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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.