All Great Teaching and Learning Begins with the Concept, “Yes…And”

As I teach and learn from the super AWESOME teachers at Miami Country Day School today, I thought it would be a good idea to pull a blog out of the archive.  The following was originally posted by EF Explore America.  They believe in the impact of experiential learning and often invite me to present at their Teacher Appreciation events.  In the evaluation forms, the teacher participants often inform us that the workshop is incredibly valuable and that they can immediately take the techniques and apply them to the classroom! 

Improv as Part of Content Area Curriculum
November 13, 2014

You don’t have to be an expert to start using improvisation in your classroom. And your students don’t have to be professional performers. One of its greatest values comes from students’ attempts at mastering one of the basic tenants of improvisation – which actually looks a lot like the one of the basic tenants good classroom citizenship! This, in turn, prepares them for learning and positions them to accept content information.

I’m talking again about the “yes, and” technique.

When an improviser uses the “yes, and” technique, he accepts whatever his improv teammate says and then adds to it. For example, in an actual improvisational exercise, if I handed an invisible ball to my partner and said, “Here, have an apple.” my partner might say, “Thanks,” (acknowledging that the invisible ball is an apple and thereby implying “yes”) “and look! That rhinoceros wants my apple!” (adding an “and” plot twist, in this case a hungry rhino, to the improvised story). The action of improvisation depends on this “yes, and” procedure repeated over and over again. Can you imagine how the exercise would grind to a halt if my partner looked at my pretend apple and said, “That’s not an apple, you’re just holding your hand funny”? Or, “apples are stupid.” Imagine he took my pretend apple, said, “Thanks for the apple,” but didn’t bother to add to the story. The improvisation would collapse.

Teachers who have incorporated improvisation into the curriculum have benefitted by seeing their classrooms evolve into places where participation is more highly valued. As comfort with the “yes, and” element of improv becomes part of a classroom’s nature, peers aren’t mocked as frequently, and new ideas are less likely to be rejected out-of-hand.

I’ve talked before about the One Word Story game (see page 79 of The Second City Guide to Using Improv in the Classroom by Katherine McKnight and Mary Scruggs, Jossey-Bass, 2008). But what does it actually look like in practice?  Here’s an example of a One Word Story that 9th grade students in a physical science class might tell about the role of electrons in an atom. Remember, in this exercise each student adds only one word to the story. They have to accept the story as it exists so far (yes), then add one word of their own (and).

The teacher starts:
The electrons in an atom…

Taking turns, the students add words one at a time to complete the story:
…are the things that circle around the middle of the atom and that part is called the nucleus. And the electrons are very very very small and can jump around to other atoms sometimes. And that is called ions.

And here is an example of a story that 5th grade students might tell as their class prepares for a day trip to New York City:

The teacher starts:
The Statue of Liberty…

Taking turns, the students add words one at a time to complete the story:
…is on New York’s Liberty Island. And it is the statue of a woman who is the Roman goddess of freedom. She came from France and that is because France helped us win the Revolutionary War and got us away from England.

The One Word Story exercise develops the following skills: listening, focus, oral communication, team building, self-confidence, and critical and creative problem solving.  By using the exercise as part of content review, the teacher reinforces lesson content.

Using the improvisational game this way uses only about five minutes of precious classroom time; it provides one more opportunity to include literacy development in a content area class; and it helps convert a classroom of disparate students into a team of learners. It’s what I call a win-win-win.