A Group of People

Grade School Improv

In assessing, audience, curriculum, improvisation, life, puppets, students, teaching on February 18, 2011 at 3:15 pm

By Gunnar Simonsen

In improvisation, there are no mistakes.”– Miles Davis

I was never a boy scout. We used to go camping as a family a lot, but starting a fire with two rocks and stick wasn’t my gift. But, once again… I needed a job.

How I ended up a teacher for the In-School Scouts program for public schools in North East Portland, I have no idea.

I was thrust into a position half way through the school year where I had 500 students in 3 different schools ranging from 2nd-6th grade replacing a popular teacher from Jamaica with dreadlocks.

Me, I was this Norwegian dude with a weird name. I was young, reckless, and probably the perfect candidate for them to use as their punt option. I just had no idea this was the case as I blindly dove in.

Over night, I had to learn the curriculum, which was different for each grade level, in hopes of not skipping a beat on behalf of the program after the popular guy before me departed.

Right off the bat, I could tell the teachers were skeptical of me. And even worse, right off the bat, I could tell the curriculum I was supposed to learn and implement was completely lame. Reading through that which I was to teach made me laugh. I saw that in a matter of weeks, I was expected to teach the students not only how to read braille, but also how to read sign language. What made me laugh was that I had no idea how to read braille, let alone sign language.

Are you kidding me? What have I gotten myself into?

However, it wasn’t the braille or the sign language that had gotten the best of me at first… it was the puppet show that led to my initial demise.

Certainly, the concept of doing a puppet show for 2nd graders shouldn’t have been intimidating. But, it was the idea that I had to use both of my hands for two different characters at the same time, that simply put… terrified me.

I started out on a roll. I had the funny voice down and the kids were laughing. I even noticed the teacher laughing, too. Of course, the story line was dated, therefore, it called for some improvisation.

When it came time to introduce the other character, I was doomed.

The puppet show was going down hill fast, and I knew it. When I found myself talking while moving both of my hands at the same time, I knew it was all over. Even the kids knew it as they pointed it out and began to laugh hysterically at me. I remember looking up and seeing the teacher, with a smile, shaking her head. Quite frankly, I think she already knew the curriculum was awful and was just curious to see what I was going to do with it.

If Jack Black’s School of Rock had existed back then, I would have been a carbon copy.

The beauty is, the students thought it was all part of the show. It was one of the greatest crash and burn moments in my life and I had to think fast to land on my feet.

I can’t remember how that all turned out, but I do remember that being one of my most supportive classes. I think I ended up coming clean to the class and admitting I was a terrible puppeteer and just discussed with them the meaning of the puppet show.

It can be quite humbling admitting this to a class of 2nd graders. But, even still, no matter what the age… honesty is the best policy, right?

Next up, sign language.

Though I tried and tried, I could not make the sign language curriculum work. For one, I had never spoken sign language in my life and therefore had no right seeking to teach grade schoolers. Quite frankly, what a waste of time this could have been to the public school system.

They were giving up a lot of time each day to this program that was outdated and quite frankly, I was inadequetly prepared. Where best case scenario for this position would have been the teacher having several months to prepare the year. I was hired, had like a day to study, and… showtime!

It was in my first class teaching sign language that I knew I needed to come up with something fast.

Being that I had a weird name, somehow, we decided that I would go by Mr. G. It was in this first class on sign language that somehow… my name came up. One of the games the students loved to play was simon says. As we discussed my name, the lightbulb came on.

I was going to teach these students a new game. It would be called… Simonsen says. The premise of the game would be with asking the students one question…

Do you believe you could learn 5 new words in a new language in 10 minutes?

Of course, not one hand was raised. There was no way they thought this was possible.

With that as a backdrop, I began to teach them the few words I was able to learn and what happened next, was magic. They got it!

After 7 minutes I stopped teaching them new words and decided to test them. When it was all said and done, I think even the teacher was amazed that these kids not only learned 5 new words, they had learned 10 new words in 7 minutes.

The rest of the class, we played Simonsen says with those 10 words. It was amazing to watch these students who didn’t believe something was possible, shortly after, saw that not only was it possible, but even more was possible.

I learned then that no matter what curriculum I had to offer, what I needed to deliver was something that built up confidence in these students. Looking at the curriculum then became a game as to how far I could stretch it to reach these kids and make a difference and meet them where they were at.

Frankly, it didn’t take me hanging out at too many recesses to begin to understand many of the kids and what they went home to each night.

In the end, was it the best strategy? I don’t know. I just knew that what I had to work with was in no way shape or form going to make a dent in these kids lives. However, I am sure if my supervisor only knew my strategy, they would not have been happy. But, look at these kids, I wasn’t going to waste their time with something lame, even if I was a little reckless with my improvisational skills and lack of planning.

But hey, I was young. What did I know? I was in way over my head and it didn’t take long to realize this. Perhaps, part of this was all about survival? When one immediately assesses that they are in trouble, you either fold or fight.

Maybe this was simply the fight in me to survive another class period? Maybe it was simply my heartstrings being pulled by the multiple stories of these kids before me that caused me to push further? Truth be told, I was probably just too embarrassed to admit that I was in way over my head and therefore I saw no other option other than to fight on. (Maybe that might be deemed…pride?)

But, whatever it was, I will leave that kind of Dr. Phil assessment for another blog.

All I know is that it was both a fun and intense few months. And… how cool was it for me to return to a time when I could buy a hot lunch for a buck?

In the end, I am not certain I had won all of the teachers over, but I know this… when the 6th graders at one of the schools asked me to play on their basketball team to take on the staff during an assembly, I knew it was all worth it.

It wasn’t for my ego, but that I knew most of these kids didn’t have a father figure at home and when the teachers told me that the students had never asked someone to do that before, I knew then that this would be an honor I would take with me throughout my life.

Maybe we made a dent after all?

Though, I would probably not recommend that strategy now, I learned then the importance of immediately assessing your audience and then adapting a strategy to most effectively reach them.

Quite frankly, this is something I have taken with me in every presentation I have ever given since those days. Of course now, I also try to go into each presentation with a solid knowledge of the topic being discussed. This of course allows one to be more naturally flexible.

But, in this case, I was young and time was of the essence, therefore, improvisation was a necessity.

Quite frankly… it was survival.

I may not have been the best at it and I was certainly rough around the edges, but, when your heart is right, you can begin to see the logic in that in improvisation, there are no mistakes.

…otherwise, you’re just shooting from the hip.

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  1. I love this post, G!!

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