I spent three years performing improv with a troupe in Iowa many years ago, and I’ve spent ten years teaching improv to middle school children, so I related to her experiences, and I appreciated her reflections. Reading this while attending the ISTE conference, which is dedicated to connecting technology in education, gave me some interesting ideas about how these concepts intersect.
In the introduction, Madson wrote about her early attempts at achieving tenure as a professor. She said that she did everything right, colored within the lines, and followed all of the rules. In the end, she did not achieve tenure at that time because she was too predictable, and she was told that her work was not original enough. She realized that she needed to stop comparing herself to some ideal in her mind, and to just start being true to herself. She also had to work with her own personal talents, and to stop comparing herself to others. This led her to tenure at a much better school.
As I was riding in for the first day of the conference, this advice struck me as golden. I am too likely to become intimidated by the education “superstars” at events like this. I forget that I’ve done some pretty great things in my own classroom, and that, even more importantly, it isn’t a competition in the first place. It was nice to remember that I bring my own set of experiences to any situation, and that they have value. Madson discussed thirteen tenets of improv, but I’ll use only ten of those here.
1. “Say yes, and” – In improv, if your partner in a scene begins by mentioning the (imaginary) peanuts in your hand, and gives you tips on how to tempt an elephant to come closer to the fence so you can feed it…well, then that is the reality of the scene and you have to “say yes” to it! In fact, you need to add an “and” to the scene. “Yes, and” means going with the scene and adding something unique to it as well so that it keeps moving forward. For instance, one of the peanuts in your hand begins to move – it’s actually a mouse and the elephant just noticed that!
2. “Don’t Prepare” – In improv, it is very important to listen, and to be “in the moment.” You cannot control the direction of a scene, because that great line you have practiced in your head is irrelevant the moment someone else says something that changes the scene’s direction anyway.
As teachers, it is in our nature to prepare. But sometimes listening well is the best way to prepare. Listening to our students can be much more effective, and can lead us in new directions. I had a wonderful example of that this year. During recess, I found a cluster of about ten sixth grade boys huddled around one of the student’s computers. They were all engrossed, and that is always a red flag with a computer in unstructured time! I walked over to “shut down” whatever they were doing, but I ended up stopping to look and listen instead. As a result, I was pulled into the group as the boys explained the website “Minecraft” to me. It was fascinating, and very educational! Instead of shutting down their fun, I ended up high-fiving them for the interesting worlds they had created. In fact, about a month later, I allowed two of my students to use Minecraft to build Aztec pyramids for a class project! Listening definitely helped me out, and not preparing a canned response to the situation allowed me insight into a great learning experience!
3. “Just Show Up” – Onstage, this often means tackling your own fears, especially that big one where you don’t want to end up looking like a fool. Well, improv is a huge risk, and the fact is that scenes bomb on a fairly regular basis. Getting over that fear of looking stupid is probably the reason I think improv is the perfect experience for middle school kids. You just have to live through feeling stupid a few times to realize that you do live through it.
I began using technology as a result of participation in PLP (Powerful Learning Practice). I spent my first year feeling pretty dumb, and my greatest lesson that year was that it is really okay NOT to know things! I’m still feeling that way, because there are so many people who know more than I do. It’s fine though, because when I experience that feeling of inadequacy I jokingly use Stuart Smalley’s aphorism – “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” That usually does the trick! Then, I take a deep breath, and show up!
4. “Start anywhere” – With an improv scene, you just have to find an entry point and go. It can be something very mundane that gets the ball rolling. The important thing is to get it rolling and then to go with the flow.
At ISTE, one of my favorite moments was when Heidi Hayes Jacobs said, “Just upgrade one thing in each of your units this year.” That made it all seem so much more manageable to me! If I just start anywhere, find an entry point and make an upgrade, I’ve done what I hope to do. I can do that! One upgrade will lead to others, and each year I’ll add more, but one…yes, that feels very possible to me.
5. “Be average” – People starting improv often think that they have to be funny to do it well. That is far from true! In fact, the “funny” types often fail, because they are not the best listeners and they don’t always play well with others. Improv is a team experience, and to be part of a good team you have to share the laughs.
6. “Pay attention” – In an improv scene, you have to pay attention to the details to keep the scene moving. As an example, you use quite a bit of mime with improv. If someone sets up a door in a scene and closes it, and the next person walks right through the closed door, the entire audience will gasp! It is important to remember the details, and to keep the integrity of the scene.
One of my favorite things about ISTE was that in a venue full of gadgetry and flash, presenters kept coming back to the human element. From Alan November’s excellent presentation on empathy as the most important 21st Century skill, to Chris Lehmann’s very moving final keynote where he also talked about empathy and developing the hearts and minds of each student, the human element was emphasized. Seeing the students as individuals was a recurring theme, and really, really knowing them. It was nice to be reminded that it isn’t about the tools, it’s about the kids.
7. “Face the Facts” – In improv, it is important to be humble. You have to know what you can and cannot do well, and you have to be realistic about it. In order to work well with others, you have to see yourself clearly.
In teaching, this is also true! It is important to understand our weaknesses, and our strengths in the classroom. In order to do this, we need to be honest with ourselves. We can model the healthiest learning environment when we show our students this side of our own journey. Our students will benefit far more from seeing us tackle a learning curve challenge than from our being perfect at everything we do.
8. “Make mistakes, please” – In improv, you have to try things to see if they will work. They don’t always work. That’s just a natural part of the process. When I used to introduce improv to my students, I always said, “It’s O.K. to fail.” I loved that they usually came back with, “Wait, we can fail this class?” If you aren’t trying new things, you aren’t growing.
In the classroom, and especially with technology, not everything works perfectly. If you keep teaching the same way every year, year after year, you really aren’t growing either. It is important to try something new, even when that new thing doesn’t work out so well. We can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes, and that might just be the perfect lesson!
9. “Wake up to gifts” – In a scene, a gift is an interesting suggestion. When a person enters a scene, they need to “bring a gift” with them. So, in a pizza parlor, the gift might be the hair you just found on your slice. It moves a scene forward and brings in an interesting element for the actors to handle. In life, we receive gifts all the time, and it is important to acknowledge them.
Improv was a gift that I received after taking a ten-day training class in the 1980’s with Jack Canfield on promoting self-esteem in the classroom. That gave me the confidence to find an improv class, and the next gift was being asked to join a troupe. The opportunity to join the PLP group and to begin this journey with technology was certainly a life-changing experience. I’ve mentioned the lovely gift I received in the ticket to attend ISTE, when my friend Megan gave me her place at the conference. As well as friends pitching in to help me with the logistics. One friend helped me by picking up my daughter from camp, and another checked in on our new puppy twice a day.
I received a gift when I walked into my first presentation and looked up to see Barb, one of my oldest and dearest friends, at the conference. We didn’t think to check to see if the other was coming, even though we both work in education and both love technology. Having lunch and catching up with Barb was a great experience for me.
Each presenter gave me gifts as well. I received gems of wisdom, and the practical and personal advice. Finally, teaching itself is a gift. I was hired as the development and communications director at the independent school where I teach. I was given the opportunity to teach one class of eighth graders in my first year, and I switched to full-time teaching several years later when the position opened up. I’ve had several terrific jobs in my life, but none that give me gifts like I receive from teaching!