Thursday, December 27, 2018

Sabbatical Project: Four Arguments for Using Storytelling and Improv Games to Decolonize Writing Classrooms

"The goal of the mimetic space is to create deeper understandings through the partial identification that lead to both authentic feelings of respect and understanding of the knowledge and perspectives of others, as well as to instill a clear sense of boundaries to mitigate against the dangers of appropriation .... The use of storytelling has the potential to produce a mimetic space resulting in new understandings beyond the usual Western perspectives operating in classrooms."
"The Production and Use of 'Mimetic Space' in the Classroom"

Since our cave-dwelling beginnings, stories are how we have taught one another to identify predators and what to do to avoid, defeat, and/or triumph over them. Story’s ancient roots and unfathomable power were emphasized again and again during a storytelling workshop I attended this summer at BATS, San Francisco’s oldest and best-known improv theater.*

At BATS, our teachers Rebecca Stockley, Paul Killiam, and William Hall led our diverse group of 15, which included tech execs, retirees, financiers, preschool teachers, and health workers in shouting “Yay!” as a mark of celebration whenever someone froze, lost their way, or failed in some other manner, mostly as a result of inattention, self-consciousness, or fear.

By the end of our four-days together, I too held Stockley’s belief that by virtue of being born we each carry a felt knowledge of storytelling conventions and its myriad culturally nuanced patterns. The urge to play with narrative, its rhythms and its rules, are, indeed, held within our DNA. Writing structures, including the composition forms I’m responsible for teaching, are related to storytelling frameworks. It’s helpful to remind students of this because what we naturally know and already intuit about these structures can make composition’s roots more explicit and easier to master.

Starting with story can demystify what is often a traumatizing subject for students––writing. They carry tales of classrooms where they’ve been shamed for “bad” grammar and an inability to reproduce the rigid formulas that arise not from authentic writing practices but because of what I believe are misguided notions; students have nothing to say and, therefore, need to be told how to say it. Stories offer a relief from the shame and fear such approaches engender. In this way, storytelling is connected to other mindfulness practices that can restore balance, harmony, and even hope to an individual as well as the collectives within which they are learning.

The storytelling and improv games we played at BATS helped our group quickly become a collective. Upon gathering that first Thursday, we were strangers. Three hours later, and for the remainder of the weekend we belonged to one another. The simplest of improv games, such as “Pick-Me”** and “If It’s True for You,”*** eased our tension and taught us how to playfully and respectfully inter-relate despite our different backgrounds and goals for the workshop.

Fear is a part of almost every learning environment. But at BATS, I learned that when joy is an ever-present possibility, the pain and challenge of learning become easier to weather. For example, our “Yay!”s generated joy and in shouting it, we offered support, In itself a healing strategy. As a result, I found I was more willing to fail, and thus, more ready to learn.

We were “radically pursuing presence,” explained Hall, which included a responsibility to understand our own needs moment-to-moment. To assist us in this, we were explicitly given permission to make choices throughout our many hours together. Were there times we’d rather observe rather than participate? Then, by all means, we were told, take a seat. Improv games work best when presented as invitations not mandates.

More recently still, I attended the annual Association of Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) conference in Amherst and was re-introduced to the exciting work of Dr. Traci Currie and Dr. Lenwood Hayman, Jr. Each had been using improv in their classes––Currie communications and Hayman public health –– at the University of Michigan-Flint.

They integrate improv into their work because they understand––improv can establish more humane learning environments and better societies. This is because, in addition to its roots in storytelling and survivorship, improv games are well-known for revealing how power and social stratification operate. These are heady dynamics to explore in environments as stratified as colleges and universities, places where a desire for success is great and competition, though often unspoken, ever present.
What improv can do, as Currie explained it, is transform “the word power into play.” When people spontaneously create something together, we are transported “to where and who we are in that moment,” said Hayman. That in itself can be liberating as I had already experienced for myself back in San Francisco.
This liberating sensation was again reignited when Currie and Hayman had our group––thirty or so academic-types––who’d gathered in a conference room for their session, spontaneously create and record a song together in under 15 minutes. We used nothing other than a beat provided by Hayman, a single microphone, and a computer program. Everyone in that room, contributed to the song’s beauty, and in so doing were relieved of having to operate with the calculation more common at academic conferences. Instead, we got to experience collective and collegial spontaneity.
“We’ve been asked to play inside inhumane institutions, and then we play off of each other,” said Hayman. “Sometimes the play is, ‘Who’s suffering the most’.” Currie and Hayman remind us the game can be changed. Who can be present? Who can be happy?****
With all this in mind, I present four arguments for bringing storytelling and improv into colleges and classrooms, especially, perhaps, those that are writing intensive.

1)    Playing together creates goodwill and explicitly teaches skills for interacting in a healthy, playful, and respectful manner. Equally importantly, improv trains mind and body how to take risks and greet “mistakes” with enthusiasm and curiosity. This is incredibly useful for learners, especially inside a writing classroom where many students have already experienced a deep sense of failure and shame around their writing due to the rigid and punitive ways it is sometimes taught.

2)    Improv is a concrete way to demonstrate what presence (a mindfulness term indicating conscious awareness established in equanimity) looks and feels like. Likewise, it can show, in real time, how an absence of presence impacts us as social animals. After all, it is through their ability to be present to one another, that actors create compelling scenes. Even when the lines are fiction, the connection must be real. Improv games can teach, among other things, how important the breath is in achieving connection.

3)    Wherever there are differences between students and students and students and teachers in terms of race, ethnicity, class, gender and/or sexual identities, improv creates a third space––a place where each participant can try on and experiment with other discourses and discourse communities with playfulness and abandon. At the same time, because improv draws on the subconscious (very helpful to writers) society’s shadow sides are also invited to come forward, and some of its “hidden” features are exposed and more easily reflected upon. For example, the ways in which status and hierarchy are conveyed and authority is maintained through even small gestures becomes explicit in improv games.

4)    Finally, our colonial histories are ever-present and continue to shape classroom dynamics and composition frameworks today. Some discourse communities and histories are favored and celebrated, while others are ignored or denigrated. Our students’ home language and ways of being are often named as something they must set aside in pursuit of academic success. By bringing improv’s storytelling concepts forward, we can show narrative’s rootedness in survivorship. This is a beautiful and meaningful thread to draw on, one that can help students see and name something precious already operating in their own lives and the lives of the their ancestors, family members, and communities.

Much has been written about improv principles and methods and the “rules” for many games can be accessed online. I recommend starting with Johnstone’s Impro: Improvisation and the Theater. Better yet, make your way to San Francisco and enroll in a BATS workshop and find out more about Currie and Hayman’s connecting improv, education, health, healing, and social justice. Currently, they are working on a paper documenting their work and developing educator trainings. Check back here for more information.

* I enrolled in the workshop this summer as part of a semester-long sabbatical project, which is described in more detail here.

** As taught by BATS instructor Killiam, “Pick Me” is a game of exaggerated facial gestures where players open their eyes wide, raise their brows, arrange their mouths into near half-smiles, and slightly nod at one another. In this way, partnerships are formed and reformed quickly. Group members make eye-contact with one another, wearing their pick-me faces, in order to pair-up and create teams.

*** ”If it’s True for You” is an icebreaker game with a lot of quick movement around a room. One person starts by saying something that is true for them. “I love dogs,” for example. Anyone who also loves dogs rushes to be near them, forming a clump of like-minded dog lovers. A moment later, someone else, perhaps a non-dog lover, says from across the room, “I don’t,” or “I love cats!” or “I eat bacon,” and anyone else for whom that is also true reforms into a clump near them. In this way, relationships are quickly created and lost and recreated again in a spontaneous and surprisingly informative manner. Soon you will know who loves dogs, who’s been to Rio, and who has never had the flu. The movement of bodies around the room is key to this game’s success!

**** “Act Off” is a game Hayman and Currie taught that walked us through this process, moving from dehumanization into joy. Each participant took to the stage, pantomiming their role as they felt they played it at their home institutions. Each enacted the gestures and body language of a diminished self. Then, after a moment or two, we took a breath, stood loose and tall, and reenacted a more liberated and empowered self, moving about the stage as if there were no restraint and only freedom in performing our regular tasks.

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