Zen and the art of homeschooling from an improv perspective

I wrote this article for the National Alliance of Secular Homeschoolers blog. View original article.


Your suggestion is “write me a blog entry.” Go!

It’s 9:30 a.m. on a homeschool day, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. The kids are still asleep, which means I have time to finish this article. And by “finish” I mean “actually write.” But the hard work is done; I have a title.

Laugh if you will, and I will say the title is the most important part of the article: it gives the writer appropriate context, so that as she is filling up the Word Processor, she will not spill out so many random thoughts. More importantly, it narrows the available options on what to write from infinity to a much more manageable set.

This is one of many little hacks that I have learned from practicing, performing, and teaching improv. People who take improv classes are often surprised to find that improv is so much more than getting up and being funny. It changes you. The skills and techniques that improv is based around are incredibly valuable in business, life, and —yes — homeschooling.

Much has already been written about the value of improv for business leaders and school-age kids. Even the single improv lesson on learning to fail can have a significant positive impact on kids.

And this post isn’t about helping the kids to grow, Mom and/or Dad. It’s about you.

And how you can benefit from taking improv classes (even if you never, ever intend to perform), or at least read and practice the techniques (sometimes called “rules of improv”). Improv is great for parents in the same way ballet helps football players: it strengthens the auxiliary and complementary muscles that help with balance and strength.

Let’s go through those techniques and see how they apply to being a homeschooler:

“Yes, and”

Of all the improv “rules” this is easily the most recognizable, thanks in large part to Tina Fey. The premise is simple: when you use the word “but” it stalls the dialog. In improv, it means the scene is usually over. In life — and I have found especially with teens — it means the conversation is over (and not generally on good terms).

This simple change is so powerful, it has its own book and is a centerpiece of today’s communication coaching for business leaders. It does not mean you must accept what the other person suggests. It is simply a way to affirm what the other person is saying, in order to bring the conversation together. Consider:

Kid: I just want to play Minecraft!
Parent: Yes, but you still have school work to do.

Although perhaps not intended, this response from the parent carries the weight of an either/or proposition. Using the word “but” tends to polarize our thinking: in this case, the kid is likely to now think of the situation as one where he can play Minecraft or do schoolwork, but not both.

Kid: I just want to play Minecraft!
Parent: Yes, and you may when your schoolwork is done.

It is a small change, and it will yield surprisingly positive results both in you and your kids!

Let it go

Don’t let the Disney association fool you: “Let it go” is more than an auditory virus that you can’t seem to shake. Zen masters and improvisers know the value in not being attached to particular outcomes. In improv — unlike scripted sketches or plays — we never know where a scene will go. All we can do is be present, listen to our scene partner, and make good choices for the now, trusting that whatever comes will be worthwhile.

Yeah, it does sound a lot like life. Especially homeschooling, where many of us begin the process before we fully understand it.

There are far too many outside pressures pushing you to have very specific, measurable outcomes. Don’t let that keep you from following your good instincts and moving forward. And the best way to “let it go” is to embrace your inevitable failures.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

One of my kids is, and has always been, a bit anxious. A few years ago, at Christmas, the whole extended family was sitting around the table playing cards. When it came E’s turn to play, he froze. “I don’t know which one is the best to play.” Several adults offered up suggestions, without much success. I turned to E and said, “Remember our motto.”

Almost immediately, E smiled and played a card, no longer concerned about the best possible play. My brother asked, “OK, I have to ask. What is your motto?”

E beamed and said, “We suck, and we love to fail!”

This is always the hardest technique for adults to really buy into, probably because weweren’t taught how to fail as kids. Although recognizing failure as something to be embraced has been gaining traction recently, there’s still a great deal of stigma associated with it. The problem with shying away from the failures isn’t that you’ll make fewer of them, it’s that you won’t see the opportunities that are available from them.

In an improvised scene, if everyone has dialog that is appropriate and normal, the scene will probably be fairly dull. When someone makes a mistake — by saying a phrase the wrong way, or using the wrong word when they meant something else — we all movetoward the mistake. Because that’s where something interesting happened. And more importantly, because we all support each other on stage, we know that we can make that mistake something amazing!

You probably already encourage your kids to explore, to take risks, and to revel in and learn from the mistakes they make. How about giving yourself the same grace? After all, how better to demonstrate that failure is not permanent nor shameful than letting them see it in their parents?

Stop bridging

This technique is for those of you who are considering homeschooling, and haven’t yet decided to do it — perhaps because you’re worried about your qualifications, or your patience, or whatever. Stop bridging.

The term “bridging” is when you know you need to get to the other side of the river, but instead of just crossing it, you spend time building a bridge. In a scene, often when we all know (including the audience) that a particular character has to die, or that two characters are going to rob a bark, or whatever. Bridging is when we stall or otherwise over-plan without actually getting there. People do that a lot in life, too.

Building the bridge helps us to feel like we are getting something done, without actually having to cross the river. Because getting to the other side is often a little scary, and — perhaps more significantly — we’re worried that we might fail once we actually get there.

Now that you accept failure as a necessary AND AWESOME part of life, there’s no need to keep bridging. Jump in, swim across, and be done with it. You’ll figure out what you need to figure out once you’re there!

…and that’s scene!

I badgered my wife to take improv classes. It’s true. I’m not proud of it, but I am glad I did it. I had been doing improv for a while, and finally convinced her that the skills would be useful in her writing (she’s a writer, so it was a brilliant argument on my part). When she finally gave in, she made sure I understood that she had “absolutely no interest in performing.”

She’s a full cast member now and performs most weekends. And she’s hilarious.

See, you don’t have to be a “comedian” or the person always making jokes to be great at improv. You just have to learn how to give and receive support, to trust in yourself and your scene partners, to give up on knowing how things will go, and to embrace mistakes. If you can do that, you’ll make some great improv comedy.

Funny thing is, it’ll also help you make some great homeschooling.

Interested in learning more?

Here are some great books I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from:

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