Monday, February 21, 2011

Improvisation in Teaching

I am going to direct a teaching workshop for Asian and Asian American faculty this summer. As the staff gathered to plan for the workshop, we discussed the important role improvisation plays in teaching.

Since it is improvisation, the result cannot be foreseen.

I once attended a workshop led by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock. She divided the participants into different groups. Each group would sing different notes with different rhythm. When she put all the groups together, the result was amazing.

I thought I could try this in my classroom. We sang the simple tune “Veni Spiritus” with the women singing the melody and different groups doing the harmony. It worked out quite well.

I invited the class to sing at worship, and asked other students to participate. Before the service, I said that they could improvise and add other harmony, when the Spirit moved them. The Spirit was too energetic that day. The music director, not knowing what we were doing, began to frown and wondered when this would end.

We had a Both/And show in the spring, a kind of annual talent show in the school. A group of students decided to re-create the moment at chapel. We laughed so loud. I guess I had at least restored fun in learning.

Another time, my improvisation turned out much better. I organized a meeting for several graduating seniors to share they journeys and their plans for the future. At the end of the session, I could easily ask the school’s President or a faculty member to say a concluding prayer. I decided on the spot that the prayer should be a collective one.

When I said, “Dear God, we pray that you will give them…” I asked the audience to join in. Instead of saying “wisdom,” “joy,” “strength” one by one, many said different words simultaneously. We repeated this several times using different bidding. The chorus of good wishes and prayers was deeply moving.

Then there was one time that I really had to improvise.

I was invited to deliver a lecture at a university. After I have climbed the several steps onto the stage, I could not find my lecture notes on the podium. I thought I had left them there when I tried out the Powerpoint.

What to do?

Without losing a moment, I said, “The topic we are going to discuss is an interesting one and I am sure you all have different opinions. I invite you to talk with your neighbor for 3 minutes before we begin.”

Then I quietly walked down the stage and found my lecture notes in my handbag.

When I got up the stage again, I invited two students to share with the audience what they had said. These students felt so proud! No one seemed to have noticed that this exercise was unscripted.

In my long teaching career, there have been embarrassing moments, awkward moments, and moments I would rather forget. Often it is the least expected moment that I enjoy most.