Throwing Cake at the Wall

I have spent my life learning to be a good collaborator. I create performance work together with groups of people including actors, dancers, visual artists, musicians, and writers.  As a director of devised work I facilitate collaborative processes with adults all the time.  When I work with people I know we use a process we have developed over the course of the past few years, but we also try all different things.  We sometimes talk about throwing cake at the wall and seeing what sticks; it’s not a clean process. Collaboration is messy; it means fights, and feelings sometimes getting hurt.  It means stepping back and trusting that the group knows the right direction, it means letting the story come organically instead of trying to force it.

This year I have been working with Ms. Hoke, a third grade English teacher at Andrew Wilson Charter School in New Orleans, to devise radio dramas with her students.  The students have been working over a course of  ten weeks in groups of six to create an audio drama from scratch. They designed their setting as a group, created a storyboard as a group, choose music and sound effects as a group, and even wrote a script as a group.

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I spent a lot of time talking about character voice, and how music can create mood and tone. Ms. Hoke taught the students about logical advance of events in a story.  We carefully scaffolded the creation process so that the writing would not overwhelm the students. But on day one problems started arising.  We asked the students to work in their groups to pick the setting of their story and draw it as a group on a huge piece of paper. We asked them to go around and share their ideas, and pick the one the group thought worked best.

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When we gave the signal to begin everyone started talking at once.  When the din subsided some people’s ideas had been put down and students were devastated that people weren’t listening to them, and frustrated that they had to go along with ideas they did not think were as good as theirs. Most groups were at a stalemate, fighting over what to draw instead of drawing. Ms. Hoke and I realized that we needed to scaffold more than the writing process if our students were going to be successful in the project. We were going to need to teach collaboration. I was terrified.  After all, I feel like I am still learning lessons about collaboration— how was I going to teach it to my students?

Ms. Hoke and I started throwing cake at the wall.  We added extra steps to every lesson.  We made “compromise” a vocabulary word and talked about its meaning before every class.  We started talking about strategies that can help us come to a decision as a group, instead of just thinking that a group decision would happen.

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Sometimes the results were beautiful.  One group in our first class of third graders decided to combine their ideas for a setting to come up with something better.  One eight-year old wanted to do a story set inside of Popeye’s (a fast food chicken joint), the other wanted to do a story set inside of an octopus.  They decided their final setting was an octopus inside of Popeye’s. I had to trust the process as much as they did so I let them go with it.  What came out at the end was a hilarious story about a group of people who go to Popeye’s only to have the whole restaurant eaten whole by a very hungry (and very giant) octopus.  (You can listen to it at kidsmart-wilson@tumblr.com if you want, it’s great.)

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Sometimes things were still…messy.  Personality conflicts arose and I ended up routinely taking students out of the room to talk them through what to do when they felt like they were not being heard, or when they were having trouble listening.  I learned that I could coach a student through a rough spot individually, but that it was also important for them to learn the skill of stepping up to be heard when they needed to be heard, and stepping back when they needed to listen. It was okay that things got a little messy, as long as at the end of the day every student was proud of and invested in what they had made as a group.

Despite my initial apprehension, I feel like I’ve come to understand how to support collaboration in the classroom. I’ve landed on four principles that have guided me through the messy times:

1. Hold on tight, let go easy.  A colleague of mine from Hand2Mouth Theater in Portland gave me this language, and I love it.  It means own your ideas enough to hold them close, and trust the group enough to let them go when someone has a better idea. So when one student wanted to write a story that took place at the beach, she had to adjust when everyone else was exited about having a story that took place inside a mall.  She fought hard for her idea, and it was difficult for her to be engaged for a few days after her setting wasn’t chosen. However, by the time we got to storyboarding her story she had released her idea so that she could be fully engaged in what the group was doing.

2. Listening is hard; we need to work at it.  Often when it was time for us to make a decision everyone in a group would start taking at once, and no one would give way. The students had to discover that if we all talk at the same time, we can’t hear each other, let alone listen.  It’s really difficult to stay quiet when someone is talking about an idea that you don’t like but if you don’t listen you come to stalemate and can’t move forward.

3. Our ideas together are better than our ideas alone.  When in doubt, combine.  This is how we got a beach party in space, a burger shop on the moon, a volcano in a mall and more.

4. We cannot be afraid of glorious failure. This might be a mantra for me as much as it is for my students.  When I’m not afraid to fall flat, or am able to go out on a limb and support with all my power a character like Mr. Cheerios, who could have become a flop but instead became a class favorites.

Collaboration is messy, but it is a skill I use every day in the working “adult” world.  It’s a skill I know my students need to succeed, and it’s a skill my art form can instill.  I can’t be afraid to let my students go through the messy process of throwing cake at the wall if I want them to develop essential skills. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.

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