Yes, And…

I’ll be the first to admit that I had never seen James Lipton before Will Ferrel introduced me to him on Saturday Night Live years ago. I think if he were impersonating me right now he might say something very literary like, “It was not until my later years that I began to treasure journeying through the desert of his wit…” Okay, so I can’t pass the buck on that chipped gem of a sentence. Pretentious attempts at humor aside, Inside the Actor’s Studio has now earned itself a place in my heart and on my DVR.

After a very long and–boring is the wrong word–predictable day, I came home to an empty house. When my wife leaves town, the culinary theme of my life begins to sound a lot like the shuffling of frozen food bags and the clanging of soup cans. My dog is kind enough to welcome me home and then promptly return to sleeping, as she does best, wedged between my reclined shins on the sofa. Jeopardy! hadn’t recorded today for some reason, so I–gasp–turned on live TV and found Amy Poehler staring back; she was looking deep into the impish and bearded grin of Lipton talking about her favorite words.

Both of Poehler’s parents were teachers, I discovered. Upon hearing that she was considering teaching English before she went into comedy, my ears perked up. Lipton was asking her about the various improvisational theatre groups she had worked with when a familiar phrase came up:

“Yes, and…”

Having been involved with improv both with my High School troupe and with Brand Name Improv at Augustana College, the term  was a familiar one.

The most vital aspects of improv are accepting what you are given (saying “yes” to one of your ensemble) and then giving something to them in return (and…). This ensures that the stage is engaged at all times; turning down your fellow players can leave an awkward silence that impregnates the whole ensemble with doubts–then, everyone needs saving. I think teaching is very similar. Whether it’s with your staff or your students, you need to be able to improvise accordingly.

You can't control everything, but I try to encourage my students to be prepared with the essentials.

You can't control everything, but I try to encourage my students to be prepared with the essentials.

If classroom management is one of the most significant problems that new teachers face, then improv classes should be nestled right next to educational psychology on the curriculum. Teaching is all about being prepared to be unprepared. There’s no way you can know what will happen from tomorrow or in the next hour of class; the one constant you can trust in is uncertainty. If teachers can take a page from Poehler’s book into their classrooms, then the environment may just start to change from a rigid and scheduled order of events into something much more organic and flexible.

I thought about the philosophy of “Yes, and…” during my classes today. We were discussing additions to our vocabulary as a part of an ongoing series on composition. I started to notice that my teaching, at least partially, was reflecting the improvisational equation.  As I gave students a prompt, I required them to contribute back to me. We were building a scene together. It wasn’t about a crash-test dummy invited to a potluck or a mutant banana trying to save the world from a pair of stinky socks, but it was a collaborative scene nonetheless.

I have no qualms with regular performance theatre, but I’m very drawn to the excitement of creation in the moment. When you’re making a scene, you’re drawing upon so many mental faculties. I think of book characters, movie scenes, pop music references I can make, and anything else that will give the audience a strong visual using only my voice and gestures. Isn’t teaching the same? I know that my teaching reflects a constant process of changing thoughts. I certainly don’t stand before a lectern and recite back and forth in the perennial fashion of private schools. Everything I have learned so far about teaching and learning is connected to the idea that knowledge is created from shared experiences. What we truly know doesn’t need a script to be repeated.

I don’t think anyone will argue that teaching is boring. You may not have any Will Ferrels or Amy Poehlers in your class, but kids are not boring. Even my first hour class finds ways to surprise me every day regardless of their energy level at 8:00 am. I never know what to expect next from them in their work and discussion; I hope they feel the same way about me. It’s easy to find students who say that teachers are boring, some of them express that thought daily. What are you doing in your class to excite students? When was the last time you started down a path with no map and no worries? Prepare to be unprepared, take what your students give you and change it into something worth handing them back.

Pull!

If you asked me how long it’s been since the beginning of school, I couldn’t answer without reaching for a calendar; everything still feels new. I can read the eyes of my fellow teachers when they ask me–grinning–so…how’s it going? They want a story, an exciting rubbernecker they can chuckle at first and then offer me advice on how to overcome it with time. They’re consoling gestures are at the ready, locked and loaded. I’m not usually one to disappoint, but I’ve been returning a lot of grins lately.steve_gun

It’s become a disciplined routine for me to write this blog each week, one I’ve come to look forward to rather than begrudge. The pouring out, reflection, metacognition, exfoliation–call it what you will–has been as cathartic as my marksmanship class was one semester during college. Shooting up small groups of thoughts each week has allowed me to track some subtle emotions about teaching that would have slipped by unnoticed otherwise.

This past week, I gave my first essay test over a novel. For my freshman, it was not their first exam or their first essay. Each week they spend time writing silently for short periods of time on a topic of their choice. They are provided with a list, which they staple into their journal covers, each quarter with plenty of starter ideas to choose from. I ask only that they write 100 words on the subject they choose; each quarter the word requirement increases and they–well, we–become more aware of their writing abilities.

This week was exciting for two reasons; first, because it focused on one of my favorite things: individual student writing conferences. Meeting one-on-one with students in a comfortable environment provides an open channel for learning like no other situation can. Conferencing gives me the chance to get in touch with the kids who are quiet and more reserved, but also to reinforce the positive behaviors I’m seeing from each student as an individual.

Reason number two: data trends! I’ve been polling my student population each week about three basic ideas which I believe are key to successful learning. They simply rate, on a scale of 1-10, how well they understood the weeks activities, how much they enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy) them, and what they would change. This is the third week I’ve been tracking during meaningful sessions and I can’t wait to crack the spine on some spreadsheet analysis (call me crazy, but I love graphs).

Along with reflecting through writing, I’ve been finding these weekly polls very helpful. Just judging by facial expressions, groans, and eye movements, it’s hard to say what students’ truly think. I make sure students respond anonymously and honestly. I tell them not to please me, I need to know what they think. Putting value in student voice is a practice I cherish as a teacher. So many students feel teachers and schools are against them, holding them down, and praying they fail. Any authentic inkling to the contrary gets students thinking…”wait, can I actually give my input on this assignment?”

I crave each student’s feedback and the challenges brought to me each week by them.

Formula for Success

My mother always taught me to share, but I think she was more concerned with my toys. I can’t quite remember who taught me to share myself. I wouldn’t say I’m from a family of teachers (there are a few), but somewhere along the way I became fond of sharing things with others I had figured out. The delight came for me in seeing that another person could bypass some sort of suffering that I had experienced. The greatest suffering of my life—academically—came during college for me: organic chemistry.

Most people have the wherewithal to run the opposite direction from a class like o-chem, but I have always been attracted to dangerous things. Never has my brain been so punished, sleep been put off for so long, or my eyes burned by so many lachrymatory fumes. I agonized for a B in this class through six-hour labs, pages of reports, and acid burns (I melted a pair of glasses actually) among other things.

Before I left the wonderfully dangerous world of chemistry behind for English, I had a life-changing experience; I was asked to teach. Through some miracle (or clerical error I’m sure) I ended up being asked to do summer research with one of my professor’s teams. I was excited, terrified, and honored all at once. It was a chance to earn minimum wage every day in a summer for graduate level cancer research; I was psyched. Also, I had to teach a freshman biochemistry lab for nursing majors.

Oh.

Growing up, I was a camp counselor, youth leader, marching band section leader, and aficionado of anything that allowed me to stay away from my dorky parents for hours or days at a time. Later in college, I became a peer advisor in a freshman dorm; today I teach high school communication arts. Before that, even thinking about teaching a class of my peers made me feel like staring over cliff.

I’ve always liked climbing too. As a kid, I was a tree-scaler. In high school, I discovered indoor rock gyms. Friends in college introduced me to top-roping (tying yourself onto the top of a rock face, rappelling down, and then climbing back up). It was a tense transition, going from a safe 30 feet of indoor rock holds and plush padding to more than double that of real, skin-destroying, finger-crushing, billion-year-old quartzite. Staring over the edge, you can’t even remember what a climbing pad feels like.

King and Queen Rock at Palisades State Park in South Dakota

King and Queen Rock at Palisades State Park in South Dakota

Teaching left me feeling just as exposed in the beginning.

I could tell you all about the different names for failing rock climbers (there’s something called “Elvis Leg” that you get when you’re nervous and shaky on the wall), but all you need to know is that when you fail, it’s public. The good thing about climbing is that if you fall, at least you never have to face your friends. Ok, that was too morbid, I don’t know anyone who has ever even broken a bone climbing. However, the “reel me back up!” conversation never leaves you feeling accomplished.

Facing a class, you don’t get a “reel me back up” option.

On the wall, there are cracks you have to stick your hands into in order to go higher. There may be spiders or razor-like spines inside, but there aren’t many ladder-like rungs on the face; you have to make your own holds. You have to take what the rock gives you, add a little chalk, a lot of guts, trust your anchor and jump.

I don’t remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach. I think I may have been light-headed (either from nerves, caffeine, or the toxic fumes that I was so familiar with in the chem lab). Luckily, I was not alone; I had an anchor in the room.

Dr. Gary Earl was the dean of the department, my unofficial advisor, and would become like a second father to me during my two year stint in science. He was the advocate I didn’t know I deserved. It took the separation of a few years for my hindsight to focus in, but eventually I realized what a boon to my career he gave me while I was there. Dr. Earl is a champion of his students in every way. He assures them the knots are tied and that falls result in pendulum-like motion and not death.

Something happened on that first day that made me come back a second time. I was introduced as a person who could help, a guide for the tough waters ahead. I had almost forgotten, just last year I was chartering my own path through similarly stormy seas. I remembered my own lab teachers and their steady suggestions along the way. If I had to pick a moment for the conception of my teaching career, it would have been then.

What does it take to make a teacher? It’s no simple formula, I can tell you, but it isn’t so strange. Share what you know with others. Convey to them that, while the wind is blowing hard, the water rising—the metaphors for challenge mounting—they can reach the other side.

As I work through the first weeks of what I hope will be many years, I find myself looking backward with one eye, staring into the vanishing point. The other is looking forward at—well, I’m sure you can imagine just as well as I what the future holds: an exciting challenge.

Wizards and Crickets and Teaching, Oh My!

In just a few months, the entire population of our building will be moving in to a brand new, state-of-the-art high school across town. I’m excited. We are told nothing will need to be taken besides our personal files and belongings because everything will be shiny and new there. Our current building was constructed decades ago and, while it is still a usable and safe place to be, it has its share of retrograde appeal.

There are janitorial closets between every three or four classrooms on the various wings, each of which are home to no less than a dozen talkative crickets, no doubt mulling over the hero’s journey and the apparent symbolism of Excalibur as they interpret it when staring at the giant mop handle before them. There’s something comical about the sound of crickets in a high school though; that’s exactly what you’d expect to hear in the new teacher’s classroom after quips like, “so what are you thoughts about this chapter?” “what did we discuss yesterday?” or “who can tell me what an adverb is?”.

“Chirp-chirp. Chirp-chirp.”

I think some people come to expect it after a while and just stop asking questions of the whole class. It’s hard, but allowing space for thought is exactly what most new teachers don’t do in their discussion. I know I had to make adjustments when I started running a class during my practica and student teaching. Even when we had read aloud as a class, I found that simple questions posed to the class could prove to be treacherous.

“What does Atticus Finch do for a living?”

you may ask during the beginning of a To Kill a Mockingbird unit. If you hear crickets, lead on and let the students tune in to what they are saying. Their immediate silence isn’t a sign of ignorance, idiocy, or academic impotence, it’s a sign they need something from you; it’s your cue, not theirs. I’ve noticed my second and third (prompting) questions are often answered slowly at first, but then built upon by an increasing torrent of details as student memories are jogged.

I forget what crickets sound like as the discussion mounts with energy and, by now, the sleepy kid is starting to open his book to figure out why he missed something so important that’s got the class in a ruckus. You’ve got to love ruckus to be a teacher. It’s ruckus that drives your energy, you have to conjure it, calm it, and then careen through it like Gandalf does the Woodland Realm.

To be a teacher is to be a wizard.

Gandalf the Grey

Here's my pal, Gandalf the Grey