May 14

Yes, and… Embracing the Awkward— Part Two

Posted by Jane Nixon Willis '01 in The Alumni Blog on May 14, 2014

Some thoughts on what rigor in school actually means

Part Two: Making choices, making mistakes

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: Thedaylongincantations 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.

Embracing the Unwanted: Tangled 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 seemed to have 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 to 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?

Yes, and…rigor

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 necessary awkwardness that accompanies new learning there’s no real forward movement. Additionally, 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.

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Jane Nixon Willis: 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.

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