Academic journal article English Journal

Invoking Viola Spolin: Improvisational Theater, Side-Coaching, and Leading Discussion

Academic journal article English Journal

Invoking Viola Spolin: Improvisational Theater, Side-Coaching, and Leading Discussion

Article excerpt

While I was student teaching, my cooperating teacher sang lead in a rock band at night-an endeavor she loved that didn't directly relate to teaching. She encouraged me to find my own "rock band"-to practice self-care in this complex profession by staying connected to communities and projects that are uniquely me and are, on purpose, separate from the classroom. So, when I began my career as a high school English teacher, I took a course on improvisational theater. Ironically, in seeking an escape from teaching, I discovered an art form whose principles and practices have profoundly shaped my thinking about myself as a teacher.

Improvisational theater is a collaborative art form in which performers co-construct unscripted narratives, often based on audience suggestions, and always guided by a set of central principles. One practice common in improv instructional settings is side-coaching, the move of providing immediate, public, verbal feedback during a rehearsal. One of the pioneers of improv, Viola Spolin, conceptualized side-coaching as an essential component of any theater exercise, and she encouraged teachers to use side-coaching during warm-up activities, games, and scene structures to orient improvisers to particular aspects of practice (e.g., "Share your voice with the audience!") (Improvisation 29). Similarly, I see side-coaching as a key practice in developing students' speaking and listening skills, and I use side-coaching to provide feedback to students during whole-class discussions of texts. In this article, I review the connections between improvising and leading discussion, as well as what is known about side-coaching as an instructional practice. I then describe how the principles of improv and Spolin's notion of side-coaching shape how I lead whole-class discussions.

Improvisational Theater and the Leading of Discussion

Seminal texts on improv, such as Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin and Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, suggest that the key to successful improv is to make your partners feel safe and look good, which can be achieved by being attentive, responsive, and humble. Improvisers listen alertly for and to others' verbal and physical offers, accept all offers, and apply these ideas to the context of the unfolding scene. Together, these moves are called the "Yes, and" tenet of improv. For example, if my scene partner says, "Mom, I can't find my backpack," I have to agree. I cannot say, "I'm not your mother," thereby negating, or blocking, her offer and making her suddenly justify why she mistook me for her mother. Although blocking can yield laughter, it does not make my scene partner feel safe or look good. But it's not enough for me to just agree, or to say "yes" to her utterance; I must add to the offer, such as, "Your backpack is on the kitchen table, right next to the crumpled report card I found sticking out of it." Or "Your father and I are having the jets installed, as you requested."

Improvisers view mistakes as gifts. They see mistakes as inevitable and essential to being human. They fail cheerfully, and they welcome, notice, and celebrate the mistakes of others. When a mistake is made in a scene (a player accidentally walks through a pantomimed desk), it is justified within the context of the scene ("Whoa, Gerald's a ghost!"), thereby becoming part of the narrative.

Educators and researchers have characterized teaching as a kind of improvisational performance (Borko and Livingston 475; Talhelm 15; Yinger 14) and have likened improvisation to classroom discussion (Barker and Borko 289; Cazden 39; Sawyer 13). Just as improvisers are simultaneously attentive to self, scene partners, the audience's response, and the larger needs of a story or scene, adept discussion leaders are artful listeners- attuned to self, the content being studied, and the strengths and needs of individual students and the class as a whole. Just as improvisers accept and build upon partners' offers, discussion leaders use students' contributions to shape new questions-a move called uptake (Nystrand and Gamoran 39)-and the flow of the conversation. …

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