Wow! We had 15 students at the InterPlay Performance Technique class tonight, which is twice as many as usual. All that energy was such a delight. As I posted on my Facebook status line:
For those of you who don’t know, InterPlay is an active, creative approach to unlocking the wisdom of the body. We use storytelling, movement, voice, physical contact, and stillness as a vehicle to creating healthy individuals and communities. InterPlay is also a performance technique, which is what I teach on Tuesday nights. (By the way, in this blog post I’ve tried to translate most of the lingo so non-Interplay folks can understand what I’m talking about; however, if there’s anything I didn’t explain, feel free to ask in the comments section).
We turned the Tuesday night class into a performance class a year ago, and ever since then the class has grown like crazy. I’m so grateful to all the new and eager students! Many of them are experienced InterPlayers who have been hungering to practice performing; others, though, are completely new to the practice. Because it’s a drop-in class, the same folks don’t come every week (although there is a core of about five who are thankfully consistent).
As you can imagine, these disparities — in experience and attendance — pose interesting challenges for me, the leader. How might I teach in such a way that the new people learn the basic skills, but the more experienced folks feel challenged? How do I build skills with specific performance forms when folks do not consistently attend? (Note: I’m very aware that these questions are similar to the ones academic teachers ask in classes with both “gifted” and “learning disabled” students. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to reflect about how my InterPlay experience dovetails with my classroom teaching experience; however, there are definitely overlaps, and many of these best practices can be applied to the academic classroom as well).
Slowly, I’m gathering my own list of best practices. Below are a few things I noticed myself doing during tonight’s class. I’m typing them into this blog entry so that I can make them conscious teaching practices for myself, and also in the hopes of starting a discussion with other InterPlay leaders about the best practices they’re noticing.
1. Always teach the basic skills as a warm up into the more complex ones.
Just as a concert pianist practices her scales, so must the most experienced InterPlayers practice the basic forms. Sometimes I’m tempted to forego a hand dance or 30-second babble because I want to get to the “good stuff” of dancing and storytelling using the whole body. However, easing the body into the more complex forms often provides a richer experience — for both the newbie and the old hat. Plus, I’m learning that teaching the basic skills doesn’t have to take a ton of time (often just a minute or two).
2. Provide multiple options.
On a night like tonight, when I have a brand-spanking-new student along side a member of Wing It! Performance Ensemble, I’ve learned to provide multiple options. For example, tonight I knew that I wanted my students to practice solo dancing in front of a witness. This sort of thing can scary to a newbie. So I introduced dancing by inviting folks to raise their arm into the air and practice moving it in a jerky way and then a smooth way. After a minute of this practice, I offered these words:
I’m about to make some more suggestions for how to move. Those dancing here for the first time might feel more comfortable responding to my suggestions using only your hand and arm. However, for those of you itching for more, please feel free to use your whole body.
As I invited folks to find swinging movements and practice making shapes, I watched carefully. Sure enough, the newbies just worked with their hands and arms, swinging and shaping. Most of the class, however, dove in to the full body movements. And sure enough, I saw the newbie get pulled along. Soon, he was dancing with his whole body, too!
3. Practice being an expert.
Tonight during the warm up, we explored what it’s like to be an expert. I made up fake words and invited people to pretend that they were an expert in that topic. For example, an expert on “shuhneewa” might say, “Well, obviously a shuhneewa is a special type of baked bread that is kneaded by kneeling on the dough with ones knees. This kind of vigorous kneeding creates a bread that is extra fluffy and is best served drenched with honey.”
After everyone had a turn at being expert, we talked about how our bodies express expertise, even if it is simply pretend. Many of us stood straighter and talked with more clarity and authority. I then invited folks to access this feeling of being an “expert” in their dancing. I invited them to move with clarity and authority, even though all their movements were improvised.
I believe that this “pretending” to be an expert levels the playing field in a multi-level class. Suddenly no-one is expert or novice. Rather, we’re all “pretend experts.” Furthermore, it allows us to discover the wisdom in the phrase, “fake it til you make it.” In my experience, faking a skill is a preliminary way of learning it.
4. Name nervousness, but don’t dwell on it.
Tonight I found myself using the word “nervous” a number of times. Sometimes I suggested that, “if you’re feeling nervous or self conscious, you might try this,” followed by a demonstration of a choice students might make. At another point in class, I shared about a time that I felt self conscious in an InterPlay setting. I hope that naming uncomfortable feelings demystifies them and makes them seem normal. However, I don’t want to dwell on the nervousness either. I name it as a possibility, but I move on quickly. No sense staying in it so long that folks actually start feeling nervous, if they weren’t there to begin with.
5. Change partners often.
People learn so much from each other body-to-body. When there are experienced InterPlayers in the room, I can rest assured that their example will teach the newcomers a great deal. For this reason, I change partners often. I try to ensure that every new person gets to work with a more experienced InterPlayer at some point early on in the class. Today during class, I used the babbling form (where partners talk to each other for 30 seconds about topics I give them) to give people an opportunity to rotate through three partners. This process only took about 7 minutes, but the settling of energies was palpable. By the time we were finished, I could tell that the new folks had much more ease in their bodies, and they were ready to do more complex work.
These five best practices are simply the ones I found myself using tonight. I’m sure there are many more ways of dealing with the challenge of mixed-level classes. I’m also aware that there were moments in class tonight, and in other classes, when I probably didn’t handle the mixed-levels as skillfully.
For any InterPlayers reading this, whether you are participants or teachers, I’d love to hear what you notice about participating in and/or teaching mixed-level classes. Please comment!