For a class discussion to be student-centered, teachers must cede control, and teachers must listen. For many reasons though, these tasks prove difficult. Teachers often do not want to cede control during a class discussion because to do so limits our ability to steer the discussion toward specific, predetermined goals. We may want students to discuss, but we really want to be sure the discussion goes where we want it to go. In addition, ceding control and placing students at the center are difficult tasks because many students do not want to assume the center. Years of school “training” condition students to surrender agency to the teacher, even during a discussion. As for teachers listening, it is the counterpart of ceding control: We may “listen” to the discussion but we may only be listening for the moment when we can direct the discussion to our desired outcome. Plus, years of students looking to teachers for answers trains teachers to provide the answers — even when teachers providing the answers is the antithesis of the classroom activity. With these obstacles, can we ever really cede control and learn to listen to what our students say?

…Not what we want them to say.

…Not what we would hope they say.

…But what they actually say.

This is hard to do. But I discovered one way: to practice listening through the practicing of improvisation. After many years spent researching interdisciplinary theories of improvisation and their connections to first-year writing pedagogy, I stopped writing about improvisation and started performing it…I enrolled in improv theater courses and then performed on several improv teams. Having absolutely no theater background, this new research direction was scary. But I survived. And I am amazed at how many improv skills have transferred into my own classroom, improving my ability to listen and, in turn, my ability to respond to what my students are actually saying.

And it is the responding that is fundamental for keeping the students involved in discussions. Few students will sustain efforts to participate in a classroom discussion if what they say has no bearing on where the discussion goes. Students need to be heard, and they need to be acknowledged — a process that echoes the basic improv theater skill of “yes and.”

For improv theater, “yes and” necessitates listening to and responding positively to what the other performers on stage are saying. Rather than rejecting, negating, or worst of all, not listening to what is being said, a practiced improviser confirms each statement and builds on it. Along with confirming and building on what he or she hears, a trained improviser limits how much he or she says in each statement, allowing space for others to contribute. Some improvisers refer to talking too much as “steamrolling.” Experienced improvisers also remain in the moment, letting the improvised scene develop holistically while not anticipating or setting-up lines to deliver a joke.

Adjusting these improv skills for my classroom discussions, I try to no longer anticipate or set-up what “should” happen next in our classroom discussions. I resist my long-standing urge to steer discussions toward my predetermined, desired conclusions. I also practice being quiet, lest I “steamroll” through a class discussion. When I am quiet and let the discussion evolve, I can find the spaces to confirm and build on what my students say, placing (and keeping) my students at the center of the discussion. In practice, I am improvising. Not improvising in the all-too-common and incomplete sense of just making stuff up and saying anything. That activity is much more extempore. Instead I am practicing improvisation as listening and responding to what my students actually say in class discussions.

Utilizing my new research with improv theater, I have adapted two improv theater games as icebreakers at the start of each first-year writing semester. These icebreakers establish a classroom environment wherein the students and I all practice listening and responding to one another, an environment where student-centered discussion activities can later thrive.

The first icebreaker is a simple listening game called “Collaborative Clapping.” All the students and myself form a circle, I make eye contact with one student, and we both attempt to clap simultaneously. This student then makes eye contact with another participant, and both attempt to clap at the same time, with the third and subsequent participants continuing the collaborative clap. I utilize this activity for just a few minutes and then introduce the next icebreaker.

This icebreaker is also done in a circle that includes myself. The scene begins when one student offers the student next to him or her a pretend gift. For example, “Here is a brand new pair of running shoes.” The second student accepts the gift and establishes the relationship between the participants and the reason for the gift: “Thanks Dad. I’ll use them for my first marathon.” The two students then continue to improvise the scene, practicing their ability to respond in the affirmative, to limit how much they say in each line, and to stay in the moment. The remaining participants act as referees, interjecting only when we notice an infraction such as not “yes and-ing” or steamrolling or anticipating rather than listening. If anyone notes any infraction, he or she can stop the scene, and we will all discuss what may have gone wrong. After one short scene, I call time and a new scene begins with the person who received the initial gift offering a new gift to the next person in the circle, and the remaining people assuming the roles of referees.

These icebreakers help my students and myself develop and practice a heightened awareness of listening and responding. In my previous research on interdisciplinary theories of improvisation, I learned the concept of the “ready-state.” While the concept has been described in various ways, the “ready-state” represents an awareness that one is really listening, responding, and collaborating with what is happening on stage. It is at this moment when improvisation can happen. It is also my hoped-for-result from the above icebreakers — a result that introduces the collaborative, listening and speaking roles that students will embody throughout the semester. From this ready-state, we can enter into collaborative discussions of the writing process, revisiting previous choices as well as making new ones in the following activity, which I call “Initiate. Respond. Revise” or just “IRR.”

The structure of an IRR grew from two improv theater games: the “Information Game,” which helps improvisers hear immediately what they have added to a scene and “Leader and Follower,” which helps improvisers hear and respond to subtle gifts.

In “Information Game”, one actor initiates a scene and another actor matter-of-factly restates the new information offered in each line. For example, the first actor may state “Wow. It is a hot day to be working in the yard.” Rather than responding in character, the second actor only states the specific information offered in the previous line: the surprise of “wow,” the heat, and the yard work. The first actor then continues the scene, integrating the specific data of his or her previous line, in this instance the surprise of “Wow” and adding more details: “I wasn’t expecting the heat. My weather app predicted a more mild day.” The game then continues for several lines with the second actor only stating the new information added by each line of the first actor, and the first actor building a scene with only his or her supplied material.

In “Leader and Follower”, one actor initiates a scene, and the other actor responds only with words from the first actor’s initiation, varying the emotion, tone, gesture, etc. For example, using the previous first line from the “Information Game” the second actor could respond, “It is a hot day,” repeating or accentuating certain words uttered by the first actor in order to develop new emotions or textures for the scene. In rhetorical terms, the initial actor invents the content, but the second actor alters its style and delivery.

While this classroom activity adapts improvisation practices and theory, it also contributes to a long-running, academic conversation about the roles that students can play in our classroom, a conversation that I will enter after briefly describing the IRR activity.

An IRR involves two student-writers and then grows into a class-wide discussion. To begin, one student-writer will read one or two sentences from his or her essay and the other student will restate the information of the sentences. If the sentences do not initiate new information, the responding student can state as such. The procedure is obviously very similar to the “Information Game” as are the lessons: too often a novice writer believes that he or she is adding specific clear information, assuming that the audience understands exactly his or her meaning. But hearing a classmate describe what information is (or is not) conveyed, the writer begins to understand the gap between his or her thoughts and what the audience reads. As well, the activity develops the second student’s ability to listen as repeating the information of each sentence requires close listening skills. The exercise progresses to the second student stating each sentence’s new information and the rhetorical goals that he or she notices, focusing on if the rhetorical goals are appropriate and if the rhetorical goals could be achieved in a different manner. Similar to “Leader and Follower,” the first student may invent the content, but the other student may suggest a different style or delivery, even arrangement if the particular rhetorical goal is best served elsewhere in the essay. While this classroom activity is not a fully developed improvised scene, it is an activity that practices and mimics fundamental skills from improv theater. It also places and keeps the students in the central speaking role.

Let me demonstrate. During a recent IRR, the student-author, using her essay “Resident Parking: Is It Really Safe?” read aloud these first lines: “A parent’s main concern when sending their child off to college is safety. No parent wants to get a phone call from the university saying ‘Your child has gone missing’ or ‘Your child is dead.’” The responding student restated the information conveyed by the first sentence: parents are mainly concerned about safety when sending a child to college and parent’s don’t like to hear that their child is missing or dead. The responding students then noted that, rhetorically, this information is inaccurate: Yes, parents are always concerned about safety, but their “main” concern with college is probably education. And, of course parents don’t like to hear that their child is missing or dead, but the examples of missing and/or dead children are not really connected to resident parking.

And then the class-wide, student-centered discussion began.

One student suggested that education is a “large” concern for parents, but their “main” concern is usually finances. This student and the responding student from the IRR then debated whether a parent’s “main” concern when sending a child to college is education or finances.

Another student suggested re-examining the student-author’s original word choice of “main,” suggesting “large” as a replacement.

Everyone was collaborating on the revision of the paper. Everyone was listening and responding to both how the paper was written and to what each classmate said about the paper.

Suggestions continued about revising the first sentence to read: “Of the many concerns a parent may have about sending a child to college, safety should not be the main one.”

Another student suggested adding, “especially when that safety could be ensured with properly lit residential parking lots.”

The discussion then confronted whether the inclusion of missing or dead children was rhetorically savvy or even necessary, with the consensus being that it was not.

I responded occasionally, and often my response was to say “Great point. I hadn’t thought about that.” I may not have said much, but I taught a lot. I had practiced being comfortable in the moment and letting a discussion evolve spontaneously, and my students had also; they were comfortable and prepared for a spontaneously evolving discussion about their writing after experiencing several improv activities throughout the semester.

While adapting improvisation theory and practices has been successful in my own classroom, it also speaks to wider pedagogical concerns.

Chris Friend discusses an exigency similar to my own for learning to listen to students: improved classroom discussions. Friend argues that when he focuses on predetermined outcomes, he does not exist in the classroom moment and he cannot really listen to his students. The result? His hoped-for discussions become “lectures in disguise, dressed up to feel student-centered while still being instructor-directed.” While lectures may deliver content, when we want students to interact and engage with the material and with one another, we have to “Learn to Let Go” and “Listen to Students in Discussion” — which are the title and subtitle respectively of Friend’s article.

Taking a step from Friend’s argument, I suggest that when we learn to let go and listen, we begin to improvise. While my call for improvisation in the classroom comes from my experiences with improv theater, it also comes from my prior textual research on improvisation theory. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian places improvisation as the pinnacle of rhetorical training, referring to it as the “crown of all our studies” in the tenth book of the H.E. Butler translation of the Institutio Oratorio. For Quintilian, improvisation is neither extemporaneous nor just making it up. Rather, improvisation mixes preparation with being spontaneous and being in the moment — all skills fundamental to listening and responding.

Quintilian models this mixture when he advocates that a rhetor prepare written comments prior to a courtroom appearance and that the rhetor develop the ability to revise these comments during the courthouse performance. He supports these improvised revisions with the following, also from the tenth book of his Institutio Oratorio: “there is no greater folly than the rejection of the gifts of the moment.” A rhetor may prepare his or her speech but the speech succeeds only when the rhetor interacts with and involves the audience in the moment. Same for the teacher. We may prepare our student-centered discussion activity, but it flourishes only when the teacher interacts with and involves the students in the classroom moment.

But again, letting go, listening, and improvising, are all hard goals to accomplish. We cannot listen and respond if the students do not want to assume the speaking role. And traditionally we may not have provided students with the space for that role. Friend reminds us that schools are an “institution built around hierarchy” where students have the “illusion of control within the limits set by the instructor or the institution.” Charles Deemer also describes the institutional hierarchy of the schools as “undeniably rigid”:

The “teacher” speaks from his [or her] place in the front of the classroom, sheltered more than likely by the wall of his podium, while the class in the rear listens or pretends to. Even when discussion occurs, the fragmentation of the inaction into two segments…is retained.

To cede control and encourage students to assume the central speaking role, we can remove the podium. We can walk around the podium. We can invite students to speak from the podium. But that which gives the podium its power remains: the longstanding, fragmenting effect of hierarchical roles. Attempts to decrease this effect during a discussion must go beyond leaving the front of the classroom. As Friend points out, “Even when we step aside from the podium, the act reminds everyone in the room under whose power the podium really is, and who has the ability to resume that position at will.” We cannot ignore the power difference in the classroom, but we can design activities and develop better practices to create space for students to assume the speaking role.

Both Deemer and Friend offer such activities. Deemer suggests the classic 1960’s practice of happenings “to remove the ‘teacher’s’ authority.” He suggests that the teacher “speak, not from behind a podium, but from the rear of the room or through the side window. Let him discuss theology to Ray Charles records.” For as much as Deemer’s activity is steeped in his time, Friend’s solution is equally of ours: real-time discussion notes via Google Docs. Friend describes in detail this activity and its goal of empowering students for class discussion. While a happening and real-time discussion notes via Google Docs may be fascinating products of their time, they are also intentional attempts to remove the long-standing power divide between teacher and student and to create space for students to speak. But without an awareness of improvisation and the practiced ability to listen and to respond, these activities are just elaborate methods to remove the podium without removing the hierarchy that the podium represents.

After all, creating the space for students to speak in classroom discussions is only the first step. If we do not learn to listen and respond to what students actually say, how can we expect our students to put forth the effort to participate? However, when teachers and students consciously work together to create something new while not knowing exactly what that something will be, a collaborative, productive, and truly improvised classroom conversation can occur. And from this conversation, students can begin to discover and to learn without a silencing podium in sight.