Improvisation is an edgy, spontaneous art form – and completely unscripted. This means that you don’t know what will happen next, or what your co-players will do or come up with. Unscripted is the key word. When you engage with this, you’re offering yourself up to be thrown off and disoriented, uncertain, and inescapably awkward.
A while ago, I started an Improv Club with some energetic high school students at their exurban high school. The school was surrounded by what were once cow pastures in the furthest reaches of bucolic Westchester County, where kids have to make their own fun.
The club’s numbers grew as kids found they could let off steam in this after-school venue. Kids who had sat numbly in class all day got to bring their most daring and “outlier” selves into room L207. But, with the exception of the two self-appointed “presidents”, none of the kids had any experience with improv, and had no clue as to how to play without a script.
I enlisted the help of my son, Zack, who is a professional improviser. This sounds like an oxymoron, but he does earn a living improvising and making people laugh. He introduced the club to the most important principle: Yes, and… This is the phrase you keep in your head while your co-players verbally lob something at you.
The basic Yes, and…game might go like this: Two students stand up:
Student 1 might say: I just got back from Mars.
And Student 2 says Yes and…is that how come you have green skin? …
Student 1 says Yes and…their spaceship is right over there…
Student 2: Yes, and…Can I go too?
At this point two more students may join in.
Student 3: Yes, and…This is my Mom and I would like to send her to Mars.
Student 4: Yes, and I’m his Mom. I packed a lunch and weapons in case they’re not friendly…
There’s an emphasis on speed: Too much “think” time, and the game falls flat. And, the second you think or say “No”, the improv dies on the spot.
Frequently kids would get tongue-tied and go blank, flail around, and occasionally fall on the floor and groan – When it doesn’t fly, you blow your cover and everybody sees that. But isn’t that the true nature of learning something new? It’s messy and unpredictable. The members soon changed the club's name from “The Waxed Beans” to “Embrace the Awkward.”
Awkwardness? In our school?
In spite of its omniscience, we don’t like to associate Awkward with School. We’re surrounded by the shrill rhetoric: Succeed! Achieve! Score High!... Stumbling and falling? Not in Our School.
In reality, school is infused with awkwardness at every turn. Growing bodies are awkward, teachers are awkward, technology does weird things; the day is packed with socially confusing situations. Everybody did the math wrong today and it’s only first period.
As students reach to learn something new, they hear Wrong. Not it. You didn’t get it. Nope: The daylong incantations of bad news. “No” stops the learning in its tracks and shuts the door, like a failed improv.
Yet, we are improvising as we learn. Zack describes how an improviser approaches the unknown: He or she is somebody who is willing to commit to a choice – If, say, I were to go onstage and do something funny with my body. The audience might just stare for a bit. But I make a commitment to keep doing that funny body thing. They start to get it. They laugh. I then make it even more specific and do it harder. Then I get past the fear of not knowing what will happen next.
All tangled up essays, sciatica, and finding the snakes
This changed the way I taught writing because I wanted to help my students get over their fear of writing something wrong, and to open up what had been shut down over the years. But here of course, students aren’t doing something funny with their bodies. They’re doing something “funny” with their writing.
Aside from a few exceptions, on the whole, my students’ essays are filled with fragments, strange spelling, inconsistent paragraph spacing, disconnected ideas, missing citations. They get all tangled up in words used incorrectly and in the wrong context: It is a festival of awkward writing. Yet, the effort that students put into a labored-over essay is evident – and the sheer energy of their effort activates my sciatica and fires up foot cramps. There is something committed about their awkwardness.
According to Zack’s earlier description, this kind of commitment is needed in order to push further into the unknown. I began to see writing in a new light, and realized that my students were actually going way out on a limb to show me the insides of their minds, and their thinking processes.
What a gift to reframe my role in this way: It was my job to identify the mistakes, in the same way it’s a herpetologist’s job to go up to the mountain and find snakes. Couldn’t we play with this? Instead of no, wrong, you have a run-on sentence here, I learned to work with Yes, and - you have three thoughts going on here. Yes, and- let’s separate those with commas. Yes, and- this idea is ready for more development…Yes, and- this essay is ready to be organized now…
This became an energizing way to teach. Students were writing more. Teaching and writing became more interactive, and more filled with possibilities – like a game. The principle of improv had opened up the playing field. Kids were allowed to commit to the “wrong kind” of writing, yes, and – I could guide them toward more clarity. It opened up our book discussions too – Beginning with the obvious and uninspired student statement: Jay Gatsby was a rich guy… Yes, and – why was it important to him to be a rich guy? Odysseus took a long time to get back home. Yes, and – what was Penelope doing that whole while?
If we’re willing to commit to putting it out there, even if it’s wrong and awkward, we’re in a far better position to learn something new. The opposite would mean to stay cautious, shut down, and “safe.” Being willing to commit to the unknown and play it harder is the rigor part. Rigor can’t be thought of as an outcome. It is a process. Even though it’s a noun, we should think of it as a highly active verb. Instead of setting rigid and narrow specific outcomes, a rigorous curriculum should invite audacity, uncertainty and mistake making. The latter is a far more sustainable kind of learning in terms of student and teacher energy.
Without the awkwardness that accompanies new learning there’s no forward movement.
We’re probably engaged with rigor if part of our brain wishes that we were doing something else that will provide some escape from the present task.
What if teachers applied Yes, and…to solving math equations, the narrative of history, and science labs? In what ways would teaching shift?
To become a better coach, I had to become a more patient teacher, even though patience is not included in the criteria on the evaluation forms that administrators fill out during Formal Observations. Also, in conferences, I rarely hear parents or teachers say – Yes, and – if we’re more patient, we’re going to see Kevin understand this or that concept…Let’s give him more room and time to play with this.
“Real life” messing up
Not too long ago, I chatted with a friend who has been an insurance attorney for years, but has decided to broaden her career in learning about courtroom law. Similar to my Embrace the Awkward club students, she is deliberately throwing herself into an unscripted situation – or rather – it has a script, but she doesn’t know what it is yet. And, similar to the improv students, she has to field verbal lobs from other players, including the Judge, on the courtroom floor. “I don’t know what I’m doing!” She told me. “I think the concepts are similar to insurance law – but the language and terms are so different! I’m shadowing another attorney, but he had to leave the courtroom and when I approached the bench, I was scrambling for the right terms. I’m standing there just sort of stammering… looking for my notes."
I commented that learning new things, no matter how old we are, is so uncomfortable.
“I so get my fourth grader now –“ She nodded. “I get what my son goes through when he’s struggling in school, trying to get something like the math. Based on what I went through this week, I understand now how hard school may be for him.”
If we adults are willing enough to stay in-tune with our own awkward learning, like my attorney friend, we become sensitized to the peak and valley experiences that our kids are having throughout their school day.
Recently, I chatted with my lawyer friend again. "How’s it going?" She broke into a smile. "Much better! I’m finding my way around…its making sense now."
When we watch toddlers who are powered by the commitment to take those first awkward steps, we cheer the falling down as well. The falling down is part of the rigor in learning how to walk. We praise, we snap pictures, and instantly zip them off to everybody we know. We shove the furniture out of the way to give him more room to step forward and to fall down.
Can parents and teachers cheer on, with the same kind of enthusiasm, our older kids as they sweat over essays and wrestle with math equations and science labs? Are we courageous and open minded enough to push aside our own “preferred learning outcomes” and instead, embrace the awkward in learning?
Let’s clear the space so they can play with whatever is in front of them, and follow Zack’s suggestions--
Make the commitment, forget about what scares you and throw yourself into it.