Improve with Improv

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Twitter is amazing. Can we just take a moment and give Twitter a high five? When teachers ask me about the best digital learning out there, I always plug Twitter. In our school board, a group of us spent most of December posting daily on Twitter as part of a #twitterchallenge and it was so encouraging. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel cynical about the pace of change and all the barriers that get thrown up in the way of improving practice. The teachers who are on Twitter are the ones pushing the envelope, trying new things, failing sometimes, and laughing about it. They’re my posse.

This week, while bouncing around the Twitter-verse, I got connected with the #resiliencechat folks. One of the questions they had asked was: “If you could create a course for preservice teacher ed. what would it be?” I knew right away what my answer would be. I wrote back: “Improvisation. Every teacher should know how to improvise.”

This might strike some people as an odd response. Surely, there are other more important things that teachers need to learn – developing math content knowledge, learning new instructional strategies, becoming more at ease with technology, just to name a few. While I agree that all of these things are important, if I were forced to choose just one, I would choose improvisation.

Teaching is a structured improvisation. We are constantly confronted with the necessity of changing tack, moving with the wind, adapting to circumstances while still meeting our goals. While we usually have a general idea of what’s going to happen, sometimes we litterally end up making it up as we go along; a lesson emerges from questions, from conversation, or from an unexpected event. But our training makes it seem like teaching is more like a fixed form, a symphony or a concerto that is written down and doesn’t deviate from the plan except in subtle ways. Anyone who’s spent any time in a classroom knows that’s a lie but it’s a lie we as a profession keep perpetuating. We keep teacher education focused on “methods” classes – how to teach science, how to teach language – but we don’t bother to teach teachers how to manage the chageability of the classroom, how to think on their feet, how to confidently and competently improvise.

So what do you learn in an improvisation class? Well, most importantly you learn to say yes. To quote the great Tina Fey:

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun. Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.”

Do yourself a favour and read the entire excerpt – it’s excellent.

In a classroom that means that you’re not so stuck to your lesson plan that you can’t follow an interesting tangent wherever it might lead. It also means that you’re looking for the tangents, you’re excited by them and you intentionally foster them by not planning so tightly as to remove the possibility of their emergence.

Another thing you learn in improvisation is that it’s okay to feel silly, to laugh, and to be laughed at. You learn to take yourself a lot less seriously while learning to take the work a lot more seriously. Improvising is challenging, it’s difficult, and , like everything else, you get better at it with time. It’s not a skill you’re ever going to develop if you never try.

Finally, improvisation teaches you that everyone is creative. If I had a dollar (even a Canadian dollar!) for every teacher that’s ever said to me “I’m not creative” I would be a very rich woman. If every one of those teachers had had an experience of improvising as part of their training, they would have a different concept of their own creativity and that would change the way they see their students. We might start to see the creative potential in our students if we saw it in ourselves and we might start to shift our paradigm away from seeing students’ bodies as mere transportation systems for their heads if we were more connected to our own bodies through movement exploration and improvisation.

So that’s my number one wish for teacher education… that every teacher learn to improvise as part of their pre-service training. Call me a dreamer… I’ll say YES!

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