Or Why Every Teacher Should Take My “Improv for Educators” Workshop.
“The best professional development class I have ever taken!” “What an amazing experience!” “Every teacher should take this class!” “I wish all the administrators would take this class!” “Don’t change a thing it was awesome.” “Thank you so much for doing this!” “Will you be offering a second class?”…
These are samples of actual comments that have appeared on evaluation forms for my “Improv for Educators” Workshop. They are not top-of-the-line, cherry picked comments. They are the typical responses. “Best ever” to “Thank you for this” represents the full range of feedback that I have received. This is a VERY popular class. Over the course of several years, with more than 100 teachers participating, I have not received one negative comment or criticism. Given the fact that teachers are known for making the most difficult students, I believe this is an incredible achievement.
Below is my attempt to explain what makes the class so popular and why every teacher needs to take it!
1. Improv is fun.
One of the most talked about aspects of my Improv for Educators class is the laughter and joy emanating from the room. While this aspect of the class has definitely contributed to its popularity, there is often an idea that something so fun must not be serious; that fun and games are just “fluff.”
This idea starts to fall away when we look into why teachers find it so much fun. When asked, teachers often respond with the same few answers. The most common is that it “took them out of their comfort zone.” They report that they were nervous at first, but by the end they were sharing and performing in ways they never thought they would be able (or willing) to do. They were being creative and spontaneous for the first time in ages. They came in thinking “there is no way you are going to get me to perform!” but within a few hours they found themselves eagerly volunteering for activities before they even know what would be asked of them.
Having a group of adults try something completely new is an incredibly powerful experience. I am often amazed that we, as teachers, ask kids to learn and do new things every day, but most of us cannot remember the last time we had a similar experience!
New experiences like these are even more powerful when they are shared with others and this fact brings us to the second most common answer: the social aspect of the class. In an improv environment, players truly get to know each other. They interact, problem solve, watch each other perform, and have each other’s back. A typical professional development class enables people to chat with the table they are sitting with, and this usually consists of the people they came with, or a group that they have something in common with. (Grade Level, Subject etc.) Rarely do they get to know and appreciate teachers from different levels or subject areas. Teachers taking an improv class learn from and gain respect for the widest possible array of teachers. The class becomes a cohort that will recognize and chat with each other at district wide events. Teachers are infamous for being frustrated with “those” teachers in the other levels or the other side of the school—the improv workshops are a strong bulwark against that culture.
In the end, the joy that comes from an improv workshop comes from personal and professional growth and the feeling that they are part of a special group of fellow professionals, not from the idea that it is easy or “just fluff.” In my experience, all teachers view their time as an incredibly valuable commodity. When they feel that someone or something is wasting it, they say so. To date, no one has said so.
2. Free Stuff
One of the best parts about going to a professional conference is all the free stuff given out by vendors and presenters. For teachers, “free stuff” includes posters and things for their room, or a new lesson or teaching strategy they are excited to try.
My improv class is full of free stuff. This is in the form of games and activities. The class introduces participants to dozens of games that they experience first hand. Most teachers will grab a bunch to try with their students, but in the end, they will adapt two or three games that they make their own. Most are general games that they enjoy playing and can pull out at any moment: during that dreaded ten minutes of unplanned time, or when the bus is late from a field trip, or when they need a game for a special day or reward or even at home with their own kids!
Having this type of game at one’s disposal should be a basic item in every teacher’s toolbox. Knowing that they have a few they can pull out will put them a ease, allow them to be more flexible, and enables the kind of connection and good will with kids that can have a huge impact on behavior and attitude later on.
This aspect of the class alone makes the class worth while to many teachers. Having something concrete that they are excited about trying with their students is the only goal of many workshops and is often beyond the expectations of most participants. No one has ever left my improv workshop empty handed!
3. Curriculum Connections
In my Improv for Educators Workshops there are teachers from every grade level and discipline. It is the widest possible array of experience. There are teachers with 25 or more kids per class, and councilors and specialists who work with no more than three or four at a time. There are kindergarten teachers who are concerned with teaching kids how to control their little bodies (and big behaviors) and there are high school teachers trying to illuminate a complex concept. Disciplines have included general elementary, science, math, English, art, foreign language, physical education, history, special education, reading, esl, guidance, speech, librarians, engineering, music, school nurses and more.
This means that the workshop cannot be about any specific subject or age group. Putting aside that there would never be enough time, I could never even pretend to know more about what would work in their classrooms than they do—A fact that I humbly admit often during the workshop. I have the honor to work with an incredible group of professionals who do amazing things with kids every day. I would never dream of telling them what to do, or how to run their classrooms. My main goal, when it comes to their curriculum, is to help them find ways to enrich and enhance the great work they are already doing. Teachers already have more curriculum binders, goals and requirements than can ever be accomplished within a school year, so my hope is to help them make some of the things they are already doing more effective, more active and more fun.
This seemingly impossible task actually ended up to be much easier than I thought it would. The reason for this is because, despite the diversity within the room, there is one thing that all teachers have in common. When they are playing games and learning the basic principles of improv theater, they can’t help connecting these activities to their curriculum. It’s as if they have a secret, secondary wheel turning in their brains, constantly connecting things to their work.
To clarify what I mean, I will describe one of the games we play in the workshop, called “Bus Stop.” It is the simplest possible scene: A player picks an emotion from a hat, walks to the middle of the stage, sits on a bench waiting for a bus, then, after a short time, the “bus” arrives and she walks off stage, ending the scene. The focus of the activity is that while on stage the performers must demonstrate the chosen emotion as clearly as possible. After each scene the group discusses whether and how the performer had achieved the goal. “What showed us that she was angry?”
In a typical theater class this is a “Show, Don’t Tell” activity. It is about using one’s whole body to show aspects of a character, and not depend on voice and dialogue. In the teacher workshop, however, they cannot stop thinking about ways in which this activity could be used to enhance their curriculum. The Spanish teachers imagine it as a vocabulary review, elementary teachers talk about using it as a prompt for their creative writing unit. (“Instead of saying ‘he walked in mad’ use what you saw in the game to describe what someone who is mad might do or act.”) And specialists working with groups who struggle reading social cues see it as a way to practice recognizing and interacting with people who are feeling those emotions.
These kinds of ideas and connections happen throughout the workshop. I find that it adds a sense of discovery and brings energy and excitement to the work. In the end teachers make these activities their own and are therefore much more invested in them when working with students than if they were provided as part of a ready-made program. Conversely, I have also seen that when these types of activities are part of a program being adopted by a district, teachers are more willing to give them a try and are better able to adapt them to the needs of their classrooms.
4. Basic Skills
A group of teachers once complemented me on the class by saying that it had real impact on their day-to-day teaching. I asked them how this was, and an elementary PE teacher told me a story about what had happened the previous day.
His fourth graders were starting a unit on baseball, and step one was a simple game of catch. Anyone who has ever volunteered to coach their kid’s little league team will recognize the scene: Two lines of kids with gloves facing each other, and balls flying everywhere. The problem was that many kids want to impress everyone with how fast or high or curvy they can throw the ball, so it becomes uncatchable. He talked about how this had been a huge problem every year no matter what he tried.
“This time,” he went on, “I went up to the biggest offenders and said, ‘your job is to make your partner look good. Make him a superstar!” He was amazed! “Every ball after that, snap, right in the glove!”
This idea, that the first job of everyone on a team is to make the other players look good, is a core component to improv theater training. Without it a scene just dissolves into a bunch of cheap jokes at the expense of a clear story (and the other players.) It is also important to what we do as educators. We take pride in the success and achievement of our students. Our job is to lift them up and to make them feel that they did it on their own. When it becomes about us, and our egos, we lose sight of what matters most and lose our effectiveness.
Over the years of teaching improv to educators, I have been amazed at how relevant and connected general improvisational skills and concepts are to what we do every day. So much so that I have come to understand and define teaching as an improvisational art form.
Improvisers need to approach their work with absolute focus. They listen with a willingness to change. They live “in the moment,” making hundreds of choices and adjustments in real time in order to bring their goal and vision into reality. They realize that failure is a part of the process and that the fear of failure is the biggest impediment to success. They are able and willing to take control, but will also step back and play a supporting role when it is beneficial to the group. They understand that saying ‘yes’ can lead to adventure and excitement, and that when they say ‘no’ they are playing it safe.
This list, and the dozens of other items needed to complete it, could just as easily be used as a list of core components to successful teaching. Teaching is that moment of connecting a living, breathing group of children with a living, breathing set of knowledge and skill. We can prepare by learning as much as we can about both, but actual teaching, in the moment, is a moving target, and is therefore improvisational.
I do not suggest that teaching in a classroom is, or should be, the same thing as a comedy theater show any more than I would say that creating comedy theater is the same as performing improvised jazz music. They are both unique, improvisational art forms, with their own structures, needs, and skills. What I am saying is that both of these art forms have studied what it means to improvise for generations, and by learning from them, we can inform and enlighten our practice, as we create our own language and frameworks that enable us to hone our own brand of improvisational skills.
So, in the end, the Improv for Educators workshop is a basic skills class. It has given the PE teacher above a new way to think about and apply teamwork to his lessons. This is no small achievement, especially when you consider that the concept of ‘teamwork’ has been a core component of his long and successful career as both a teacher and a coach. But it also has given many other teachers new ways of approaching and thinking about student discipline, group work, social interaction, creativity, writing, story telling and what it means to have an active and engaged classroom. In other words, they are able to hone and improve on the skills that they use every day. Many of which are so ingrained and basic that they didn’t even recognize them as skills that could be worked on.
I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the teachers who take the time to attend my workshops. I know first hand how valuable that time is, so I strive to create an environment where they can be challenged and engaged; where they can develop a deeper understanding of their craft and grow as professionals; where they can laugh with their colleagues and create new bonds and networks across schools and departments; but at the same time avoid adding to the stress and frustrations of their day to day work. When teachers have that kind of experience, AND walk away with a few activities they can try with their kids, that is going to be a popular workshop. One worth taking.