It is our great pleasure to share this edited excerpt from Engage: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning, by Kurt Wootton and Eileen Landay.
As anyone who’s ever attended a workshop with Kurt or Eileen knows, they make magic happen in those sessions. Engage is their spell-book: full to the brim with techniques for facilitating creative, full-body learning for kids and adults alike. The book is organized around “The Performance Cycle,” so this excerpt begins with an explanation of that. After that, you’ll find an edited version of Chapter 1: Building Community. We chose to share this chapter because although it’s written with teachers in mind, the ideas here are useful for any gathering of humans, from a preschool class to a staff meeting.
Note: for the sake of brevity, this excerpt includes fewer than half of the “building community activities” that appear in the book. If you want to see all of them, we suggest ordering the book here.
Eileen began some of the experiments that would lead to “the performance cycle” as a classroom teacher in Maine where her students created and performed readers’ theater, wrote and bound novels, made movies, illustrated and displayed poetry. In his English classes, Kurt applied his skills as an actor and theater director and saw even the most reluctant students become increasingly engaged. He noted, for example, that in preparing a theater production of Alice in Wonderland, his cast paid careful attention to Alice’s development as a character in her journey through Wonderland. Both of us found that in using these specific strategies and activities, students became far more interested, alive, engaged.
Beginning in the early years of our collaboration, we brought together artists and performers and partnered them with literacy-focused classroom teachers from a variety of disciplines. We designed and tried multiple activities in partnership with both elementary and secondary school students. Together, artists, teachers, and students explored a range of approaches and methods to demonstrate their knowledge. Would they create a modern dance? Would they write their own stories thematically related to the text and perform them? Would they create a short film to interpret a text in their own unique way? Teachers and students had creative autonomy to design both the process and the product.
Along the way, we noted that inevitably, the most successful pattern involved students using one or more art forms to perform their understanding of what they are learning.
In documenting this work, we noted that the most effective groups began with a warm-up activity that created immediate interaction and took important first steps in becoming an ensemble. We called this BUILDING COMMUNITY. Invariably, the second component of the process focused on establishing the topic, identifying questions, and creating a purpose for learning. In this step, teachers and students made personal connections between the material and their lives. We called this ENTERING CONCEPTS, TOPICS, AND TEXTS. Next, class members dove deeply into the material, absorbing, researching, and interpreting as a means of COMPREHENDING the topic and text. In the next step, students began CREATING, constructing an original response to questions they’d earlier agreed to pursue. In REVISING/REHEARSING, they shared, shaped, and refined their response, preparing it for a public PERFORMANCE OF UNDERSTANDING. Every step of the way, but especially at its completion, they REFLECT on multiple aspects of their work. Over time, the process developed into a clear and flexible framework for guiding instruction and learning that we named THE PERFORMANCE CYCLE. To describe the components of the cycle, we created this graphic:
In our discussions, we came to understand that when a group plans to perform their understanding of their learning, they are working towards a clear and specific purpose. They know they must accomplish a task within a given time frame. They know they are preparing to share their understanding and insights with an audience—whether with fellow students or with the community outside of the classroom. Performance, unlike much of schooling, is collaborative. Rather than taking a test, writing a paper, or filling out a worksheet, students work with one another. They engage in bringing something new to the world.
Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.
― bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism
Imagine for a moment that you are a student in a class you teach. Do your best to become that student as you cross the threshold into your classroom. It is early morning. Behind you are the ebb and flow of the school’s hallway. Within you are the experiences and effects of this morning and the days preceding it. Before you is a familiar doorway. And on the other side of the door, a well-known space, enclosed, relatively quiet, and predictable. Hesitate for a moment before entering. Take a breath. How do you feel? What are you thinking about? What do you imagine will welcome you on the other side?
A place that fulfills these criteria is a learning community. In ways large and small, its activities and relationships are designed to help set a learner’s feet on a path toward a positive social future. Crossing the doorstep into an effective learning community, you will find people with a shared purpose and diverse experience and skills in an environment where everyone’s contributions are valued and supported. The community’s primary goal is to advance its collective knowledge and skills and to make explicit not only what everyone is learning but how learning is being accomplished. Together, you and others create and share learning among yourselves. Later, you will extend that learning by participating in a performance of understanding in a more public setting (Perkins and Blythe, 1994). And finally, you will be called upon to reflect on what you’ve done and what you’ve learned.
Now, step back and imagine yourself not as a student crossing the doorstep into a physical or virtual classroom but in the role that you, a reader of this book, is most likely to fill: as a teacher responsible for establishing and helping to manage such a learning community. You too cross that doorstep every day. You too are a member of this learning community, though your role differs, especially at the outset when you will be responsible for introducing THE PERFORMANCE CYCLE model, establishing the climate and setting the work of the community in motion. What will you need to say and do as you help to create such a community?
THE PERFORMANCE CYCLE is a way of building a learning community or community of practice. Lave and Wenger define communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (1999). Members of a successful learning community share a willingness, ability, and understanding of common purposes and goals. They also share a menu of options that will accomplish what they are setting out to do. While members’ goals and purposes may be shared, their individual backgrounds, talents, skills are likely to differ widely. A strong learning community, then, has space for many kinds of talents and people who are both novices and experts in particular areas. To prepare community members to live and work together, each person’s contributions must be respected, and the community must develop some methods for sharing and synthesizing diverse views.
Activities welcome and engage community members, build trust, erase boundaries, and help everyone to contribute productively. Members are encouraged to be present, awake, aware, and motivated. Both minds and bodies are engaged. Activities offer a combination of safety and challenge that helps students grow toward full participation as learners and critical thinkers. Creating this environment is a crucial step and one that you’ll need to revisit again and again; the students may initially be reticent; they may be more comfortable being silent, passive, and invisible, accustomed to working alone rather than as part of a collaborative community.
Community building activities support students as they collectively address a question, revise, refine, and present together, reflect, and ultimately learn and grow (Berger et al., 2016). They come to feel they are in a safe space Educators 4SC, n.d.). They develop relationships and share responsibilities. Community members take an interest in what others think and do and provide the support they need for everyone to make choices and take risks.
By working in classrooms over the years, we have learned that some of the activities that follow may seem daunting for teachers as well as students. How do you maintain classroom decorum and control when students are out of their seats and moving around? How do you engage students in art forms or mediums you’ve never been trained to teach? How do you arrange physical spaces that will accommodate new activities you want to try? If students are online, how do you engage them in hands-on experiences that keep them focused and connect them to one another? The foundation of a supportive, vibrant classroom community needs to be renewed again and again. All of these require preplanning and persistence, but all are manageable. Begin first with the activities that seem easiest for you and modify as needed. For instance, you can lead an activity like COMMON GROUND with students remaining in their seats. Instead of walking across a line, students can raise their hands when their answers are “yes.” Similarly, with any activity that pairs students to talk with one another, simply ask them to put two desks together and “turn and talk.” By using the activities that follow, you will learn to create a context that supports everyone’s safety, comfort, and ultimately, readiness and willingness to learn. Activities in this initial stage include:
This section presents a variety of partner activities for introducing students to one another and to strengthen the classroom community. Before beginning this work—or shortly thereafter—explain the purposes for the activities, letting students know that, at times, they will be partnered with friends and at other times with others less well known. Depending on the circumstances, you may just want to plunge into the activity. Or you may want to begin by acknowledging that what you’re asking them to do may seem unfamiliar and ask for their cooperation. Everyone in the class is part of the classroom community and everyone’s job is to “take care of one another.” These activities prepare students to create and participate in a community of receptive minds, confident, willing, curious, and open to new challenges (Mandell and Wolf, 2003).
This activity introduces students to the practice of moving on request, following directions, and creating partnerships. Students stand in a circle. By the count of 10, they cross the circle and find a new place to stand. Remind them to cross silently, without touching each other, and without bunching up in the center of the room. Begin counting 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . and by 10, ask the students, “Did we succeed?” If not, try several times until the class is successful. Then when students have found a new place to stand, ask them to lock arms with the person next to them, who then becomes their partner. (With an odd number of students, ask one pair to welcome a third person into their group.) Repeat this activity when needed as a quick way of focusing the group’s energy, creating order, and establishing new partnerships.
STAND UP—HAND UP—PAIR UP
When students have been working with partners and it’s time for them to change partners, ask everyone to stand and put their right hand in the air. They leave the space they’ve been occupying, walk to a different space, find a person they haven’t worked with before, and give them a high five. This person becomes their new partner.
Students move around in a large, open space—on a stage or in a classroom with the chairs and desks cleared. Each person walks to the center, then to the edge of the space, and then back to the center. They continue this movement—to the center, then to the edge—repeatedly, while you coach them with various instructions. Ask them to walk silently, focusing their thoughts internally, without giving one another eye contact or touching. When the “atom” is well established, ask them to freeze in place and high-five the person next to them, who becomes their partner for one of the following activities. When the activity is completed, return to THE HUMAN ATOM again to mix up the room and find a new partner.
With a partner, students create a three-part, full-body handshake. They might for instance, give a high five, both spin around in a circle, then click their heels together. You and a partner model the activity, encouraging broad gestures. After creating and practicing their handshake, each member of the pair finds a new partner and teaches their handshake to the other. If time allows, several pairs can perform their handshake for the entire group.
BALLOON TOSS A—Z
Students are in pairs, each with an inflated balloon. They take turns batting their balloon back and forth with each person saying the next consecutive alphabet letter. One partner cannot hit the balloon twice in a row. Continue back and forth until the pair reaches the letter Z. The goal is for partners to succeed at reaching Z, not to trick one another.
In this challenging partner activity, students recite the alphabet backwards from Z to A, each taking a turn. First person says, “Z.” Partner says “Y” and so on until they reach A. When they finish, they simultaneously throw their hands up in the air and say “alphabet” or some other phrase chosen in advance. If appropriate, introduce an element of competition. First pair who gets to A is the winner.
This activity is an excellent way to focus the group’s attention in a morning meeting or at the beginning of a class. Students work as a group to pass energy around the circle in the form of a clap. Student A swivels to the person on the left and the two clap simultaneously. Person B then swivels to the left and simultaneously claps with Person C, thus passing the clap again to the left. The next student repeats so that the clap is passed all the way around the circle. Early efforts are unlikely to be a series of smooth, fluid gestures, though that’s the goal. Practice so that the “energy” passes seamlessly and quickly around the circle with each person making eye contact when clapping with the person next to them and passing it on.
As with many BUILDING COMMUNITY activities, the first attempts may go poorly. There is a reason the activities are called “building” community. This is an active process that takes time and deliberate practice. Many of these activities were first developed for ensembles of performers to increase their capacity to work collaboratively and fluidly as a team.
This activity is similar to ENERGY PASS. The name came from the act of swatting an imagined mosquito at the Habla Education Center in Merida, Mexico. Gather participants in a large circle. Person A will swivel left. Person B will duck. Then, Person A will make eye-contact with Person C and they will simultaneously clap over person B’s back. Person B quickly returns to standing. Person C ducks down. Person B makes eye contact with Person D and they clap simultaneously over Person C’s back. Continue around the circle. The initial rounds will be slow, and many people will make mistakes. Stop and reflect, asking “What does it take for us as a group to be successful?” Resume the activity, aiming for a fluid movement around the circle.
BALLOON TOSS A—Z (WHOLE GROUP)
This is a variation of the partner BALLOON TOSS, using one balloon for the entire group. The class forms a circle. One person tosses the balloon up in the air. Another person hits the balloon in the air and says “A.” Group members continue to hit the balloon in the air, calling out the next letter in the alphabet. If the ball touches the floor or ceiling, the activity starts again with “A.” When the group reaches “Z,” declare victory!
In larger spaces, it might help to have one student in the center to deflect the balloon when necessary. Before beginning, explain the design parameters of the activity.
Although we’re calling this BALLOON TOSS A—Z, different types of balls might be substituted for the balloon to add difficulty. Once students master the activity with a balloon, a beach ball is a good second step. Some teachers have even used a rolled-up piece of paper. Be aware of ceiling height and lights.
If the class is too out of control or you feel the space isn’t safe, stop the activity and remind students of the design parameters, particularly the ones about sharing leadership (for those enthusiastic students that want to hit the ball every time) and about keeping the space safe for everyone in the classroom.
This activity works best in a large, open space with no desks or tables. Indicate an imaginary (or real) line down the center of a room. The class gathers on one side of the line. Explain that one side is the no side, and the other side is the yes side. Ask a question they can answer with a yes or no. Depending on their response, they either stay where they are or cross the line. Design a series of questions that begins to introduce group members to one another and that all will be comfortable answering.
Questions might include:
Questions may lead to further conversation. You might ask students to describe the instrument they play or identify the languages they speak.
This activity may introduce questions about curriculum content, topics, or themes. In a unit on the book The Wild Robot, we asked students, “Do you have a robot in your home?” In using this activity, we discovered that the students’ definitions of robots varied. Some students considered the apps on their smartphone a robot and a debate ensued: precisely the point of the question!
Questions might be more factual. In a unit focused on the text A Long Walk to Water, a book that takes place in Sudan, we asked, “Do you know what continent the country Sudan is in?” and then the questions “Can you identify Sudan on a map?” and “Do you know Sudan’s official languages?”
SONGS IN THE KEY OF LIFE
Donald King, co-founder of the diversity and equity organization Lift Every Voice, asks participants in his workshops to think of a song that is “reflective of who you are.” It may be from “your childhood, your church, your kitchen, your street.” After participants have time to remember a song, he asks them to then choose a phrase or line from that song, allowing time for participants to quickly check lyrics online if need be. Each participant then shares their line or phrase, speaking or even singing it. Many times, this has resulted in the entire room singing a song together. Afterwards, in small groups, participants tell the story of their song.
Delineate a real or imaginary line running across a room with enough space for all students in the class to stand on. Responding to a series of prompts, students arrange themselves on a continuum based on where they locate their response. Illustrate with an easy example such as vanilla and chocolate ice cream. If a person stands on one end of the continuum, the chocolate side for instance, they are demonstrating that they love chocolate and don’t care for vanilla at all. In the middle, they might signal they are a perfectly balanced vanilla and chocolate person. If a student doesn’t like either chocolate or vanilla, they may find a neutral place to stand off the line. After giving a prompt that is particularly contentious, ask students to turn and talk with each other about why they are standing where they are or ask volunteers to share their reasoning with the larger class.
General continuum categories may include:
Similar to COMMON GROUND, this activity may begin a conversation on themes, concepts, and questions relevant to the topic or text you are studying. In a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, we introduced continuum that included:
Following each of these, we engaged students in discussions in small groups and then as a whole class.
A teacher at Habla in Mexico, Tommaso De Silvestri, has an elegant solution to facilitating this CONTINUUM activity online. He creates a small circle icon of every student’s portrait (the size of a penny on the screen) and places them all on one slide of Google Slides. He then creates a horizontal line on the same slide creating a CONTINUUM. Sharing the link to the slide, students can manipulate their portraits by moving them up and down the continuum. Tommaso calls out the categories and students shift their icons for each set of categories.
Berger, R. Woodfin, L. and Vilen, A. (2016). Learning that lasts: challenging, engaging and empowering students with deeper instruction. Jossey-Bass.
Educators 4SC. (n.d.). Teaching in safe spaces. https://educators4sc.org/teaching-in-safe-spaces/
Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1999). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press, 2.
Mandell, J. and Wolf, J. L. (2003). Acting, learning & change: creating original plays with adolescents. Heinemann.Perkins, D. and Blythe, T. (1994). Putting understanding up front. Educational Leadership. 51: 4-7.