Objectives & Feedback: a teachers’ training

Watch an improv teacher adroitly introduce an objective to students, explain an exercise they’ll do in service of that objective, provide side-coaching, and wrap it all up in the end.

Kathryn Schmidt’s Topnotch Teaching

The clip comes from a Teacher & Coach Training Session at The Coalition Theater. Want to learn what they learned? Want to lead a similar session of your own?

Teachers were invited and Performers were recruited for a 2 hour session on Goal Setting & Note Giving.

Our teachers received this email detailing the Prework required of them:

Take some time this week to prepare an Objective (what you want performers to learn) and an Activity (how performers will practice the Objective).  You can of course choose any Objective of your liking, and your Activity can include 1 to 7 improvisers. Go nuts!

For example:

Objective: Today we’re going to focus on… reacting to our fellow players while avoiding conflict and negotiation. When we react to each other, rather than exerting our power over our fellow player, we want to show how our fellow player has power over us.

Activity: I need [2] players on stage. Player A will initiate as if no one else was on stage. Player B will react emotionally to Player A – who they are, what they’re doing, etc. – making it clear how Player A makes them feel. After a couple minutes, I’ll call scene.

A big part of teaching/coaching is PREPARING. You only have to prepare a little for Saturday but spending some time figuring out your focus and how you will direct performers to focus with you will pay off

Each attendee will have a turn to run an exercise, side coach where appropriate, and then give final notes on the performance of the Activity.  

The Performers ALSO received an email. In addition to being given a sense of the session, the email laid out some “bad behaviors” they could pepper in throughout to test teachers’ ability to handle them. It was made explicit that ” we want to do this ultimately to help not hinder” – performers were to have fun with it, but not make the workshop not fun for the teachers. Click here for a PDF of the email.

To start the session, I…

  • Thanked everyone for the engagement. It never ceases to amaze me how many people aren’t interested in working to get better. And I’m always grateful for those who are.
  • Revisited established Lesson Planning Best Practices. Preparing for class/coaching with a focused objective linked to an activity has long been an expectation for Coalition Teachers (see slides 8-14 in this PPT file). This session was designed for them to practice those best practices.
  • Emphasized desire for Group Discussion. As a facilitator I endeavor to speak the least in a workshop. Flip-charts were up to capture questions and insights. I wanted attendees to share what they hoped to learn and for other attendees to share their thoughts and experiences. We needed open, honest conversation if any of us were to improve.

And then we got to it.

  1. One at a time, teacher/coach attendees took the stage.
  2. The Objective was introduced.
  3. The Activity was explained to performer volunteers.
  4. The Performers performed, with teachers/coaches encouraged to side coach. Can’t learn from something you don’t try.
  5. The Teacher/Coach debriefed on what happened. More often than not engaging in conversation with Performers but, as in the included video, sometimes it was just a wrap-up.
  6. Attendees Complimented and Critiqued what they saw. I made sure to have a compliment and constructive criticism for everyone to ensure everyone received feedback.

And it was an all around success.

Below and PDFed HERE are compiled insights from the session. Learn. Do. Share. Enjoy!

Setting Objectives, Explaining Exercises, Side Coaching, and Giving Notes In-The-Moment Best Practices:

Preparing –

  • Plan for more than you’ll need / Plan alternative exercises
    • Class attendance might not allow for certain exercises
    • Based on class progress, you may need to slow down or skip ahead
    • Students may not “get it” and may need a different approach
  • Practice actually articulating your lessons and instructions
    • Speak out loud to yourself, to a partner, to your TA
  • EDIT what you plan to say; it needs to be as clear as possible in as few words as possible
  • Play and Practice > Lecture
  • Be aware of what your group needs and flex. Was last week intense? Work another approach (ex: Short Form Fun! The Reverse Harold!)
  • Be conscientious of time

Setting Objectives –

  • Keep it high level and constrained to one or two behaviors that you’ll be addressing
  • Cut the fluff
    • Save the story, skip to the moral
    • Present a value of what you’re proposing, not a defense or a history
  • “Today we’re going to focus on…  The reason is…”
  • If a student…
    • Pushes back at your plan (“I don’t see how this will help.” “I’m not into this.” “But UCB…”): Assert that “in this class, you have to try” and confidently move on.

Explaining Exercises –

  • Have them learn through their experience rather than your lecture
    • Have improvisers Do the exercise and then articulate the lessons in the context of their performance
      • It’ll make lessons easier to grasp
      • And avoid situations where the lesson you had in mind has to be tweaked to match what actually occurred
    • Rather than over-explain a complicated/nuanced exercise, preload with improvisers who “get it” to demonstrate how to do it
  • Provide instruction through iterations of the exercise, rather than giving a ton of instructions before starting
    • 1st time without much instruction, 2nd time with pointed instructions, 3rd time…etc
  • Certain curriculum mechanics not seem clear – to articulate and/or teach? Teach improv as it makes sense to YOU
    • Teacher needs to be able to really clearly articulate their vision and be convinced in their believe in it
  • If a student…
    • Keeps pushing for additional clarity: Know they’re just a student who “really wants to get it right” and over-explaining at that point will just create more anxiety and confusion to probe. Get them up on stage to just do it.

Side Coaching –

  • Quick, Concise so as to allow scene to keep going
    • Side coaching that requires scene to pause and/or restart can be okay, too, if the intention is to work through an optimal path together as a learning tool
    • Still, instructors should thrive to minimize language in side-coaching to keep players in-the-moment if they have to return to that moment to continue forward
  • Make it clear what you want players to do
    • “Do this” instead of “Don’t Do…”
    • Directives instead of questions: “Define your relationship” vs “Who are you?”
  • Encourage the good stuff; Reward what’s working (laughing helps!)
  • Finding the moment to Side Coach can be challenging
    • A lull where you can see improvisers thinking/struggling
    • In reaction to a less-than-optimal move to get players back on optimal path
    • To reground players in the exercise
      • EX: In One Person Scene, saying “Emotional noise” to get everyone back into shared emotional perspective

Giving Notes on Exercises –

  • Your notes aren’t for the last scene, they’re for the scene they’re going to do next
  • Your notes are about the improv, not the improviser
    • Speak to the actions and results
    • Assume everyone is just trying to learn how to do a thing they enjoy better
  • There are no “mistakes”
    • There are choices and different paths and a lot of subjective perspectives
    • It’s all instruction and observation, not compliments and critiques
    • Focus on what they should next time over how things went sub optimally last time
  • Focus on Progress to train good behaviors
    • We want improvisers to want to work on improvements; keep people encouraged and engaged
    • While the improviser can tell when we’re being nice for nice sake, keeping the Compliment Sandwich in mind can help us remember to point out what we liked
  • Initiating feedback talking about what we liked is a great place to start
    • “What was challenging about that? “What felt easy; what felt hard?” are better questions for being more pointed (versus “How did that feel?”
  • If a student…
    • Tries to bail off stage before receiving notes: They’re probably not feeling very confident. Just confidently tell them to “stay up there” without making a deal of it.
    • If students are talking when you want to. Confidently shut it down to hold their attention. “Hey, guys.”
    • Disagrees and/or Defends themselves. Don’t dismiss them, but remember what’s important is what they’ll be thinking in the next scene. Curb them from lengthy digressions. They don’t have to agree, but for the sake of the class they should try to align behind your instructions.
    • Seeks exhausting clarity on your notes. Allow for more practice to clarify. If it’s more about one person than the whole group, the discussion can wait until after class.

Notes after Class –

  • Allow opportunity for students to engage in open dialogue
    • You want them to be able to ask their “dumb” questions to clarify their thinking
  • Acknowledge/understand different learning styles – visual, experiential, written
  • Follow-up emails post-class is a best practice
    • Addressing different styles – graphics, video and written
    • Sharing video examples – commercials, clips, comic strips
    • Improv vocabulary can be better digested in written form post-class
    • An email chain facilitates further one-on-one dialogue with students who might be unwilling to ask questions in front of the group or who needed time to articulate their questions
  • Check in with the class halfway through the session – get feedback on you and explore what they think they need
    • Can be emails, survey, class discussion
I’ll never not be self-conscious!

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