Karen Wootton, Director of Curriculum and Assessment
While I am not the world traveler that CPM’s own Chris Mikles is, I do find myself crossing the country many times a year. I am seasoned enough to know that I need to bring something to do during those five hours strapped to a seat with nowhere to go. I usually have several things on my “flight to do” list, but when I fly Southwest, I always make time to read their inflight magazine.
The September 2015 issue focused on teamwork which naturally caught my attention. In particular, the first article Comedy of Errors: Five lessons on teamwork and failure from the halls of Saturday Night Live by Katie Rich, had several important teamwork lessons that are basic tenants of improvisation. “The foundation of improve,” Rich writes, “is one simple phrase: ‘Yes, and…’ The ‘yes’ part is simple. It means getting on board and saying yes to the people on your team.” Rich explains the importance of being a better team player, by showing up and being present, and with a good attitude. She goes further “Not feeling it today? Then stay out of people’s way and do whatever you can to not spread that funk to the rest of the group.” Important words for students and adults.
Once you have listened to your team and covered the “yes” part, what is the “and”? This is your contribution to the idea. Share your thoughts on how to extend what your teammate has said. Help the idea grow and expand. Imagine how your teams might function if everyone had the attitude of “Yes, and…” Those would be exciting teams to work with!
Rich outlines four other lessons from improv for strong teamwork, each is key for an improv team to be successful, and each will improve our students’ teamwork if we can encourage students to accept them. Her second lesson is Know your role. With the team roles many CPM teachers use, this should make sense. It does go beyond Resource Manager or Facilitator though, and extends to students knowing their strengths. If a student is very good at seeing a pattern, we want the student to know this and be willing to step in when that skill is needed.
Don’t try to fix everything might be a challenging lesson for some. Rich writes “You cannot change the people you work with. You can only change the way you react to the people you work with.” How much more productive (and happier!) would our students be if they can embrace this lesson!
In her fourth lesson, Rich says See the whole picture. While we might easily translate this to the field of mathematics where seeing the big picture helps students make connections and deepen their understanding, Rich extends this lesson to seeing how every team member has played a part, and has brought something to the final outcome. No one person takes the credit, no one person is blamed. For many students, realizing they are part of a bigger, productive group can build a sense of community.
The last lesson is another that is important for students and adults alike. Goshdarnit, be good to each other. She points out that mastering the earlier lessons may not be easy. There is always someone or something that will get under your skin. (But remember the third lesson, Don’t try to fix everything!) But despite possible irritations, we can still be nice to each other. “Good people rise to the top” Rich writes, and I think we all know this to be true. Plus, she adds, that annoying person may not be the problem. “Is it is you? It might be you…. The only tactic that I have seen work with a difficult teammate is total kindness and respect. Treat others like they are geniuses, like they are important, and guess what—they will feel that way. And they’ll remember you made them feel that way. And the team will get better.”
So with those wise words, let’s teach our students these improv lessons. Let’s make our students’ teams great and supportive places to learn.