Apr 21

Yes, and… Embracing the Awkward—

Posted by Jane Nixon Willis in The Alumni Blog on Apr 21, 2014

Some thoughts on what rigor in school actually means:

Part One: What is yes, and...?

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.

Not too long 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 things 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.

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 club members soon changed their name from “The Waxed Beans” to “Embrace the Awkward.” On Tuesdays, the normally poised secretary would relay our meeting time over the PA system during morning announcements: (long pause) “Uh…Embrace the Awkward will meet today at 3 in room L207. “ Then she’d speed onto the next announcement to get past that word Awkward. It made my day.

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 here.

A graduate of Bank Street College of Education, Ms. Nixon Willis holds a MS.ed with a focus on Early Adolescence. A Certified New York State English Language Arts Teacher, she has taught grades 7 – 12 in both urban and suburban schools. Prior to public school teaching, as a produced and published playwright, she taught playwriting as an Adjunct Professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where she solicited her students to harvest their own life’s experiences in writing their plays. A mother of three, she lives in Brooklyn, and is working on a book: Staying Strong in School: 10 Ways to Advocate for Your Child: A Guidebook for Parents.

Visit Jane’ blog: https://stayingstronginschool.blogspot.com/

tagged bscaa, high school clubs, improvisation, learning, teaching
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