I am not here to tell you that 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic have been great gifts to education if you just look at them right. That kind of toxic positivity drives me bonkers, truth be told. Instead, I want to share some strategies I’ve been using to navigate this wild era based on strategies from my time prior to teaching, back when I performed as an improv artist in Chicago (yes, you read that right).
There are three strategies in particular that have helped me and my students to power through this roller coaster of a year, and I hope they might help you, too. The strategies include:
1. Embrace the plot twist: Ask any improviser for the rules of improv and they’ll inevitably mention “Yes And.” Successful improv artists hop up on stage and dive into whatever reality the audience and their acting partners suggest. For example, I might expect that I’m about to do a scene where I’m waiting at a train station, but my acting partner tells me we’re socks in a washing machine. Instead of arguing with my scene partner that my idea is better, I obey the improv rule. The rule of “Yes And” invites me to accept this new reality and build upon it.
“Yes And” requires the player to embrace unexpected challenges as plot twists instead of disasters. I remind my students of this all the time, reinforcing the resilience they’re building day by day. Parents can use this framing to help kids embrace the “yes, and” of improv instead of resisting the plot twists life brings. And we teachers? We benefit from this reframing as well. Instead of spending our finite store of energy fighting the reality of masks, social distancing, unstable Wi-Fi, and the burden of Zoom, we dive into these challenges with a sense of pioneering adventure.
2. There’s Always Another Scene: Some improv scenes inevitably devolve into disaster. Audiences don’t get our jokes, we miss the connection with our partners, or we think of the perfect line… after the lights go down. So how do improvisers find the courage to jump up on that stage? How do improvisers keep stage fright and anxiety at bay? We remember a second truism of the improv mindset: there’s always another scene! We shrug off bad scenes, take what we learned from our flops, and we work to make the next scene better. Knowing many students feel shame and anxiety around test-taking, an “improv-ified” shift challenges me to make sure “there’s always another scene” in the classroom. You can do this, too. Build in ways to allow students as many swipes at assessments as you can. Personally, I love assessment tools that allow my students to retake a test from a large question bank as many times as they need without hurting their grade. The fact that I can set it to auto-magically score for me saves me time as well. This small shift has helped my students learn fearlessly. Instead of tossing away tests with low grades in shame, students eagerly dig into their mistakes. They learn that mistakes are not failures, but gateways to deeper understanding. They learn what improvisers already know: mistakes are often more interesting than successes.
3. Find the Game: The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Comedy Manual, easily my favorite book on improv, places a heavy emphasis on “finding the game” as a means to creating terrific improv scenes. This method requires players to view every interaction on stage as a clue to the underlying game. The gift of viewing each scene as a game ensures a sense of play on stage; it ensures joy and engagement. What educator would not want their students to approach learning with a sense of play, joy, and engagement? I used Schoology to create an optional gamified course. In it, students had the option to complete a variety of tasks to earn experience points (XPs) through grammar exercises, entering writing contests, doing good deeds, or acing comprehension quizzes. This created a fun atmosphere for students who enjoyed playing this year-long giant game. For students willing to cash in their XPs, I provided prizes ranging from dollar store Bob Ross puzzles, to seating chart changes, to free hints during a test. Some students chose to keep their XPs and rise to the top of the leaderboard because bragging rights are free! I found that students who engaged in the gamified optional course reported more satisfaction with the course overall and each of them mentioned feeling excited to tackle the tasks that also, they noted, expanded and deepened their learning.
When I bring up my background in improvisation to other educators, I’m often met with skepticism and doubts. People confess that they could never improvise. It’s too scary. They couldn’t possibly come up with something out of nothing. The idea of inventing their way into a new reality seems like fantasy. But here’s the truth of it: improvisation is absolutely the most natural and human activity, and we are all doing it all the time. (Nobody scripted that you read this article today, did they?) And the truthier truth? The 2020 supervillain and its evil sidekick COVID-19 have forced our need to improvise into high gear. So, why not use strategies the professionals use?
If you’d like to share your best (and worst) classroom improvisations, please reach out to me on Twitter @msfilas. I promise I’ll “Yes And” you.