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.

One comment on “Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning: Part 1

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