Reflections on Improvisational Teaching, Formative Assessment, and Student Engagement

My students and I are embarking on an exciting adventure. We are making room in our already crowded semester for a project that I thought would only be a thirty minute lesson. A large part of the reason that it’s become more than that is their own input and interest. I generally teach from a place of collaboration between/among the folks in my classroom, but this project is opening that dynamic out even further, and it makes me think about the interlocking roles of improvisation (and planning!), assessment, and student input in the classroom.

Two weeks ago, we read an excerpt from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and a chapter of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. I teach both as literacy narratives, and both pieces, which touch on racism, homophobia, and the forging of one’s own identity under somewhat parallel circumstances of difficulty, tend to interest students in some pretty deep ways. My plan was to have the class discuss the two works by spending a few minutes in groups planning how each story might be told if it used the other text’s format (so, Alexie as a graphic novel or Bechdel as an episodic text). As I was explaining the assignment, I decided to have them adapt either text into any format they wanted.

The ways in which my students took the allotted twenty or so minutes and ran with the assignment blew me away. I’d like to save the descriptions of their work for another post, since we haven’t agreed yet on how public we want to be at this stage. What I’d like to consider instead is the effect/impact of improvisational teaching, a pedagogical tactic that, as far as I know, is relatively under researched, and yet is the cornerstone of the way some graduate programs begin to train their new teachers.

I should explain that last part. When I realized that I was going to be asked to start teaching four days after my comprehensive exams and without any initial training, I got really worried. Although I was signed up for a teaching practicum, I wasn’t sure how I was going to go in and “just do” teaching a college class. It only took a couple of sessions for me to realize what I now firmly believe in (now having some teaching experience and a practicum under my belt): a lot of what I needed to know, I already knew, and everything else is an ongoing learning process that will continue throughout my career. If I ever got to the point where I didn’t want to learn any more, I’d be doing my students an incredible disservice. As Dylan William put it in one of the fabulous formative assessment videos that Irene, Maria, and Janey led us to, “One of the things I have realised is that most teachers – perhaps — probably — all teachers – learn most they know about teaching before their 18th birthday. We learn about teaching by being students.” (link)

Embodiment and affect in composition and pedagogy are two of my main research interests, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that improvisational teaching would fall in there, too. (I’ve got another post on that coming up!) The more I think about it, the more I’d like another term for what’s  going on in my classroom. It’s more than improv, because although my students and I are testing something new out, one for which we aren’t starting with an established framework, we are explicitly prepared for this. We have all done the reading, and we all have ideas. There’s elements of critical pedagogy here, too, since involving my students in the planning process itself helps

All of this ties back for me to the discussions we’ve been having about formative assessment. What’s been most valuable for me so far is thinking through ways that students can participate in their own assessment, and in attempting to untie the often automatic connection between assessment and grading. If we define assessment more broadly, both in terms of what it means and who participates in it, it seems to me that mostly creative and good things will happen.


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