Have you ever been in the situation where you are sitting with your pen in your hand, but you simply have no idea what to write? It isn’t because you don’t have any ideas, but you don’t think you have any good ideas. You are editing and critiquing your thoughts as they come to you, and they get squelched before they can even be explored. Sometimes this is because we judge what others will think of them. Sometimes we know what “good” writing is, and we know these aren’t “good” ideas. However, what we forget is that they may not be “good” ideas yet. They may be amazing if they had a chance to live and grow, rather than be evaluated as good or bad in their nascent stage. That editor in our minds is really valuable…later.
Often our reluctant and disengaged writers have a hyperactive editor that doesn’t know when to hush up! But we can try teaching some strategies that set students up to practice silencing their editor, and help them realize the ideas they have may be great if given a chance.
Over the past several years, I have been using and studying the use of improv in the classroom to support literacy instruction, content learning, and social and emotional development. Practicing improv requires one to trust their instincts and say yes to their ideas before editing them. Keith Johnstone is a highly respected improv teacher and among the founders of improvisational theater. In his book, Impro for Storytellers, he offers two coaching moves to support and encourage silencing the editor.
The first idea Johnstone offers, which we might imagine as a strategy to teach writers in our classroom, is the power of split-attention. If we can distract the mind with an activity, we don’t have as much mental energy to be so critical. It’s like rubbing the belly and patting the head while telling a story. We just don’t have enough capacity left to also engage our editor. Of course, some people, like me, have inner critics with super-human strength, but split-attention helps!
In my previous blog entry on borrowing the 4 “rules” of improv to transform your classroom, Zip, Zap, Zop was referenced to demonstrate the giving and receiving of offers. However, it is also a great demonstration of split-attention. When participants are focused on keeping the game going in tempo they are engaging what is often called “System 1” thinking which is rapid, unconscious, and therefore involuntary when finding an idea, rather than the “System 2” thinking which is explicit conscious and evaluative.
Another split-attention activity to prime free flowing thought is a game called Blabbermouth. The object of the game is to talk about something for a minute without saying any filler words (um, like, eh, etc.) or taking an unnatural pause. This activity has the added benefit of supporting Speaking Standards in CCSS, especially S&L #4 and #6, where students are to be able to present information appropriate to the task and adapt speech to a variety of contexts. Students are given the topic and then should start speaking immediately without any time to plan or think. The goal is to get to 60 seconds or to beat the best time so far. You might consider teaching the game with one or two students in the whole class, and then give the rest of the group opportunities to try with their tables or in partnerships. This strategy could be used to help build relationships in new partnerships, to prime thinking before an on-demand assessment, or to explore topics in the collecting stage of All-About Books.
The second idea Johnstone offers, which we might imagine as a strategy to teach writers in our classroom, is his coaching to “Be Obvious!” It struck me because in a number of studies in creativity theory (e.g. Starko, 2010), the instruction to try to come up with original ideas, creates more original ideas. However, that may be truest when people don’t already feel a pressure to be original, and less true when they know they will be evaluated on the perceived quality of the product rather than on the diversity or number of ideas. When the student is trying to think of an idea, but is paralyzed, the most liberating thing one can hear is “Be Obvious.” It tells a student to go ahead and say what is coming to mind; it tells a student that you trust that their ideas are worth hearing. Furthermore, often times your obvious is not my obvious. Johnstone explains, “Be obvious means being your own person, not somebody else’s,” which is why it doesn’t lead to cliché. Cliché is the collective’s obvious. The more we really free our obvious, the less cliché it will be. When we dive in, open our mouths, or make a gesture or any action, our brains are so preprogrammed to explain the actions that we start making something up. If we can trust our imagination by being our version of obvious, our crazy individual minds will create something original.
One way we can help students practice being obvious is to simply wait when a student is slow to offer an idea. Sometimes we are so ready to be helpful, we accidently offer an idea when a student may have an idea but is in the grips of the critical editor. If we could instead say to them “Be obvious! Say the first thing that comes to your mind!” and keep waiting! If there is still nothing, we can try to encourage another way to express an idea. For instance, maybe we could ask for a gesture or a facial expression instead. Sometimes I even just ask them to make a sound — any sound. If we can say yes to the gesture, thought, sound, or expression for the student, the student may learn to begin to say yes to their own ideas. Once a student has offered anything, their brain will work hard to explain it, and they will have outsmarted that editor just a little bit!
So go ahead and be obvious! Trust your own imagination to play with your writing and literacy instruction!