Wednesday, January 25, 2012

People most disappointed in their education may be the best teachers.

            I'm re-reading Keith Johnstone's book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. I have been acquainted with that book since my first year in college. I was taking a class called "practical skills" taught by Libby Worth. The class was all about theater games - how to play them, understand how they enrich us as actors, and, eventually, how to teach them to others. Keith Johnstone's book, along with Augusto Boal's Games for actors and non-actors were the two references we used throughout the course.
            Playing and teaching theater games has been a big part of my life since that "practical skills" class. When I lived in France, I tried to apply what I had learned to teach English to two little girls. My efforts met with moderate success. Then, I became an apprentice at Touchstone Theatre, in Pennsylvania, and was immersed in theater workshops for children and teenagers where we played a lot of different games, all in an effort to establish kinesthetic learning, i.e "learning by doing". And now, I'm a French teacher in a nearby college, trying to get my students to speak in French and to use the language as a communication tool. All of these teaching moments have made me realize that I care about transmitting skills and knowledge to people, even when the students appear not to be ready or willing to learn. Of course, I see how a group of attentive and on-task students makes the teacher's life a lot easier. But teaching becomes truly creative when you have to find  ways to get through to the students, when they are being challenged and when they end up responding positively by learning something new for themselves.
               My  inexperience teaching makes me sometimes underestimate my responsibility as the leader of the group or overestimate it, at times. It's hard for me to know how much my students need to do for themselves, and how much I need to give for them to be able to learn. Keith Johnstone puts great emphasis on group dynamics and very clearly states that it's the teacher's responsibility to establish a cohesive group:

"There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, and that it's more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group can propel its members forward so that they achieve amazing things. Many teachers don't seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they're working with a destructive, bored group, they just blame the students for being "dull", or uninterested. It's essential for the teacher to blame himself if the group aren't in a good state." (Johnstone, Impro:Improvisation and the Theatre, Theatre Arts Books, New York, 1979, p.29)

            This makes sense. And when thinking back on the group dynamics that are being established in my classroom, I see where improvements are needed. The students create a spatial pattern on the first day of class. They choose implicit partners - they sit next to someone - and are very reluctant to change, to move. As the leader, I have the option and the authority to change those patterns to allow greater participation and interaction. I need to make a conscious effort, as the teacher, to fight the accepted consensus and to render the group truly dynamic, making all students comfortable working with each other.
             Theater and language acquisition are not that far apart, it seems, when it comes to teaching styles. Both are, after all, about communicating.  In order for the communication to happen in theater and in a foreign language, trust has to be established. That's why, once the trust has been established,  the games offered by Johnstone can be tweaked to fit a language class. And Johnstone gives a lot of advice on building trust in a classroom, too. It turns out that he was deeply scarred by his education - feeling like  his creativity and intuitive ability to learn decreased as he was being educated. As a child at school, he stopped being pliable and submissive but only cooperated when he liked the teacher :

"... but gradually I realised that I wouldn't work for people I didn't like. [...] When I liked a particular teacher and won a prize, the head would say: 'Johnstone is taking this prize away from the boys who deserve it!' If you've been bottom of the class for years it gives you a different perspective: I was friends with boys who were failures and nothing would induce me to write them off as 'useless' or 'uneducable'. My 'failure' was a survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my way out of the trap that my education had set for me. I would have ended up with a lot more of my consciousness blocked off from me than now." (Johnstone, op.cit, p.21).

            Because Johnstone knows first-hand that students can block their learning because they don't trust, he has spent his career figuring out ways to break the implied barriers between teacher and pupil in order for the learning to truly happen (in his case, in the field of theater). As the teacher, believing that students can learn is probably the first and most important step. It sounds obvious but how much do we, as educators, truly believe this? Do we really believe that everyone can learn? Because if we do, the question is no longer "can this student understand what I'm teaching" but "how can I allow this student to understand what I'm trying to communicate?"
          As I go along, I realize that structured activities tend to work really well when they are structured just enough for the students to understand what is expected of them, but also making the activity loose enough for the students to bring something to the table. My preparation for classes is changing - switching focus. There are key elements that I need to teach. But instead of focusing on teaching those specific elements in a spoon-feeding way, I try to create a structure in which the students will be using the language element I want them to learn. So I end up becoming a 'facilitator' rather than a 'teacher'. And that suits me a lot better, actually. I tend to thrive in collaborative environments and less in top-to-bottom situations. And, from my observations, the students seem to have learned expressions and French structures more permanently when they were initially used in a playful, non-threatening context. Of course, French grammar is a beast of rules and exceptions and complications. So, there is, inevitably, some drilling to do. But even the drilling can be creative when it becomes a partner game and when the trust in the group reigns.
      I'll be failing a lot as an educator, I'm sure. But the pedagogy Johnstone advocates is all about games and playfulness from which learning and art can fully develop. His pragmatic wisdom gives me something to strive for.

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