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:
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.
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.