Not For Class Clowns Only

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"Leave your inhibitions at the door," Heather Smith yells as teachers slowly enter the large, empty room. "Where are the chairs?" one of them mumbles in a panicky voice. They file in nervously, hugging the walls like 7th graders attending their first school dance.

About 60 special-education teachers from New York City's District 26 have gathered for a weekend of intensive inservice training. By Sunday night, most will have learned something new and useful--like how to sob crocodile tears.

Smith is part of a comedy troupe from Chicago called Wavelength, whose members believe that teaching is a performance art. And that performance takes practice.

Jim Winter, for one, has had some practice. After teaching high school English in Illinois for several years, he began nurturing his comedic talents by attending comedy improvisation workshops in Chicago. He founded Wavelength in 1980 when he realized that teachers could use a good laugh. "Teaching is a hard job,'' he says. "But with humor, teachers can see that there are common problems. Putting it all on-stage affirms the choice of the teacher to be in the profession.''

Winter and several acting colleagues put together a show based on classroom-related improvisation. The performance evolved into a participatory workshop after teachers kept inquiring about the group's improvisational techniques. Since then, Wavelength has conducted more than 500 workshops from coast to coast. A second company caters to children and teens, using improvisational games to improve their communication skills and get them thinking and talking about issues such as self-esteem and social and school pressures.

What they don't do is teach people how to tell jokes. Improvisation is not a string of snappy one-liners. Winter explains: "Improvisation is about working without a script. All that is left is you and your relationship to the other people you're working with." He calls it "being in the moment," and it's a metaphor for the classroom experience. "As an actor, you can't plan what is going to happen in an improvisation because you don't know what the other actors will say or do. The same is true for you and your class."

But the troupe does serve up a few one-liners in a just-for-fun performance that kicks off every workshop. It's a sample of comedy that has been compared to Saturday Night Live--but for teachers only. Lawyers, pharmacists, botany professors, even parents might as well stay home. The skits are laced with inside jokes about lesson plans, absenteeism, extracurricular duties, mainstreaming, and the federal education bureaucracy.

Take, for example, the saga of "Frankenteacher," in which the doctor and his sidekick Igor hope to create the perfect teacher. When the monster comes to life and begins promising to switch the class schedules of failing students in an effort to keep them from failing, the mad scientist desperately screams, "Igor, you didn't steal the brain of a teacher, you stole the brain of a guidance counselor!"

The entertainment is just the icebreaker. The main course of the inservice is getting teachers loosened up.

It looks like a can of WD-40 wouldn't loosen up today's crowd, but Wavelength's improvisational storm troopers have their ways. After being coaxed to come away from the safety of the wall--and "off the wall" is Wavelength's stock in trade--teachers are put through a brief series of "warm-ups," in which they roll their shoulders and stretch their arms, walk in different directions, and make eye contact with one another. Not too bad, so far.

Then Smith asks them to split into small groups and tell their partners their life stories--without saying a word aloud. A normally dignifiedlooking man shoots his arms out to the side and crinkles his nose. Either he is flying in the smoking section of a Boeing 747 or he was a pigeon in another life. A tall, slender woman is hopping around on one foot while sobbing gobs of fake tears. When Smith finally gives permission to talk, the room explodes in laughter.

As the workshop continues, the games become more challenging and group-oriented. In one, the leader asks teachers to name an object. "Ring'' is called out. Eight teachers, assembled in a circle, are asked to make up a story in which a ring appears. The only rule is that each person can only contribute one word at a time. The first teacher says, "Once"; the second person says, "upon"; the third says, "a"; and so on, around and around the circle. The result is neither brilliant nor hilarious, but it does evolve into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and everybody cheers.

The exercises stimulate spontaneity, says Rochelle Richelieu, the artistic director, because the participants have no way of planning what to say in advance. "It's the unpredictability of life that is the genesis for creative thought," she says. "The best teachers we had were those who spoke directly to us. That's because they didn't come in with a script. They were creatively responding to us. If we can get teachers to let go of the script, which dictates how a 'teacher' should respond, and get them to respond spontaneously, then the learning process becomes a shared experience.''

If teachers' improvisational skills were stronger, they could also "read" their audience. In other words, Winter says, they could figure out what is or isn't going well and then "readjust on the spot."

In a Wavelength world, teachers-tobe would be required to take Improv 101 right along with Math Methods in college. But since their idea hasn't been picked up by any innovative teachereducation programs, Wavelength is determined to pick up the slack by taking their own show on the road.

Vol. 01, Issue 09, Page 36-37

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