Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.
Whitney is our next demonstration lesson presenter. She tells us we’re going to be moving around a lot today. It might make you uncomfortable, she says, and that’s a good thing. She gives us all a note-card and asks us to write down any phrase that comes to mind when we think of a cat.
Quickwrite: Describe a time that you had to improvise, either in your classroom or in your personal life. Have you ever used improv in the classroom? If so, describe the experience.
I structure my life in very specific ways. I think of each activity and moment as a discrete chunk cordoned off by spatial, behavioral, and temporal constraints. Once this is done I feel free to function within the order. In typical hyperbolic fashion I think of it as creating chaos out of order. Closely controlled chaos.
In terms of my class, although I’ve asked students to act out certain scenes and narrate writing with their bodies, I can’t think of explicit improv-focused lessons. I’m struggling with this prompt! Every class period is filled with countless moments of improvisation and on-the-spot decision making.
We share out. Many of us talk about having to improv based on technolgical snafus. Someone talks about handling classroom discipline. The parents in the room rattle off the massive improvisation that goes along with having young children.
The lesson here is that we use improv all the time. So how can we embrace the chaos and add in improvisational flexibility? Here are the rules we’ll be trying to follow for the lesson.
We all get in the center of the class. We go through some different icebreakers. We walk around and greet each other as if the other person is our best friend, an ex, a long lost, a secret crush, etc.
Our first game is called ‘Screaming Viking.’ We form a circle. Someone in the middle randomly calls on one of us. Then we have to act like jellow, a viking, or a palm tree. Then, the people to the right and the left of us have different responses according to the role we choose. Next we play ‘presents,’ a game where we partner up and mime giving gifts to one another. It’s up to each partner to say what the gift is off the top of their head. This is our warm-up. We talk about how fun and anxiety-inducing it is. These make for great ‘brain breaks,’ chances for children to get up and shake off the doldrums of sitting in one place for so long.
Next up is “Doctor Know-it-all.” A group gets together and sits in a line. The group takes questions from the audience. Then each person in the group has to give a one word answer, ideally building on the previous person’s answer. OFL asks the first group, “Where do babies come from?” The answer, in slow, halting praise, is “It…depends…on…the…mood…of…your…mother…during…your…nap…” This is great fun. You can use this as a review. Get kids together and ask them “What happened in chapter 3?” Or “What can you tell us about X?”
Whitney offers the following compelling reasons to use improv in the class. She recommends reading an article on the subject by the vaunted comedy group The Second City.
This is powerful stuff. I can’t wait to start using some improv in my room next year. Just the “Yes, and…?” phrase can alter how your classroom functions, Whitney says.
Now we switch to a “Write ‘N Pass
After we go a few rounds we read them out loud. They’re all funny, irreverent, and inappropriate. She tells her students that whatever the kids say or do during improv, it has to be something they’d be comfortable doing in front of their families. Nothing inappropriate or mean spirited. This gets students writing and thinking. Whitney tells us that sharing this kind of writing helps students be more open with a group. These sorts of activities also help students trust themselves by enforcing the notion that there is no one right answer. This is an important point.
We end our morning session on a high note. Everyone is teary-eyed from mirth and bursting with ideas.