One Weird Trick To Become A Better Teacher

Study improvisational theater.

Improvisation teaches us to play and have fun with whatever comes our way. Flexibility, play, and listening, that’s what we learn when we improvise.
Photo by Josh Calabrese vis Stocksnap

Seriously.

That’s the trick.

I mean it. If I could add one required course to all pedagogy curricula, it would be one that teaches improvisational games, like the sort you see on Who’s Line Is It Anyway.

I never had to take such a course. I was never a drama kid (I was a band kid). And, as a college teacher, the amount of teaching practicum I had to do before being allowed in the classroom was, um, pretty much none (although as a scholar in rhetoric and composition, it’s probably more than many college instructors have!).

All that being said, it’s being able to do improvisation that I consider my greatest skill as a teacher.

Although I never took such a class, never participated in a school or community play, or any of that, I did grow up in and around renaissance fairs, which as part of their cast training typically teach improvisation (because that’s the cast’s main means of entertaining patrons).

What does improvisation teach teachers?

  • Active listening
  • Flexibility
  • Play
  • Building on the unexpected
  • Projection and enunciation
  • Body awareness and presence
  • Probably a bunch of other stuff too 🙂
The author teaching a fair patron at the Virginia Renaissance Fair in 2017
Photo from the author’s collection

Active listening: The game that comes to mind here is the “Yes, and” game–in fact, I often think this was the most valuable exercise we did in fair rehearsals. The rules of the game are that you are collaborating with the other players on a project (say, building a bridge) and you take turns saying what you will do or what the thing is like. You always start with “yes, and” and you can’t remove or contradict anything that has already been said.

As a teacher, our job is mostly listening. We have to respond to whatever students say in answer to questions or prompts, and we can’t just contradict things. We have to somehow turn everything into the direction that the class requires. This requires active listening skills, such as one uses when playing “Yes, and” and other improvisation games.

Flexibility: Just as in the case of active listening, our job is to build on what the students already know. But we don’t know what our students already know when we write our lesson plans. I know I can’t be alone in saying that some of the most effective lessons I’ve taught were the ones where I ditched my lesson plan entirely to respond to something going on in the classroom. I know some of the most effective lessons I’ve had as a student were these.

Improvisation teaches us this flexibility. It teaches us stock moves to use rather than preparing lines and strict directions. It teaches us how to select from a tree of possible responses rather than to stick to a rigid plan.

The author (foreground, blue sleeves) at the Ohio State University Renaissance fair many, many years ago (circa 2002 maybe?)
Photo from the author’s collection.

Play: Improvisation games are, well, games. They’re about having fun within a set of rules. As James Paul Gee and others have argued repeatedly, learning–real, deep learning–is always play. Classes aren’t always fun, yes, but to make them engaging we need to play.

Improvisation games help us learn how to build spaces where people feel safe doing goofy things and taking risks doing things they might not otherwise have done. That’s what we need in a classroom. They also teach us to play with what we’re given, to have fun with it. As teachers, we should be having fun in the classroom, as should our students. We should be playing.

Building on the Unexpected: When we ask questions, we often have an answer in our minds.

That’s almost never the answer we get.

Improvisation teaches us to work with these answers, not against them. Rather than saying to a student “No, that’s not it,” we learn to say “Yes, I can see where that answer comes from. Let’s explore it.”

Active learning happening at The Virginia Renaissance Fair
Photo from the author’s collection

Projection and Enunciation: We are performers in the classroom. Like all performers, our voices are often our primary medium. Any lesson can sound dull if your voice is dull or timid, but it takes practice to develop a strong, engaging voice that doesn’t give you a sore throat after a whole day of using it.

Improvisation and other theater skills will teach you to use exactly the kinds of voices you need in a classroom–dynamic, engaging, clear, and healthy.

Body Awareness and Presence: In fair rehearsals, we learned how to develop our characters by using our whole bodies. We learned how to “lead” with different parts when we walk to deepen our characters, and we learned where to direct our gazes relative to other people to show our characters’ relationships with each other. We learned how to use gesture to make ourselves take up more space, to make our characters more vivid.

All of these things work in the classroom. We want to direct attention with our whole bodies. We want to portray a carefully selected teaching persona. We want to show respect to our students with our body language by directing our gaze, for instance, at the upper half of their face. We want to carefully portray emotions to respond to material and make it memorable. We need control over our bodies, a skill we learn when we learn to take the stage as well.

Probably a bunch of other stuff as well applies here too. I’ve been doing fairs so long that I can’t really remember when I learned some of this stuff. But I do know that it makes me a more confident teacher to have learned how to do improvisation games. The skills actors need on stage are very much the same skills we need to make our own performances in the classroom.

Meat As Lessons In Mortality

Over the weekend, I was preparing chicken for cooking. I had bought a whole bird, because I thought I wanted to roast it whole (and it was cheap that way!), but when I decided to cook it, I realized I wanted it cut into pieces. So I started cutting it up, something I don’t think I’ve done since I was a preteen because, like so many people, I’d grown accustomed to just buying the pieces I wanted already partitioned.

As I broke the joints and sliced the tendons between the major cuts, I had that thought I so often do when I work with raw meat for any real amount of time: this flesh is no different from my own human flesh. How easily might my own joints be pulled apart like this. How easily might my own muscles be rent asunder, split apart along their grains.

But it also had me a bit nostalgic for helping my mother in the kitchen. You see, one of the best ways my mother encouraged my curiosity and love of science as a child was by letting me help her in the kitchen. When she would prepare a whole chicken (which was quite often because, as I said, that’s the cheap way to buy meat, and money was tighter for my parents when I was a child), she would let me play with the pieces. Of course, there were rules. One doesn’t just let a child play with raw meat–there were instructions about safe handling and responsible cleanup, and so forth, all very valuable lessons. But more importantly, there was exploration.

She let me play with the tendons, so I could see how muscles pulled and contracted to make joints move. She would explain that that’s how it works in every animal, even humans. She would let me take a knife and dissect the heart, and see how the chambers interacted. She would help me learn about gizzards and livers, and I would try to place them in the bird where they should have gone.

Basically, it was a great My First Dissection experience.

And it wasn’t the only way my parents encouraged me to use our meat-eating as a way to explore the natural world, to appreciate the once-living creatures that we owed our dinners to.

It was something like that.
Photo by Steve via Stocksnap

One year, when my father came home from his annual hunting trip with his father, he brought not only the processed venison from the doe he harvested, but also–untaxidermied, just in a black plastic trash bag–the deer’s head. It had glassy eyes. He said he wanted me to know where the meat came from. He let me pet the fur on its snout (and then, of course, wash my hands–there are Rules!).

I took the lesson to heart: my meat is something else’s mortality. (Incidentally I also realized for the first time that day that dead things don’t generally have their eyes closed unless someone closes them–an important lesson that television didn’t teach me!)

I think a lot of people, when they start really thinking about the similarities between themselves and the meat that we put on our plates, tend toward horror and revulsion. For many vegetarians, that’s the push that led them to abandon meat entirely. When I tell people about these childhood experiences, most people respond with horror at the apparent morbidity, which honestly confuses me. It seems normal to me. Why should I not confront the reality that, for me to eat meat, something had to die? Why should I not meditate on the fragility of flesh while I prepare my dinner?

It is my firm belief that every meat-eater must, at some point, confront the reality that what they eat was once alive. I have the utmost respect for those who have confronted this reality and decided that they can’t, in good conscience, continue eating meat. Likewise, I respect those who, like me, have faced their food in the eye, taken the time to reflect on the moral implications of meat-eating and life-taking, and decided that they can continue eating meat while honoring the life that meat takes.

But for most of us… we package our meat pre-cut into nearly unrecognizable shapes shielded in plastic and styrofoam so we don’t have to confront this reality. Our butchers are hidden behind counters, or more commonly perhaps behind factory facilities far away from our points of purchase. We hide every trace that our food was once an animal, because the idea makes us uncomfortable.

But of course we keep other reminders of our mortality hidden away too. When a loved one dies, we have the body taken away immediately and prepared behind closed doors–if it wasn’t already sequestered in a hospital before death. We go to a viewing and a funeral and then we go back to work and hide our grief. We avoid talking about our own deaths, and we pretend that if we just eat and exercise right we never have to face our own mortality.

But it’s not healthy for us to hide from our own mortality. It makes facing that inevitable moment that much harder. And stifling our curiosity about death because that’s too morbid is really stifling our curiosity about life.

What I am really saying here is that it’s healthy for us to contemplate and explore even the things that we think are gross and morbid. Don’t hide where your food comes from, not from your kids and not from yourself.

When was the last time you took some time to visit your local cemetery? Or are you keeping death out of sight.
Photo by the author.

Icebreakers: Broken or Cool?

Stay frosty!
Image by Ethan Sykes on Stocksnap

I’m reaching the end of the first week of the fall semester at my institution; you might be just getting ready to start or maybe you’ve been holding classes for a couple weeks. So of course you’re probably thinking about those awkward first classes yourself, like I am.

Like most people who have been teaching for a while, I have some favorite icebreakers, which I’ll list below, but the main question of this post isn’t which icebreaker to use, but whether icebreakers are even useful, so we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Superhero Alter-Egos: Have students interview another student, asking basic "get to know you" questions. Be sure to have them ask for something unexpected! Then, have the students write a profile about the person they interviewed, and in the profile they give them a new superhero identity, with a name and superpowers, based on what they learned about the person in the interview. Then, have the writer/interviewer introduce the OTHER student to the class, using the following formula: "This is [NAME], [major and year]. By day s/he [insert activity], but secretly s/he is actually [SUPERHERO NAME], who fights [kind of crime] by [superpower].

Appellates: Like Superhero Alter-Egos, in this scenario students interview each other in order to introduce another student to the class. But this time, they give them a fancy appellate like they're a historical figure. The formula this time looks more like "This is Jamie the Rescuer, because he likes to volunteer at an animal shelter" or "This is Ellen the Computer, because she likes to do math."

Scavenger Hunt/Bingo: In this one, students must interview multiple students, because they're looking to find certain criteria. The criteria might be "Find a student who has a pet" or "Find a student who speaks a language other than English." Again, the goal is to get them interviewing each other.

I Am a Writer Because: in this activity, students write "I am a writer because" and finish the sentence. Then they share that with the class when they introduce themselves to the class. Not as interactive, but it has value in a writing classroom!

Survey Says: Students decide in small groups (no more than 4!) on a question they want to know about their peers and then they go around and survey the class to find out the answer to their question. They then report this to the class, making a conclusion based on their data.

I’m sure that I’ve used others successfully, but you can probably tell that the theme here is I want to get them doing original research, even if it’s more journalistic in style, from the start–or I want them thinking about their relationship to the course topic (in my case, usually writing–other courses could revise this to “I am a scientist because” for instance).

I’m an introvert, though, and I loathe ice breakers when I’m forced to do them. The worst of all, though, are icebreakers that don’t have an obvious connection to the class. So of course the rule of all these is that you have to show the class why you chose that ice breaker for the themes of the course.

But this semester I tried doing without a real icebreaker. I asked them instead to chat with each other about their experiences with previous English classes and what they already know about the course topic, and told them they also should introduce themselves properly in the conversation. THEN I asked them by show of hands a few “icebreaker” questions: “How many people met someone who is from the same town as them?” “How many people met someone who is from outside our state?” etc. And then, as I would do with an icebreaker, I demonstrated how even these simple, common questions become rhetorical moments and are therefore tied to the course material.

Did it work well? I don’t know, honestly. It’s so hard to tell the character of a class from just one meeting, so we will see if I succeeded in building community later. But is it definitely an option to omit icebreakers altogether? Absolutely. But I do think it’s a good idea to include at least a little group chat time on the first day!

Does Art Persuade?

I spent a lot of summer depressed. This is pretty normal for me. But I want to talk about a particular set of triggers that had me in a really serious existential crisis.

How was your summer?
Source: Tenor Gif

I’ve been playing Persona 5, and I’ve been enjoying the fantasy of it quite a lot. The various representations of how victims of powerful people’s abuse process their trauma is really interesting to me (perhaps a post for another day?).

I’ve also been really troubled by misogyny and neo-nazism and racism and all that grossness running around in public discourse.

So, one day, I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw a woman making some critical remarks about gamerdude culture (as she should). Those of us who have been around for the past five years probably flinch immediately at seeing these, but I wanted to see what the discussion was. Among the replies, I saw someone basically telling her to shut up–using a .gif of Joker from Persona 5 threatening the viewer with a gun, as he does to shadows and cognitive beings in the game.

My immediate response: Did we play the same game?

The loading animation from Persona 5. Don’t forget this image.
Source: Tenor Gif

The game is all about giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless. It’s about empowering victims and bringing low abusers. The first plot arc has to do with misogyny and sexual abuse by a coach.

But here was someone using allusions to the game specifically to perpetuate exactly that kind of abuse.

So ugly.
source: Tenor Gif

Then, the next day, I wanted to comment on a friend’s post on Facebook with a joke about Persona 5. So I looked through some .gifs on the automatic .gif tools available there. And my heart stopped when I saw this one: Pepe the Frog as Joker. Apart from the fact that Pepe the Frog is kind of objectively disgusting without all the cultural baggage, he’s also the alt-right poster boy. Again: Did they play the same game!?

But this got me to thinking: How on earth do we live in a world with things like Captain America, The Sound of Music, and the Wolfenstein series, but also a world with neo-Nazis? It’s not like they somehow could have missed all of our stories about how Nazis are the bad guys, could they have? Given what I was seeing from how the alt-right was taking up Persona 5, they obviously hadn’t just somehow not consumed all of those stories.

So what we have is, somehow, people who consumed all these stories and looked at the villains and thought, without a shadow of self-awareness, “Yeah–that’s what I want to be.”

I mean, honestly, I’m not sure my depression is a cognitive distortion at that point. At that point it feels like a perfectly rational response to human nature.

Somehow it seemed that the only people who were capable of perceiving the themes and meanings in fiction were the people who had already learned that lesson.

I put out a call on Twitter, asking if anyone had personally witnessed (in themselves or others) someone having a change of heart (if you’ll excuse the phrase) as a result of a piece of art, any medium or genre. The best answers I got were that it was a gradual thing (somewhat hopeful!) or that it was helpful only once someone’s perception on an issue was destabilized and they needed a new narrative.

Not exactly the answer my soul needed, but it was something.

But then, a couple weeks later from that tweet, something else happened. My mother called me to tell me about an article by Brianna Wu she had read in the Washington Post about Wu’s experiences as a target during GamerGate 5 years ago. My mother is not very technologically savvy, although she does take an interest in the games we kids play. But it’s been hard to talk to her about issues like misogyny in gamer culture. Until then.

Suddenly, she had all the words she needed to have that conversation. Something had shifted when she read that article. She knew what 8chan was. She knew what people were suffering because they happened to be female in a “nerd” space.

I won’t say it was the answer I wanted. But I will say that it was an answer. Someone’s creative work (albeit nonfiction) had persuaded someone. So, I guess, keep writing, y’all. It’s a slow grind, but we might just level up.

So, have you ever been persuaded by art? Have you ever seen someone persuaded by art?

The Problem With Required Syllabus Language

It’s August, which of course for all of us teachers, we’re dusting off our syllabi and getting excited about some new teaching technique that we can’t wait to try and abandon when it turns out to be entirely unrealistic for our excessive teaching loads[1]. I recently read an excellent syllabus that balanced clever on-topic graphical design elements, concise language, and meaningful choices for students (you can read this syllabus here). It actually got me excited about syllabus design! It is, however, still very recognizable as a traditional syllabus, and that may not be a bad thing.

Pie chart of grade distribution from a syllabus.
An example of a graphic for explaining grade distribution from one of the author’s previous syllabi.

I’ve long been enamored of infographic syllabi. They’re so pretty! They’re concise, they avoid blocks of text, they’re modern and sleek. They’re also a bit of a pain to make (infographics, even with some nice templates available, are not easy to make), and the fact is I’ve never actually achieved making an infographic syllabus, although I have been incorporating more graphical elements into my syllabi, such as pie charts to illustrate grade distributions. Since I’ve been using more online elements for my classes, I’ve been incorporating more web design in my syllabi, including hyperlinks for easy navigation. I’m pretty pleased with these small, incremental changes, even if they never live up to my dreams of a fully multimodal syllabus that students might actually read.

One of the barriers I’ve had with graphical or interactive syllabi designs is boilerplate required language, something that we who teach required core courses are more likely to struggle with, but all of us do have institutional restrictions on our syllabi designs. These awkward paragraphs—often a diversity statement or (heaven forbid) an active shooter situation statement—are probably there to cover the legal bases, like all that language you agree to but never read in End User Agreements. They’re there to create consistent policies within departments and institutions, and they have some other important roles. They may be written by committee, and grandfathered in semester to semester. There are parts of my syllabi that I’m not sure I even remember how they got in there or who required it, I admit; they stay in because they seem necessary.

Screenshot of a button to continue in a terms of service document.
Ok, but how can you agree to what you haven’t read?
Screenshot by the author.
Oh, and did you try to click on the continue button? We’re all trained like lab mice!

However, the accumulative effect of all these bland legal sounding blocks of text is that instead of the genre of the syllabus striking our students with the urgency of “this is your helpline when you need it,” they instead tap into the End User Agreement genre, which our students (and, let’s admit, we ourselves) are accustomed to tapping “I agree” and ignoring, doing whatever they’re going to do anyway. Not only do they impede innovative syllabus design, they evoke the concept of “fine print,” the things that aren’t really needed until suddenly you’re wriggling through a legal loophole with the urgency of someone who sold his soul to the devil and needs to figure out how to win it back by the end of Act III (or V if you’re Early Modern and need a couple extra acts to figure your life out).

What can be done about this? First, we can ask that institutions don’t require us to reiterate policies that are already institution-wide. At Ball State University, I remind my students on Day 1 that they have agreed to our “Beneficence Pledge”[2]. I don’t reprint it in the syllabus—but I do link it, and highlight the relevant parts for my course. Likewise, I don’t extensively quote definitions of plagiarism in the syllabus (I dedicate class time to having a conversation about definitions of plagiarism instead, because it’s part of my course’s content), but I do link to them.

Essentially, what we want is a streamlined syllabus—one that seems immediately useful—but is expandable as needed for those times when students do need to deal with Mephistopheles or, ya know, your late policy (same thing, right?). 

This means making policies that are based on principle rather than on technicalities. We don’t want to list every time a student did something that we were annoyed by. When our policy doesn’t cover it, it may mean that our policy is too specific, not that it is too broad.

In the end, I don’t have a solution to required language in syllabi. They’re administratively necessary in certain regards, even if they are hopelessly Byzantine and cumbersome for students. So I honestly don’t have an answer for what to do with the dreaded blocks of texts that are handed down to us from on high and required language in our syllabi.

I’ll leave that for the comments and discussions. Do you have a solution for streamlining these blocks of required and/or recommended syllabus language?


[1] We’ve all been there. That idea sounds great—lots of personal attention to students! Personalized grade plans!—until you remember that your classes are so big that they technically violate the fire code occupancy limits for your classroom and, well, you also like to get sleep sometimes.

[2] other institutions have similar “honor codes” or other terms for an agreed broad set of student conduct principles—use the one that’s relevant to your students!

Dear Conservatives: You Will Lose Your Guns, And It Will Be Your Fault

Historical guns on display in a museum.
Photo by the author.

I didn’t want to write about mass shootings for my first blog post. I didn’t. I had planned something cheery like a joke about “Hello world!” I really had. But this America and this is 2019, and I must speak out, so here we are.

I was raised around guns, trained to shoot first on a pellet gun and then on rifles, shotguns, and pistols. I took hunter’s safety courses with my family even though I was technically too young to enroll (and scored higher than my father on the exam). The only time I was ever grounded as a child was over a range safety violation, a mistake I never made again, mind you. Most family vacations were spent, at least in part, at the range. A good year started with a freezer full of venison. Guns are a part of my family’s traditions and heritage, and in that regard I understand my father being a single-issue voter on gun rights, even if we sometimes clash about it for good reason. I understand the fear of losing guns—losing gun rights in our family would be losing our family’s heirlooms, our family’s stories, our material connections to each other and the past.

But mark my words, if conservatives themselves do not take down white supremacy, misogyny,Trump, Mitch McConnell, and the entire current party leadership from the inside—and soon!—you will lose your guns. All your worst fears will come true. And you will have no one to blame but yourself for your inaction. And it will happen in one of two ways.

The first way is, of course, exactly what conservatives fear: the liberal Democrats, having been radicalized by Republican inaction and empowered by a frustrated, disgusted voter base, will have the reactionary power to legislate guns away, and they will do so gleefully. As conservatives love to point out, many of the people in power in the Democratic party don’t really understand guns or gun culture, so the legislation will be written with a broad brush and probably go too far, and it will be widely supported because of how much most people feel threatened by living in a world where domestic terrorism is an everyday thing, and we want to do something—anything—to fix it.

The guns themselves, along with all those family stories, will be gathered up indiscriminately in massive buyback programs, and they will be destroyed, burned in a sacrificial pyre to our sense of safety, and the majority of people will rejoice at their demise because they have seen too many children die on the evening news to care about your family’s stories anymore.

But this is, honestly, probably the better scenario than the second one.

The second possibility is if Trump, Pence, and McConnell continue to run roughshod over every other part of the constitution. These are men who are more concerned about their own power than any consistent ideology—they are, in short, fascists who believe that their power makes them right and any threat to that power is wrong, and therefore they are right to stamp it out. And at some point, they will realize that an armed population is a population that could threaten their power. And at that point, they will take the guns. It may start with something that most Republicans (who have, of course, tolerated Trump’s wanton disregard for human rights so far) find perfectly acceptable—oh, well, maybe he’s just taking guns away from immigrants, that sort of thing. But it will have no due process (when has Trump ever respected due process?), and without due process, it’s only tiny step to violating anyone’s rights. Perhaps owning a gun will require party membership? Perhaps you’ll have to sign an affidavit swearing allegiance to the president and the flag? Certainly these things wouldn’t be out of the realm of historical precedent. We have seen fascists leaders take guns before, as everyone immersed in conservative second amendment rhetoric would happily tell you. Under Trump, you will find yourself living in a police state under an unstable and egomaniacal leader, where there is no appeal, only the great leader’s paranoia—and your guns will be taken away not voluntarily in a buy-back program imposed through votes and due process but systematically, incrementally to strengthen the power of the state and make the tyrants comfortable.

There is only one way to avoid either (or both in succession!) of these scenarios: conservatives who have been left behind by the increasingly radical fascists who currently run the GOP must take back their party. If you are a conservative and continue to support Trump and McConnell, though–or even if you simply don’t stop your fellow conservatives in their support of white supremacists and misogynists–you will lose your guns. So, I ask you, conservatives: what matters more here? What do you value more: Trump or guns? Loyalty to your corrupt, fetid party—a party that has betrayed all the values you have said you care about—or your actual rights?

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