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.

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8 thoughts on “Yes, And…

  1. Gosh, I miss you, Steve. Why is Missouri so far from Idaho? Probably because if the two of us were in the same state, it would explode from awesomeness.

    This post is so timely. My school is hosting Quest4Arts, a performance troupe that works with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Our focus this week, besides the obvious creativity and focus and teamwork, is bringing Shel Silverstein poems to life. So far, it’s been great. And I’m learning some theatre games that work with deaf kids (since some of ours from college don’t quite work with this population). Thanks for this post. I will share it with my colleagues :-)

  2. Nice post – great teachers have plans to structure learning as well as the skills of improvisation and flexibility. Knowing when to stick to those plans and when to roll with what’s going on in the classroom at the moment can make or break the day.

    Only complaint with your post? Not all private schools use recitation and lecture. I would say that teachers in all settings can be as creative as they choose to be. Or not.

    Glad I subscribed to your RSS feed. Looking forward to more good things to read here.

  3. Thank you for your response Christine! You’re exactly right that using good planning is essential. When you plan well, then you get the chance to improvise.

    I probably could have worded my private school comment better, I was trying to allude to the traditional, perhaps movie-influenced, vision of the private school. Thanks for pointing that out!

  4. Speaking of improv and the Actor’s Studio, have you seen the Robin Williams episode? Sheer brilliance! He creates something like 25 characters in under 10 minutes.

    I felt like my substitute teaching experience was improv. New class every day. I had to walk in cold. I learned how to read a room, to diffuse a situation with humor, to come up with something productive to do when no lesson plans had been left. The bar felt really low which was good for perfectionist me.

  5. Honestly, I’d be scared if I had a Will Ferrel in my class. I don’t think I could teach the majority of his characters. You raise an excellent point when you say that “knowledge is created from shared experiences.” That’s a big part of the reason I feel fortunate to be an English teacher – teachers and students get to have that field of discovery where we learn from each other where in other fields of study it could be much harder. Half of teaching is improv, I’m convinced. Whether it is the unannounced fire drill or the explosively angry student, we as teachers have to be ready to handle it all. As stupid as many students may think it would be, I wonder what might happen if some degree of role play is placed into education classes at the university level. I think of the first time a student got violently upset in my class and I constantly replay the scene in my head wondering if I could have done better. However, in order to be a good teacher, I think along with an improvisational event there needs to be a healthy dose of reflection. Did you truly handle the situation as best you could have? Without the reflection teaching becomes a stale practice. Steve, you and I know personally what it’s like when we’ve had a teacher who does everything exactly the same for the last 10, 20, 30 (?) years. No one benefits (teachers or students) without reflection on what we’ve done.

  6. Honestly, I’d be scared if I had a Will Ferrel in my class. I don’t think I could teach the majority of his characters. You raise an excellent point when you say that “knowledge is created from shared experiences.” That’s a big part of the reason I feel fortunate to be an English teacher – teachers and students get to have that field of discovery where we learn from each other where in other fields of study it could be much harder. Half of teaching is improv, I’m convinced. Whether it is the unannounced fire drill or the explosively angry student, we as teachers have to be ready to handle it all. As stupid as many students may think it would be, I wonder what might happen if some degree of role play is placed into education classes at the university level. I think of the first time a student got violently upset in my class and I constantly replay the scene in my head wondering if I could have done better. However, in order to be a good teacher, I think along with an improvisational event there needs to be a healthy dose of reflection. Did you truly handle the situation as best you could have? Without the reflection teaching becomes a stale practice. Steve, you and I know personally what it’s like when we’ve had a teacher who does everything exactly the same for the last 10, 20, 30 (?) years. No one benefits (teachers or students) without reflection on what we’ve done.

  7. Pingback: Today, I Was a Teacher « Hi, I’m Steve Moore

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