Sunday, March 3, 2013

Improv: Our Students' Day at School

A few weeks ago in C2C we had the chance to take an improv comedy class. It was so much fun! I left the class with a stomach sore from laughing so hard. Then, last night we went to see an improv show by the troupe that gave our class. The audience would yell out topics for the troupe to do a sketch on, and the five members just started acting, without any sort of planning or discussion. Around intermission, I realized that every day I put my students in the same position as the comedy troupe. I yell a question out to them, and expect that all hands will shoot up in the air to give me the correct answer, just like the audience expects the troupe to immediately come up with a funny sketch.

But my student’s hands don’t all go up in the air. So I start randomly calling on students, and I can see the fear in some student’s eyes as they silently beg me not to call on them. My students are scared to take risks and are even more terrified of being wrong. The improv actors were funny last night because they weren’t scared of being wrong. Ok, I’ll admit there is no such thing as a wrong answer in comedy, but I don’t think they even cared if we laughed or not. The troupe was just up there doing their thing without fear of vulnerability or being ridiculed.

I need to figure out how to build this attitude and sense of confidence in my math class. I want my students to persevere in problem solving because they know that it is ok to make a mistake, and the mistake may lead them to the right answer. I want my students to know that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, so their answer might not look like their partners, and that is just fine. But our education system emphasizes multiple-choice questions, where there is only one right answer, and the way that you got to the answer does not matter. Within this confining system, it is hard to teach my students to enjoy the process of solving a problem; just like the improv actors enjoyed the sketch without worrying about the outcome.

Classroom culture is the key. I had a great time at the C2C improv class. But during last night’s show, I kept thinking how glad I was to be in the audience and not on the stage. At the improv class, on the other hand, I felt comfortable. I knew that everyone would support me and my partner would build upon my illogical ideas. Starting Monday, I am going to work on building a strong, enthusiastic and supportive classroom culture, where risks, mistakes, vulnerability, and impracticality are all encouraged.

But, I have a question for all the health care providers and health educators out there. How do you create a sense of trust and support when talking about something even more personal than math: health and the body? Even more, how do you do this when you don’t have the privilege to interact with your patients or students every day?

-Rachel Hollingsworth, 2011 TFA Corps Member


  1. Rachel,

    I think you ask an extremely pertinent question to the public health and health education fields. I feel like we are constantly asking how we can change very personal health behaviors (i.e. condom use) and often become slightly complacent or desensitized to how person these conversations can be.

    Therefore, I have found we are constantly talking about building rapport with those people we are working with. We also speak about being open minded, nonjudgmental, and culturally competent. However, your post makes me realize that perhaps we should speak more about being on the other end of these conversations. In fact, it make even be useful to practice this. I think its important to internalize how it feels to speak with a stranger about potentially intimate details.

    - Sara

  2. Rachel,
    Thank you for sharing these insightful realizations. I loved reading this post. I think you so are so right in recognizing the similarities in the actions of improv and answering questions in class as well as the differences in the perceptions/expectations of the "audience."

    In nursing school, therapeutic communication is highly emphasized. When speaking with our patients, it is important for us to ask open-ended questions (not yes or no questions) to allow patients to be able to express themselves and so the question does not seem accusatory or judgmental. Facilitating an open and accepting environment can be tricky; I think that the key to do this in nursing is to accept the person and meet them where they are. In regards to a classroom, I think that this can be a bit more tricky because it is not just you and the student, but you, the student, and his or her peers. From a student perspective, I know that I am more comfortable to ask questions when the teacher provides an opportunity for students to ask questions or acknowledges that the material is tricky. I think that in order to feel "safe" in the classroom, mistakes must be welcomed, efforts to answer questions must be praised (sound much like mindset?), mistakes shouldn't be attributed to that person (ex. not saying "Can someone help her out?")but maybe ask the person to go through their reasoning and then go over the step where the person deviated from the correct way. That way, the teacher is meeting the person where they are in their learning.