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The Clown Bow

In order to integrate the improv principle of “making mistakes and staying happy,” I often begin classes, especially early in the semester, with icebreaker games and exercises designed to foster teamwork, communication, spontaneity, and, most of all, fun.[1] These games and exercises require students to stand up or move, thus physically altering the typical student position of sitting behind a desk. Rather than just watching, I participate in activities, physically moving into the circle of learners, which makes me an equal player—or at least a somewhat more equal player.

To further combat the fear of making mistakes and instead promote the idea of failing happily, I choose games and exercises in which everyone, including myself, will look silly or fail. After the exercises, or during breaks between rounds, I engage students in reflections on what is happening, in their heads and in the group, when, for instance, the object of the game is to “throw an invisible ‘hot potato' to someone else and make a sound with it.” Of course, different things happen: There is immediate amusement and laughter for some; other students will identify a sense of embarrassment, getting flustered or stressed because they focus on “doing it right” and feel very unhappy when they think they did it wrong. Some discover that they tried to follow “rules” that no one established, such as “I thought I had to come up with a new sound that nobody had done before.” I then introduce the “clown bow”—the boisterous, happy, and proud raising of the arms after “failing” or when feeling embarrassed accompanied by a loud call of “whoo-hoo!”[2] and a big bow, which is cheered and applauded by the group. Taking the “clown bow,” to not shrink in shame but make themselves physically and emotionally big, to proudly accept the cheers of their peers when feeling stupid, can be a liberating experience for students and invite future risk-taking. It helps students to recognize their fears, and it offers a way to make them public so as to fashion new meaning around the notion of “mistakes” and “failure” in the classroom and beyond. This meaning is expanded when I invite students to discuss how fears of making mistakes impact their learning and how the institutions into which we have been socialized play a role in this. Thus, these ostensibly silly games open opportunities to experience, discover, discuss, and alter how we negotiate our internal and external social worlds that are at the heart of social work theory and practice.

Sometimes I hear students employ the “whoo-hoo” in small group exercises during the course of a semester, or even beyond, and I quietly hope that it indeed serves as an embodied reminder of the nonjudgmental attitude that is essential to explorative learning processes and to the co-creation of a safe space in which “being right” is far less interesting than being challenged and surprised by one's discoveries.

Yes and ... No!

Part of my own improvisational teaching stance is the effort to say “yes, and ...” to the offers my students make and allow myself to be altered in response to their ideas and actions. This includes changing the use of improv-based activities and leading and following in the course of discussions to see where we end up. For instance, in the first session of an undergraduate class on counseling, I asked students to get into groups of four or five, brainstorm for 3 minutes, and then improvise a 30-second scene that depicts a counseling session in which they do “everything wrong.” Initially, I designed this exercise to help students work in groups quickly, be spontaneous, have fun, and lose their fear of being in front of the class. It was meant as merely a warm-up. But students quickly expanded on this purpose. Based on their observations of what was “wrong” in the counseling scenes, we engaged in conversations about what they thought was “right.” Discussions soon turned to another valuable aspect, namely questioning the idea that one can judge things as being simply “wrong” or “right” without attention to context. Is the use of vernacular or dialect really always wrong in counseling, or isn't it at times useful for connecting with clients? Where does the idea of “professional language” come from? How do we come to our ideas ofwhat is or is not “professional”? Saying “Yes, and . !” to students' curiosities and encouraging

them to think out loud allowed the class to co-produce knowledge that dissolved a simplistic binary right-wrong coding and instead opened space for ambiguity. In the process, students expanded my own awareness how “yes, and . ” is not

identical to simple agreement but that one can also accept and advance by saying “yes, and ... no!” I now allow far more time for discussing the complexities of the “do everything wrong” exercise, occasionally prompting students to question simple dichotomies of right-wrong or to re-enact the same “wrong” behavior in a context that makes it seem “right.”

  • [1] For a compilation of games and exercises used in improvisational theater training, see
  • [2] For the “whoo-hoo,” I am indebted to the unstoppable Laura Derry of San Francisco'sBATS Improv Theatre Company.
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