Wednesday, April 08, 2009


I'm a huge jazz fan.

And my favorite form of jazz is free jazz. That's the jazz of freedom and free improvisation.

A lot of folks think improvisation is just "making it up as you go along". And it is, to a degree.

But what a lot of folks don't realize is that improvisers -- be they musicians, stand-up comics, or story-tellers -- actually only get on stage after hours, days, and years of honing their craft.

So what may seem to you in the audience like a quick flourish or an ecstatic bang is actually the result of a process that started long long before that improviser ever took to the stage.

In the classroom, I consider myself primarily to be an improviser. I've discussed this in the past with other teachers and the general response was: "just don't let the administration know".

That's because they perceived improvisation to be just a form of flying by the seat of one's pants.

There's a lot more to it than that.

My personal journey to the front of the classroom began as a kid with a book in my face twenty-hours of every day. It continued as a teenager absolutely addicted to his record collection. It evolved in college -- endless hours spent wandering the stacks in the library and endless crazy discussions about every such thing. It followed me around as I traveled the world playing music and meeting people. It popped into my life in the form of three little kids.

Your journey is the stuff of your experience. It's your 'prior knowledge', to use an ed term.

And its what you bring with you to the front of that classroom everyday.

The Internet can be an extension of that.

If you allow yourself to seek to guide your kids towards understanding the essential questions rather than just completing "pg. 47 #1-5, 7, 8, 9-13".

If you seek to find links between the content of academics and the content of kids' lives rather than just follow whats printed in the table of contents.

If you let the discussion in class to get you off track. Because sometimes the kids have better ideas than whatever you worked out the night before in your lesson plan.

The Internet is a powerful tool for letting this sort of thing happen. The Net makes it easier to take on the sorts of important details that might pop up in a discussion that might provide a 'teachable moment', but for which in terms of resources you would otherwise be unprepared. How else, say in a class discussion about 'A Tale of Two Cities' and justice during the French Revolution, could you -- on the whim of a student's question of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" -- immediately draw upon the examples of The Apology, Job, a timeline of devastating natural disasters, the death of MLK, and 9-11 to help illustrate the philosophical and historical implications of such an important question? (And all immediately accessible in multimedia / multiple-intelligence-serving format).

But you better be prepared to improvise. You have to literally give yourself up to it. It is as much a way of life as a teaching strategy. What it's not is blindly reaching out into the dark with no support. What it's not is an excuse to be unprepared. Rather, improvising puts you on the hot seat; it lifts the energy level and immediacy of your class discussions; and, with the use of immediately accessible Internet resources, it demonstrates to the students in an authentic and representational way the power of history, the natural interdisciplinary quality of comparative analysis, and the value of being able to access and distinguish valid and documented support for one's position in a discussion.

And that's music to my ears.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this entry. I try to do this everyday in the classroom. Any topic that we discuss, I am constantly on the lookout for interests of the kids that I can connect the topic to. I teach a pre-algebra course for instance. I am a lover of model railroads and model slot-car racing. In the middle of a lesson about ratios, it occured to me, that my passions connected directly to the lesson. The entire classroom became animated and involved as soon as we started converting scale sizes to actual sizes and began to discuss what we would have to do to build our own scale models. I think this is what you mean by improvisation. It came to me in the middle of the "performance" not in the "rehearsal" for the "performance".

    Yes, I think teaching is a performance. I do not apologize for that.



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