game takes less than 5 minutes. By the time it ends, the class is warmed up, loose, and ready to focus on the challenge ahead.

Several years ago, I initiated this ritual  at the start of  every class. I found that it pushed my students to listen to themselves and others, trust their impulses, and empathize with their fellow classmates. I knew it was working in part because if there was a rare day when we did not start class with I am; I feel, the students would be upset, some even angry, and the class would be just a bit off, a bit on edge. I wanted to share this game for this particular post because I do think it illustrates nicely what it looks, sounds, and feels like to trust an impulse as well as being a fantastic warm-up for any class.

One of the goals of the game is to be true to the way you feel the moment after you announce yourself to the group. The students and I work hard over many weeks to coach ourselves out of preplanning the sound and action we are going to make when it is our turn. Predetermining isn’t trusting your impulse. Instead, I tell them to lean into that moment and allow to come out whatever needs to. This is harder for some students than others, but over time, they all are able to tune into that particular moment and trust the way they feel. Another particularly powerful aspect of the game is that the rest of the group imitates the sound and action of the person. The group as a whole takes in that sound and action and gives it back to the person – a wonderful act of empathy and acceptance. This important part of the game provides further support to trust an impulse because the person witnesses the group as a whole accepting and honoring it through embodying the sound and action.

Impulse Trumps Instinct

I have to admit that this rule of improvisation has always been a tough one for me. I worry that the impulse I have is not necessarily the best move to make in a given situation. I also don’t necessarily trust the impulses of my students. Quite a damning statement, to say the least! Why don’t I trust my students’ impulses? Because I equate my students’ impulses with all of the baggage that they bring with them into class, all of the assumptions and biases that supposedly cloud their perceptions of what school is and could be. My assumption here is not fair, probably an obvious statement to any caring person. First of all, impulses exist under the layers of assumption and bias. In fact, trusting one’s impulse is a way of moving out of assumptions and biases. Who am I to decide whether a person’s impulse is good or bad, right or wrong? It’s an impulse, supposedly coming from someone’s core or from someone’s true self. If that is indeed the case, then that is where we need to start from when it comes to learning, right?

One of the obstacles that has kept me from embracing the idea of trusting an impulse is that I equate impulse with instinct when in fact there is an important difference between the two. Instinct is a hard-wired reaction to something. We can’t get out of it. It is in our genetic make-up. An impulse can be a renegade reaction, something outside of habit. It should surprise us. An impulse gives us permission to do something out of the ordinary. The dictionary definition of impulse is the “sudden strong urge or desire to act.” On the other hand, instinct is “An innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior.” Impulse is based on guts and spontaneity. Instincts are predetermined responses to stimuli.  Instincts can get in the way of meaningful teaching and learning. Take the flight or fight instinct, for example. I have a hard time counting the number of times my amygdala has kicked in, telling me to run away from a particularly challenging moment in school (confrontational parent, frustrated student, ornery colleague) when what I really needed to do is trust my impulse and work through the moment rather than run away from it.

The Connection Between  “Yes..and” And Trusting An Impulse

When doing improv as well as when being a teacher who is informed by improv,  you are not flinging an impulse out into the ether, hoping that someone will grab on to it or recognize it. In improv, someone must accept that impulse and build on it in order for the scene, relationship, or learning to grow. It means that the responsibility of supporting an impulse is shared. It mingles with other impulses and becomes something new. Maybe even something better. Impulses are inherently unstable, risky, and potentially dangerous. Impulses aren’t supposed to be unchaperoned as it were. Impulses need other people saying “Yes…and”  to massage them and sculpt them into more lasting ideas (See the “Yes…and” game in part 3 of this series for more information).

Our impulses are often times masked by what we think others think we should be doing in our classrooms. The official line keeps us from doing what we want to do or what we know would be best. We spend valuable mental and physical energy silencing an impulse because of the normative power of the status quo. When you allow your impulse out, it can surprise you and in that surprise, your mind is open to learning from the experience. When we are constantly covering or doing something that we think others are expecting of us, then our mind is occupied by the next cover-up or the next expectation. In other words, we are spending all of our time imagining a future rather than living in the present.

Think about this in relation to students as well. What would happen for them if they trusted their impulses instead of doing what they think is always expected of them? The more a student is able to trust an impulse, the better he/she get at it.  What comes with that trust is an ability to more quickly respond to situations. Instead of thinking them to death, or arguing oneself out of a good idea, the student can respond immediately because she/he is in tune with the inner-self and more comfortable with allowing that inner-self out.

Most importantly for both teachers and students, trusting your impulse has a lot to do with doing what you really want to do with your students. In other words, if we trust our impulses, we are more likely to design curriculum that we want to participate in rather than do curriculum that is handed to us. Impulses live in the world of possibilities not in the given circumstances. So you are given 10th grade World Literature for the first time. You have never taught it before. Your instincts tell you to say no or to protect yourself by doing whatever was done before. That’s your amygdala talking, the deepest, most primitive part of your brain. The fear center. Your impulse is something different entirely. Your impulse is that tiny voice inside of you that says, “Go for it!” The center for possibility.

Unlike instinct, impulses can be trained or coached. See what happens if you implement I am; I feel in your classroom. Instincts on the other hand come from millenia of genetic layering. Instincts are biological, and impulses are sociological. An impulse can overcome an instinct and that can be very good news for a teacher, a student, a classroom, and a school.

Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 3 – The Significance of the “And” in “Yes…And”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the last few weeks, I have been exploring the usefulness of an improvisational mindset, specifically the power of “Yes…and” and the dangers of “No…but” in teaching and learning. In this post, I want to focus on the importance of the “and” in “Yes…and.” Seems kind of trivial, but in actuality, the “and” is the key to this improvisational rule. Without the “and” you have a surface, and sometimes mindless, acceptance of what has been offered. With the “and,” you have the potential to transform the original offer and in the process deepen relationships, solve problems, improve outcomes, and change your status.

“Yes” without the “and” places the sayer in a spectator role as opposed to an actor role. By only saying “Yes,” the person is passively receiving what is being given to him/her. As a result, the original offer becomes stagnant. It does not expand. Taken to the extreme, only saying “Yes” can have dangerous outcomes. There is a passivity in simply saying “Yes.” The ownership and the power rests with the person who made the original offer, and the receiver of the offer is merely approving it. On the other hand, there is a thoughtfulness to the “and” in “Yes…and.” It requires the receiver to not only accept the original offer but to add something to it, to take it to the next level, to put a little of him or herself in the “game,” and to share the responsibility of the success of the original idea. Patricia Ryan Madsen writes, “With the rule of yes[…and], we call upon our capacity to envision, to create new and positive images. This yes{…and] invites us to find out what is right about the situation, what is good about the offer, what is worthy in the proposal.”

The other day, I was writing with three classes of first graders. They had been exploring African animals and one of the ways that the teachers wanted the students to share their understandings of the African animals was through writing acrostic poems. To prime the pump, I first wanted the first graders to find their partner in the other class who was studying the same African animal, and sit down and have a conversation about what they had learned about the animal, using the notes that they had taken. Instead of organizing all of this for them, I challenged them to find their partner on their own – a true ill-structured problem. When I said “go,” the students started milling around, looking for their partner from another class. After about 15 or so seconds, a small group of students came up to me and said that there was a problem. One of the girls said, “you want us to be in pairs, but there are five of us who have the same animal.” Faced with this dilemma, I could have gone down a few different paths. The “No…but” path would have looked like this: in the essence of time, I would have solved the problem for them. I would have pointed to the first two girls and told them they were partners, the next-two girls and told them they were partners, and told the last three girls that they were a threesome and that it was ok. This path would have blocked the proposal that the girls were making – there was a problem that needed to be solved – and instead put me in the position of solving the problem for them. The “Yes…and” path looks quite different. Instead of solving the problem for the students, I said yes to their conundrum and I built on it by asking them to solve it. Now, what is interesting is that the students pretty much came up with the same solution that I would have on my own, but the important thing is that they came up with it. They put their brains in gear to figure it out and then were able to witness the affect of their problem solving strategy. The “and” in this case was putting the responsibility of solving the problem back in the laps of the students.

Employing the “and” in “Yes…and” can dramatically influence the power dynamics within a colleague to colleague or a faculty to principal interaction as well. In improvisation, power dynamics are often referred to as situations of status. Every interaction that we have with others involves the delicate interplay of status. Who has high status? Who has low? Does the status change because of the conversation? The interplay between teachers and between teachers and principals is fraught with status. In order to understand status a bit better, let’s take a look at the situation I described above.

When the students came to me with the problem, they were giving me high status. They wanted me to solve the problem. In this case, having high status was not the ideal position to be in in order for that moment to be a true opportunity for learning. I needed to change the status. I changed the status by employing the “and” in “Yes…and.” By accepting the students’ offer that there was a problem, and then building on that offer by suggesting that they find a way to solve it, I moved myself from high to low status in that situation and gave high status to the students so that they could have the power to solve the problem. Within school situations, it is important to remember that status is not static. It constantly changes, and we can make choices as students,  teachers, and administrators in terms of the kind of status that we have in different situations. In Keith Johnstone’s words, status is “understood as something one does (his italics).”  It is also important to remember that having low status is not a “bad” thing and that having high status is not an inherently “good” thing. Instead, if we are truly embodying an improvisational ethic, we are constantly in tune to the situation and what it demands in terms of status for there to be a positive outcome. Too often, I find teachers desperately trying to maintain high status in classroom situations when it would be better for them to move to low status. I can say the same thing for principals as well. High status is often falsely connected with control and power when really the power and control is associated with the kind of status that you choose to have in a given moment. Our power and our success as teachers rests in our ability to read a situation and determine the kind of status that is needed to move the situation in a positive and meaningful direction.

In this current teaching climate, it can be tantalizingly easy to keep our heads down and spend our energy just trying to get through the day, employing “No…but” strategies like keeping our classroom doors closed, not eating with our colleagues at lunch, avoiding the principal on the way out the door, and spending inordinate amounts of time talking about things with little to no action. What’s interesting is that keeping our heads down actually doesn’t make teaching, and our lives, any easier. Instead, it has the potential of keeping us in a static status state which impedes relationship building, creative problem-solving, and ultimately joy in our work. We need to constantly fight these blocking urges, and employing the “and” in “Yes…and” can help us do that. What is particularly liberating about emphasizing the importance of the “and” in “Yes…and” in teaching is that it reframes our work. The profession of teaching can often feel like only “Yes” work. We have a curriculum we need to teach. We have standardized tests we need to give. We have demands from parents to meet. We have committees we need to serve on. We have expectations and demands on us that we did not have a hand in making. By employing the “and” we take some of the power and the control rightfully back. The “and” creates a space in all of these demands to put our own stamp on them, to decide how we want them to go, to have a stake in the outcome. In this case, the “and” provides us as teachers a chance to have high status in an environment that attempts to put us in low status. Ultimately, the “and” in “Yes…and” is the impetus for positive change personally, professionally, and even societally.


Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 2: The Dangers of “No…but”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week, I started a series on Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning. You can read my first post here. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into the idea of “Yes…and” by focusing specifically on the dangers of it’s opposite: the “No…but.”

In our current educational climate, it can be pretty difficult to practice the ethic of “Yes…and.” Regulations, hyper standardization, furloughs, ahistorical attacks on teacher quality, and the transitory nature of school leadership create a frigid atmosphere for accepting and building on other people’s offers. Instead, it becomes easier and easier to say “No…but.” This blocking move of “No…but” as a teacher often involves moves like keeping our heads down, closing our classroom doors, not volunteering for committees, adhering strictly to union protocols, not having our eyes and ears open for times to make connections, and giving way to stale curricula that we know doesn’t serve us or our students. These moves are understandable when considering the current circumstances mentioned above that many teachers face, but I would argue that it is precisely within these kinds of constraining circumstances that we need to employ an improvisational ethic.

Madsen says that blocking “is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it…the critic in us wakes up and runs the show.” On the surface, this makes complete sense! The situation within a school is not good, not supportive, difficult, and our answer, as teachers, is to wake up the inner critic and defend against the sometimes dire situation in some way. Madsen writes, “We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.” Ironically, these moves, the ones that may even feel right in the moment, don’t move the situation forward. They don’t serve to fix the problem. They don’t make us feel better. Instead, they entrench the difficulty.

And it is so frustratingly easy to say “No…but!” Isn’t it? I am shocked by how often I find myself saying “no…but” in my personal life, let alone my professional one. I can’t tell you how many times I say “no…but” to my kids when I really could say yes. My kids ask if we can go for a bike ride in the park. My answer, “No, not now,” when we really could go. My kids make a suggestion for dinner. My response, “No…but how about this?” when we really could have gone with their suggestion. There are other more subtle blocks that I catch myself doing as well. I may not return a phone call or an email because of the challenging nature of it, for example. Or I may not take my students up on an idea they have for what we should do in class. In these situations, my eyes and ears aren’t open for the opportunity that is presenting itself. I am focused inward on myself, not outward to the collective. So what would happen if I said “Yes…and” to these things?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I think about how I block my kids, the first thing I realize is how much less angst and frustration and just plain whining there would be if I said “Yes…and.” I also think about how me saying no is basically communicating to the kids that I am in control of the situation, that I know better than them, and that I will make the decisions for them. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when I do know better and no is the right response, but I have found that I can say no a lot less and in doing so, I honor self-determinacy. The “No…but” response sets up the potential for my kids to keep coming back to me for permission for things because they are afraid that if they don’t ask and do it on their own, I might get upset or punish them. Or, the exact opposite will happen where they will never consult me for anything, and just go off and do it on their own, because of the fear that I will say no and block the idea in the first place. I don’t want either of these scenarios. I want kids who feel in control of their lives and who see me as someone that they want to come to and consult.

I want to support my students in this way too. When they come to me and suggest an alternative to an assignment, more often than not, I need to accept that offer and build on it. When they don’t seem to be following through on homework, I can’t block that with my inner-critic. I need to accept it and build on it. When I don’t seem to have the best work relationship with a student, I need to open up, say “Yes…and” to the challenge and see what is possible. When I have a particularly challenging relationship with a colleague, I need to look and listen for those opportunities when I can share control with him or her. Ultimately, that move will bring me far closer to a positive end result.

Tomorrow, when you go into work, challenge yourself to say “Yes…and” to as many situations as possible. Work to accept the offers that are being made to you by your students, colleagues, and administrators and build on them in a positive, open way. This will feel funny at first, and it will be hard work. That’s ok. Keep doing it. Saying “Yes…and” will become more natural over time, and you will reap the benefits of it.

Next week, I’ll explore the often over-looked importance of the “and” in “Yes…and.”

Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning: Part 1

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Teaching and Learning as Improvisation

Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring how adopting the practices – the habits of mind and body – of improvisation as a teacher and as students can profoundly change the feel of the work, the culture of a class, and the quality of the learning for the students and the teacher.

First, a quick primer on improv. Improv is acting without a script, thinking on one’s feet, responding in the moment without premeditation or a preconceived response. In improvisational theater, performers create scenes simply by building on whatever their fellow actors are offering in the moment, no script, no net.  Viola Spolin, one of the luminaries of improvisational theater, helps us see how the sensibilities of improv extend from the actor to the teacher and the student. To her, improvisation is:

Playing the game; setting out to solve a problem with no preconception as to how you will do it; permitting everything in the environment (animate and inanimate) to work for you in solving the problem; it is not the scene, it is the way to the scene; a predominate function of the intuitive…”playing by ear;” process as opposed to result; not ad-lib or “originality” or “making it up by yourself”…setting object in motion between players as in a game; solving of problems together; the ability to allow the acting problem to evolve the scene; a moment in the lives of people without needing a plot or storyline for the communication; an art form; transformation; brings forth details and relationships as organic whole; living process.

Professor Patricia Ryan Madson, founder of Stanford’s improvisational troupe, builds on Spolin’s already expansive understanding, “A good improviser is someone who is awake, not entirely self-focused, and moved by a desire to do something useful and give something back and who acts up on this impulse….[someone who] play(s) fearlessly, and…work(s) with greater ease. ”

Whenever there is a difficult situation within a school or a classroom, I inevitably come back to thinking that if the teachers, students, and administrators of that school lived more of an improvisational life, the difficulty that is being experienced at the time would either not exist or turn more readily into a positive learning opportunity. And I am continually pleasantly surprised to witness what happens when an administrator, teacher, or group of students approaches working and learning as improvisers. To put it in Spolin and Madson’s words, when we open up to utilizing everything that is available to us, when we focus on process instead of result, when we allow the actions of ourselves and our students to take us where we need to go, when we are awake, when we are not self-focused, and when we are moved by a desire to give something back to someone else in a fearless way, many of the perennial issues that block administrators, teachers, and students from being successful disappear and powerful learning happens. .

So how do we live an improvisational life in schools? In the world of improvisational theater, there are understood rules that are followed that support players acting in the ways described above. There are a number of different improv rules lists out there, but they generally whittle down to four essentials: Say “yes…and”, trust your impulse, make your partner look good, and work at the top of your intelligence. When players follow these rules, surprising things happen on the stage – whole characters are born, elaborate stories evolve, truth happens, possibilities materialize. What is particularly interesting for the purposes of this series of posts is that when these rules are understood and practiced within schools, creativity unleashes, respect develops, and learning deepens.

Let’s take a closer look at these rules and see how they apply in the school and classroom.

Rule #1: Say “yes…and”

In improvisational theater, saying “yes…and” means accepting and building on the offers of others. If someone introduces the idea that you are all on a boat in a scene, the players accept that idea and run with it, giving their entire bodies and minds to the idea of being on a boat as opposed to saying no and blocking the possibility of the idea. Saying “yes…and” opens up avenues to explore and potential to unleash. Saying “yes…and” acknowledges the worth and the ideas of other people on stage. Saying “yes…and” relieves the burden of responsibility for the scene off the individual. Saying “yes…and” creates connection and collaboration. Saying “yes…and” puts someone in the active role of making something positive happen. Learning how to say “yes…and” is a crucial part of developing a risk taking and supportive learning community.

On the best ways to explore the potential of “yes..and” as well as how to introduce the concept of accepting and building on the offers of others in a class is to play the following game:

Try this. Have your class pair up or pair them up yourself. You are going to play “yes…and” to show your students the power of accepting the offer of another. The game is simple. Have each pair find a place in the room to sit down and face one another. Each pair will choose who will start the game. The person in each pair who volunteers to start will offer something that they hear about their partner. The more fantastical, the better (e.g. I heard that you ran away to the circus when you were 8 years old). The job of the partner is to accept that offer by saying, “Yes…and….” and then completing that thought with something that builds on the original offer. To which, the partner who started the game replies, “Yes…and…” and then builds on whatever the other partner offered. Coach the pairs to try to truly accept what has been offered before and to build on the story that is evolving. Here is an example:

Partner 1: I heard you ran away to the circus when you were 8.

Partner 2: Yes…and I apprenticed as a sword swallower

P1: Yes…and there was that time when you accidentally cut your tongue off

P2: Yes…and my father had to sew it back on

P1: Yes…and he was a bit tipsy that night and accidentally sewed it to your right ear lobe

P2: Yes…and after that night, when I heard things, I could taste them too.

P1: Yes…and rumors tasted like chocolate and directions to places tasted salty

You get the idea. A few important things to remember when you try this game with your students. First, don’t ruin the surprise! Don’t explain the power of the game before they experience what happens. Just lay down the rules and let the students discover what happens. Second, make sure that you coach your students to say “yes…and” after every offer. They should not simply say “yes” or even worse, nothing at all! Coach them to say, “Yes…and.” This move helps to push the players to build on the offer that has been made instead of taking it in an entirely different (some would say, selfish) direction. And finally, coach your students to not ask questions. Questions are the death of good improv, good building. Asking a question shirks the responsibility of accepting the offer and building on it and instead lays the expectation back on the person who just made the last offer. One other tip, sometimes it is good to show them a model of this before you have the class break up and do it themselves. You may want the class to gather in a circle and then you choose a student to model the game with you to give the rest of the class a taste of what you are looking for.

Once you let your students play the game, have them share the stories that were created. Then, ask them what it felt like to say “yes…and.” Finally, ask them to describe the kinds of stories that happened because of “yes….and.” This simple game will lay the groundwork for how important it is to accept the offers of others in a community that needs to work and learn together.
Next week, I’ll dig more deeply into what “Yes…and” looks like in the classroom as well as the broader school and spend a bit more time discussing how important the “and” is in “yes…and.” In the meantime, try the game above, and get back to me with how it goes.