Enjoying the Ride! – ISTE and Improv

Thanks to my friend and colleague, Megan, generously donating her ticket to me, I was able to attend ISTE 2011 (ISTE stands for the International Society for Technology in Education) in Philadelphia this week. It was aptly described as “inspiration overload,” and I came away jazzed, refreshed, and slightly overwhelmed. In an email, I thanked Megan saying in part, “I can’t thank you enough for this great experience! I learned a lot, but it also made me feel more centered. I do a lot of tech stuff – but it is more important to go back to listening to students and to focusing on them. It was the perfect combination of tech tools and thinking deeply about what is really important in the classroom! What an amazing experience!!!!”Since I live near Philly, I took the train into the city to attend the conference. Taking the train in each day was really nice. I used to do that for my work, and I miss those reading sessions in my car commute now. I was reading a terrific book as I rode in and back on the train during the three days, Improv Wisdom, Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up, by Patricia Ryan Madson – a theater teacher at Stanford University. Using the tenets of improvisational theater and applying them to situations and attitudes in life, Madson found a way to connect the “rules” of improv to life in general.

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!

In the classroom, we have to “say yes” to our students. If we don’t, we can shut down their enthusiasm and their learning. If we say “yes, and” then we can help to guide them in new directions. Kids do use technology on their own quite a bit, but not always as a learning tool. It is up to us to help them to use these tools in productive ways. In our own exploration, “yes, and” is a great attitude to have as well. It’s important to be positive with technology, and sometimes you just have to push buttons and flip levers to see what happens. It’s important to have that kind of positive attitude when you learn, and to find new ways to incorporate technology into a class!

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.

In learning new technologies, being average means not trying to be the top dog, but being someone who plays well with others. I loved the culture of sharing at ISTE, and I appreciate my colleagues who so readily share information. Having the most friends on Facebook says nothing about the quality of those friendships. Being average can mean paying attention to the quality instead. Sometimes, it is in seeing something routine a new way that makes the greatest difference in the end. In the classroom, a small change to a classic element might be the perfect way to upgrade!

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!

wedu-toboggan-jump10. “Enjoy the ride!” – I often think of improv as jumping onto a big toboggan and holding on as it careens down a hill at top speed. The ride is thrilling, exhilarating, and terrifying! Classroom teaching is a lot like that. Just when you want to slam on the breaks, another drop takes your breath away. Once you step out into the world of technology, you can find yourself moving faster than you expected. The ISTE conference was such a ride, and watching the hashtag #ISTE11 on Twitter felt like a lot like flying downhill on a toboggan at times! Students’ creative work can take you places that you never expected or prepared for, if you let it. The best thing that you can do for yourself and for your students is hang on and enjoy the ride!

2 Responses to “Enjoying the Ride! – ISTE and Improv”

  1.   Patricia Ryan Madson Says:

    Few things thrill an author more than to have her work so well understood. Coming from someone who has studied, performed and taught improv your message has real meaning. I appreciate so much that you took the time to write and share your enthusiasm. The application of these ideas to education is a perfect fit. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your blog is my GIFT today.

  2.   Kami Mulzet Says:

    Patricia, Thank you for reading the post and for your lovely reply! You made my day! I teach improv to middle school students from the aspect of the life-skills that are developed. Your book is a wonderful way to apply those lessons in a very personal way. I was so thrilled when I found it! Again, thanks for your words here, and for your wonderful book!

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