“Children should be seen and not heard” is a 15th Century English proverb, but I remember hearing adults say it when I was young and contemporaries say it when we had small children. The idea that a child might contribute something meaningful is challenging to adults who assume they are in charge.
Young people are aware of this oppressive attitude and their voices are rising, most recently among the youth climate activists. Policymakers have been resistant to action that would protect the most vulnerable communities. Indeed, if we are able to move toward meaningful climate action it will be in no small part because young people have spoken.
The Wonderland Project believes all voices are important and that children arrive with unique capacities to address the challenges that face us all. Silencing them will no longer work. We must listen and ask questions. We must work together to address the problems we have caused and right the course of this Earth ship toward their future.
The Wonderland Project is in a unique position to provide a platform for young voices.
Using improvisation in the classroom develops creative and collaborative competencies, confidence and self-esteem in a safe space where all input is considered valid and valuable, an environment where young voices can be found.
For a time, this blog will host Wonderland’s Creativity in a Minute Podcast, where we will hear young people share their experiences with creativity and school. Each podcast will feature a unique voice. We hope to amplify these voices so that we might hear and reconsider our attitudes toward them. It is time.
This post will feel different to my regular readers who know my writing as personal experience accounts of Wonderland Playhouse, the children’s acting improvisation and storytelling theater I founded, and also know that I have returned to college in my fifth decade. While at university I have been researching how improvisation may be used by teachers to reimagine classrooms. This is the first of several blogs that will bridge my experience and my research.
Elementary school can be a frustrating, isolating experience for both students and teachers. Standardized testing mandated by the government was the government’s response to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk that revealed American students were pacing far behind other countries in vital content knowledge (Popham, 2004).Testing and reporting requirements continued to increase with the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and the 2009 Obama-era Race to the Top grant tied funds and teacher success to their student’s test scores. You may know the education strategy of this period as “teaching to the test” and an entire generation of Americans have now experienced it. Standardization rewards competition, conformity and convergent skills, a thinking style defined as “deriving the single best (or correct) answer to a clearly defined question” (Cropley, 2016, p. 391), and has left young Americans deficient in creative or critical thinking skills (Omdal, 2017).
Importantly, during this same time period, business leaders repeatedly identified creativity and innovation as the most important 21st century skills (IBM, 2008; Battelle for kids). Creativity uses various processes like imagination, intuition and divergence (the offering of many answers or ideas) and, interrestingly, longitudinal divergence tests show that 98% of kindergarteners test in the genius range of divergent thinking. Four years later those same students still testing at the genius level have dwindled to 30% and the decline continues to 12% by high school, with most adults testing at around 2% (Land, 2006, 9:16–10:35; Robinson, 2010, 8:50-10:00). In other words, the capacity for generating creative ideas evaporates quickly and almost entirely by the time we are adults. The lack of opportunities to develop and practice this natural ability together with its devaluation in school result in people who don’t think they are creative when, in fact, all people are creative (Robinson, 2006; Hardiman, 2016). Paradoxically, in our push to compete on global assessments, we have failed to educate students to compete in the global economy and have contributed to student disengagement, increasing behavior issues in the classroom and skyrocketing rates of physical and emotional health issues in children (Sawyer, 2010; Louv, 2008)
In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s 18-minute TEDTalk “Do schools kill creativity?” revealed this issue to the world and called for an education revolution. Since then, Sir Ken’s TEDTalk has been viewed 62 million times (as of this morning) and has ever since been the most popular TEDTalk. Taking into account the appeal of online videos since 2006, anyone might imagine a video by any individual (or kittens) could easily have eclipsed 62 million views, but no other TEDTalk has. In later writings, Robinson (2016) points out that high-stakes testing marginalizes other talents in education and regards those who do not excel as “’less able’ or ‘disabled’ – as deviations from the norm” (pp. 36-7), unfair labels that may cause wounding that follows students throughout their K-12 career. Sir Ken’s presentation may have been the first time many of his 62 million viewers considered the issue of creativity in education, but it wasn’t the first time for me. (Robinson, 2006; Robinson, 1999).
My son, Ethan, is a creative collaborator who imagines worlds. As a preschooler he oozed original character-driven epics, using everyday objects (the food on his plate, bottlecaps, or rock and sticks) as action figures, naming each one and elaborating their backstory in a constant narration that didn’t stop when he entered school. From 1st to 3rd grade his desk sat alone facing the wall (far away from his classmates who sat together) because he was a distraction to himself and others. Killing his creativity and achieving his conformity proved to be difficult. That’s when I started the Playhouse for children aged 3-13.
Can improvisation revitalize students and teachers and develop 21st century skills?
Improvisation highlights creative competencies which include listening, observation, communication, present moment focus, problem-solving, curiosity, accessing personal resources, risk-taking, failure recovery, negotiation, flexibility, humor, tolerance of the different or unusual, self-reliance, self-esteem, self-determination, and self-confidence. All of these could be considered collaborative skills and 21st century competencies. Social skills are also developed in an atmosphere play. Future blogs will explore ways teachers might use the natural process of improvisation to engage students, prepare them to meet the challenges of the future, and improve the classroom experience for everyone.
Ethan graduated high school in full possession of his creative capacities because they were loud, valued and developed at home and through music, but it was never easy for him. The tension he experienced at school created by the conflict between his natural gifts and the expectations of conformity caused physical and emotional health challenges that he shares with many of his peers. Times are changing and working with students in a creative way has made me an optimist. Listening to their ideas convinces me that young people have arrived to solve the problems of today. They already possess what is needed and there has never been a more critical time to help them.
Omdal, Stuart N, and Graefe, Amy K. 2016. Investing in Creativity in Students, In Beghetto, Ronald A., and Kaufman, James C. Nurturing Creativity in the Classroom (394-414). Cambridge, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.
Popham, W. (2004). America’s “failing” schools : How parents and teachers can cope with No Child Left Behind. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Robinson, Ken (1999). All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education.
Like stepping into a dream, my life changed this week. I know that one day merely walking on campus won’t make me cry, but that day was not today. My sense of good fortune is visceral and commanding. People say my choice inspires them, that returning to school at my age is courageous, and that they are glad it’s me doing it and not them.
Each morning I am greeted by this paddling of ducks, eager to get close, optimistic for what I imagine is food, willing to swim upstream, navigating the small, but strong waterfall in distinct ways, the A-types flying over it in that aeronautically challenged way ducks fly, all flapping and careening with webbed feet dangling, and the creative types using the eddy of the waterfall to propel them sideways with the proper amount of force, gracefully launching them onto the rock they easily walk across to access the upper pool. I have nothing for them but do enjoy the show. Among these ducks there are more creatives than A-types, a fact that comforts me as I finish my first week of college.
Improv: What happens when time shifts?
My first day was alternately exciting and terrifying, and utterly exhausting, climbing a dozen flights of stairs and walking miles with a heavy backpack, digesting stacks of reading material, working out strategies for remembering assignments, and playing the repeating icebreaker games, remembering names, conjuring that single word that describes me or the animal I resemble most. By the third class, the only word I could think of to describe myself was “crazy”, crazy to have thought college in my fifth decade was a good idea, crazy to have imagined I have the juice for such an ambitious endeavor. My colleagues agreed that the more correct word was “adventurous” in that way good collaborators do when they sense you are down, but not yet out.
Most surprising were my classmates, an awakened group of young people who seem enthusiastic and thoughtful, unexpectedly willing to work with someone who may remind them of their grandmothers, and resolutely unwilling to be identified by gender, race, or preferences. To the extent they have freed themselves of the shackles of limiting pronouns, they seem to have acquired boundless energy reserves to be who they are. I remember wanting to be so authentic, and also wanting to fit in, and ultimately exhausting myself seeking approval. Times have changed and the future looks bright, and it is deeply inspiring to move among these change makers in this dreamscape.
I’m not the perfect parent. I once dropped my son off at school in his Mario costume on Halloween parade day. He was so excited; he loved Mario. Except, it was a week early for the parade and because I was late for work he was the lone cartoon character at school that day. Mistakes were made while I hyperventilated my way through working and raising kids; late arrivals, scheduling snafus, half-assed work and home tasks, and confusion hijacking my otherwise order-seeking personality. Wonderland Playhouse is the only job I’ve had that ignited my passion. Mostly, I have worked as an assistant to men of varying degrees of power. I wrote and spoke with their voice. I even gave up pursuing my passion after work as it left little time for family.
I dreamed about college since I can remember, but attempts made fell short and circumstances got in the way. I graduated early from high school the year my parents divorced and neither could help me apply. Accepted to UCLA when my daughter was four, I couldn’t agree to the sacrifices moving to Westwood would mean for her. Twelve years later I was delighted to attend Long Beach State where I kicked ass in its demanding theater program that kept me on campus from nine o’clock in the morning until after the final curtain fell on most nights. At the end of the semester and with a need to care for my kids I reluctantly returned to work.
Improv: How do you get out of a rut?
In a dialogic response to the statement that one’s heart is filled with pain and suffering, the poet Rumi writes, Stay with it. The wound is where the Light enters you. My wound was this deep, unfulfilled desire that no amount of busyness, meditation, or yoga could heal. It stayed with me, scrambling up with my unworthiness and insufficiency, ensuring I would work a series of good jobs I am grateful for that brought no professional satisfaction, surfacing from time to time to remind me I didn’t know why I felt bad about it, and guaranteeing my inability to heal it would be a personal failure.
Earlier this year my daughter graduated with a master’s degree and my wound split wide open. I found it hard to breathe. Friends didn’t understand my suffering and I couldn’t explain it. The list of reasons to let it go was long, but that didn’t change how I felt. Tortured and exhausted, asking for help and willing to do anything, I was guided to apply to a small liberal arts college near my home. At once terrified I would certainly endure another failure, and unable to remain wounded any longer, I hoped my action would end this one way or another.
On an early June evening, surrounded by cakes at a dessert auction I coordinated, drunk on the smell of sugar, I received the email. The college’s letter said they were impressed by my commitment to my family and my community, stated I was precisely the person they were looking for, and offered me a near-full ride scholarship to complete my degree. I came full stop.
Some wounds are a paradox. They don’t go away because they’re not supposed to. Light illuminates one’s suffering while simultaneously spotlighting the path to healing. Improv can help. Stay with it– collaborate with it. Say, Yes! And . . .. Don’t ever give up.
In Wonderland Playhouse’s infancy, when I had no foggy clue how to build a business, I ran into a family friend at the farmers’ market. Jim had known me since I was 14 and had employed me as choreographer at the arts-focused pilot school where he served as principal when I was barely 20. He is one of the benevolent repeating wizards in my herstory. You know those wizards. They show up at critical moments along your timeline and kick you in the direction of your greatest growth (usually with a wink and a tip of the hat).
Jim invited me to visit him at work, where he was the visual and performing arts coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education. Among the many opportunities he gifted me was a professional introduction to Project HOPE, the OCDE’s school for homeless students that, in turn, offered me a slot in their after-school program. HOPE School kept first through eighth graders in school year-round on a shortened day and provided after-school enrichment until 5 p.m, when the kids were bused to local shelters for the night. Some lived in the shelters; some lived on the streets. Often they were exhausted. During my first week under the watchful eye of the coordinator, two of the youngest students fell asleep on the floor and for reasons I couldn’t explain, I let them sleep. The coordinator agreed with my choice because, I learned, they lived outside and didn’t sleep at night when it was cold. Her words knocked the wind out of me. These were sweet, funny five and seven year-old sisters. My initial shock gave way to sadness as my mind obsessively judged my ignorance. I could not fathom their lives.
HOPE players were normal kids who loved their families, struggled with their friends, and were painfully aware they were different. HOPE School tried to keep these kids together. When they weren’t moving around with their families they lived together, rode the bus together, and attended school and after-school together. They were a tight group. More like 30 siblings than just school chums they scolded each other mercilessly, the elders dominating the youngers to the point of tears, name-calling, and retaliation. It appeared they had little tolerance for each other. This, I would learn, was their most clever masquerade.
Improv: How do you engage students you don’t understand?
I struggled a lot. HOPE players had zero interest in acting or improvisation. Not one of them wanted to play at being someone else. Likewise, storytelling was frustrating as they would tell only one story – the Disney prince and princess story. Most of them enjoyed art so, Yes! And, the Wonderland Playhouse storybook project evolved. We wrote and illustrated books using large format (22×30) newsprint so each player could contribute art to each page. We used markers, fabrics, paint, glue, anything we could find. Each page was created by the kids who showed up that day. For this reason the characters look different from page to page, but the story is fresh and it worked.
Evoking a fresh story from them took some trickery. Together, we developed cards with known story elements: a prince, a princess, a sick grandmother, a biscuit basket, a dragon, etc. As we collaborated, instead of asking them to shout out story elements we drew a card. In this way, The Prince’s Wish, was written. I concealed my delight when the princess card was left in the discard pile. I felt its absence made a more interesting story possible, but the players proved me wrong. As we fleshed out the story they campaigned relentlessly and en masse to write the princess in, because for them it could be no other way. Yes! And, . . .. Improv wins again.
Their heroine surprised me. She was was a plucky activist whose innovative choices spoke volumes about HOPE’s true operating system. Their masquerade concealed a small and inclusive tribe, where some had unskilled behaviors that might unleash the group’s torment, but never its condemnation. Some lied and all knew who they were, but the only reaction was a sort of quiet agreement that struggle was a thing. Some had traits that exhibited in other groups would bring judgment, humiliation, and possibly alienation, but the heart of HOPE was tolerance. Even the biggest troublemaker among them was needed. No one was kicked off their island. They accepted the difficult ones and the difficult days. They didn’t need to study improv, they were masters. Although sometimes sad, tired, or reluctant, they said Yes! And, . . . everyday.
The economic vacuum of 2008 sucked the life out of several Playhouse contracts, including HOPE School. Early on I had been advised not to produce anything for HOPE players to take home (because they had no home to take it to). For me, stories are precious so each week I carefully stored their works in files and dragged them behind me in a wheeled plastic bin that I kept in my car. At the end I printed their stories into colorful books and presented them in a class celebration. The Prince’s Wish was the story they were most proud of. Pride doesn’t begin to describe how they touched me. While I had always felt myself to be tolerant by nature, anything I truly know about inclusion I learned from HOPE school.
Do you dwell in the past or the future? What do you do with your commute time? Sometimes I rehash conversations I had with my husband or children the night before, or with my mother decades ago. Sometimes I calculate the best route to outsmart the traffic, plot what I’ll cook for dinner, worry about how I’ll pay the bills, or strategize my next meeting or home remodel. Sometimes I ponder retirement or politics. In these moments I am unaware of the present moment. I hardly notice the morning sky or the plants blooming in my garden on the way out the door. I don’t see the faces of fellow commuters.
If my intellectual skill is analysis and planning, what is the use of the Now?
Improv can answer that question. In the Now problems co-exist with their solutions because all available resources and ideas exist in the Now. Creativity is in the Now. Inspiration, too. There are no new ideas in the past. Perhaps most importantly, connection with our fellows happens only in the Now. Listening is a tool of the Now. The ability to uplift or destroy another with a thought, word, or glance happens in the Now. Fun is here. Laughter, too. Intimacy takes place only in the present moment. Joseph Campbell counseled about following your bliss: It is here! It is here! It is here!
Children are born improv artists – master teachers of the value of the present moment. I dreamed up the Wonderland Playhouse Acting Improvisation and Storytelling Project because I was certain that more than being mere consumers of story, kids had their own stories to tell. My own children did. Their stories were epic and endless, and sufficient hours did not exist in a day to provide the audience they craved.
I really wanted to hear those stories. Weary of the predictable violence and lowest common denominator responses made popular by modern media, I was desperate for entertainment and dynamic stories of human experience. I hypothesized that children were capable of surprising artistic expression and great humanity. That’s why I was caught off guard when one of the early Playhouse sessions contained stories with chainsaws. I remember thinking, “My goodness, what have I done?”
What Happens When Violence Hijacks The Story?
Yes! And, . . .. Improv dictates all ideas are valid. Exerting authority to change unwanted ideas is not an option. I reminded myself I had intended to tell their stories. If they wanted to talk about chainsaws, so be it. We moved on to rehearsal. When the chainsaw hijacked the story the players were confused and dismayed. Once the gadget worked its magic the story was over, but they didn’t want the story to be over. (Do you remember what it felt like when your favorite game ended too soon?) We elected to re-write and we replaced the chainsaw with a magical medallion. This new device was more fun to play with and it transformed the story. Our chainsaw massacre evolved into a story of overcoming prejudice and the reunion of a boy and his father.
These players needed to move past limited ideas to access deeper truths. We are trained early that knowing the right answer is prizeworthy. Being able to sit in not knowing takes courage and it is easier for kids. At first that chasm is scary because it feels empty. I remember when I couldn’t breathe in that space. But, just beyond that breathlessness are entire worlds full of ideas, resources, and friends to help. Commanding the courage to leap that divide, past the fear that you don’t know what to do, or the conviction that you’re not smart enough to do it, is a skill you were born with.
Thus, in the season of our discontent we learned to rely on each other, that the best impulse is not always the first impulse, and that waiting and listening in the Now is powerful.
In my quest for creativity I studied story structure from a broad base of teachers: Aristotle, Homer, Lajos Egri, Lew Hunter, L. Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Ira Glass, and the Three Stooges. My favorite storyteller was the whimsical bard Joseph Campbell who used the entire mythological library to weave webs in my mind that spanned time and culture.
In developing children’s programs for Wonderland Playhouse I began with structure. My three-act structure map was adapted from Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The map outlined plot elements along the timeline of a hero’s journey and we used it to analyze stories like Finding Nemo and The Wizard of Oz. Once players understood it, they collaborated to write their own improv stories. I prompted for the elements: Who is our hero. What’s his problem? Where is he going? That’s when things got exciting. Have you ever seen a kid shoot his hand up to answer a question and fly off his seat? Enthusiastic players exploded, their raised hands blasting them off the floor, ideas blurting out of them like exhaust from spinning rockets.
Story Structure: What are the rules?
From Beowulf to Hollywood, we find villains and violence in adventure stories. A villain drives the hero forward while violence excites. I knew this because I learned it, but the truth is I have never been fond of violence. Two things that make me feel bad when I want to feel good: war and menace. The list of award-winning movies I have walked out of is memorable: The Omen, Apocalypse Now, The Silence of the Lambs, and Lord of the Rings. Now I choose movies wisely and I sometimes wait in the lobby of the theater during trailers because they are often bathed in blood. Yuck! I’m just not wired for it. Still, I included the villain in the structure map because of my training.
With one exception (that I’m saving for the next blog post), when I prompted for a villain, eager players lost altitude and regarded me as though I spoke Arcturian with a lisp. In the rare case they offered a villain it was really a friend in disguise, a challenging friend perhaps, but not a true villain. I was uncertain what to do: ask again? coach the elements more? Their stories worked; I was the one stuck behind the rules. Ultimately improv settled it. Yes! And. . .. No villain? Okay. Moving on.
Wonderland Playhouse stories revealed no war, no villains, and no violence. The players were a lot like me. I once showed them Brad Bird’s animated film The Iron Giant. When several of them walked out during scenes of military domination and violence we all ended up in the kitchen snacking. They weren’t wired for it either and they didn’t come to the Playhouse to feel bad. We may have been the only folks in the world who felt that way, but we had found each other.
Violence is Irrelevant
Once familiar with the map I stopped coaching altogether and would simply prompt – Once there was a . . ..
Then, I stood back and watched as players fired and blasted all over the room. My job was keeping up with them. Brilliant young storytellers created lovably flawed heroes with uniquely goofy sidekicks on countless magical adventures.
Over and over they told me:
Violence is irrelevant;
Adventure is good for adventure’s sake; and
A villain does not drive a hero to heroic acts, love does.