Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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How and Why We Use Improv for Staff Education in the Writing Center
A handout by WCC Tutors Katie Chugg, Anne Farmer, Michelle Pavan, and Sherri Winans 

I have tutored many different students throughout the last semester, and no two sessions were the same.  In fact, the sessions that I consciously tried to conduct in the same way as previously successful sessions became my most unsuccessful sessions.  I learned that I had to approach each session as if it were my first, with no preconceived notions about the best way to work with the student, because each student, paper, and problem was unique.  I guess I do have a tutoring style after all: adaptable.
                        —Kiersten Honaker, “Searching for a Style, Writing Lab Newsletter

The obvious question here is, at least as I see it, what would a different model for staff education consist of?  How might we develop a model that encourages [writing center] tutors to “voyage out?”  The different model that I am working toward…is a higher-risk/higher-yield model for writing center work….  This…model asks us to reformulate the question “what (or how much) do tutors need to know?” and to cast it, instead, in more musical terms: how might I encourage this tutor to operate on the edge of his or her expertise?  And, for tutors: where is the groove for this session?  Where’s the place where, together, we will really feel like we’re jammin’ and how do we get there?  Where, as [Nancy] Welch has framed it, is there space for play?   
                                    —Elizabeth Boquet, Noise from the
Writing Center (80-81) 

We live in an either-or world, a world that doesn’t offer much opportunity to be uncertain, or tickled, or puzzled.  How much room do we leave, in our day-to-day existence, to be surprised, to try out different eyes, as Coyote, a common Trickster figure, does?  
            —Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, Boquet, The
Everyday Writing Center (16)

Principles of Improv

·         Say yes.  Accept offers. 

·         Don’t worry about the script.  Just show up.  Start anywhere.  Act now.

·         Be average.  You don’t have to be sharp, witty, amazing.

·         Pay attention.  Make eye contact.  Watch.  Listen.

·         Make your partner look good.  Take care of each other.

·         Face the facts.

·         Make mistakes; embrace failure.

·         Enjoy the ride.

Just a Few of the Games We Love, with help from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro

·         One-word letter: two people “write” a letter aloud, one word at a time.  All of these can be played in small groups (we prefer this) rather than “on stage.”  This one can be a delightful illustration of what happens when we really share control--and what happens when we try to push a partner to go in a particular direction....

·         “Yes and”: groups of four plan marketing campaigns for an imaginary product (the large group can “invent” one), and each new sentence has to start with “Yes! And …”   (So, “Yes! And we’ll do TV ads using avatars!”)  This game gives us a collaborative experience to play with--among many other interesting observations, we notice each time how good it feels to hear “yes!”after each thing we say.

·         Parent-teacher conference role-play with each person assigned “high” or “low” status behaviors (whatever that might mean to people--it's improv--and one of the things we're wanting to explore is what those terms might mean to us)We've been surprised at how quickly we adjust to the status (think: role, think: tutor) that has been assigned….  This one has led us to rethink the messages we readers and writers might be sending about our status, what assumptions we might be making about others, and how body language might be affecting our work with writers.

·         Presents: One person pulls a “present” out of an imaginary bag and offers it to a partner, announcing what it is (“Here is a baseball bat!”).  The other person graciously, even joyously, accepts the gift, and follows up (“Great! I broke my old bat yesterday!”).  This one works for us as a metaphor of the exchanges of a great writing center session.

And Why We Love to Play Them

·        These games remind us that writing is not merely something students work toward based on a page of requirements, or a final product that is judged for a grade, but an opportunity for boundless thought and creativity and *gasp*…fun.  We enjoy “writing” in these improvised settings.

·         With a diverse group of participants playing together, the camaraderie built can help to break down the borders and power separation between us, resulting in a group of writers and readers as opposed to the perceived academic and other hierarchies.

·         Improv games encourage us to collaborate more often and more enthusiastically during writing center sessions.  They remind us of the magic that can happen when we “put our heads together.”  In improv games, we toss around words, phrases, and ideas, and try to make something new with them—writing center sessions can work like this and the best ones already do.

·         Play contributes to a more exciting, creative center by opening up a side of the participants that too often remains dormant in the school setting. Immediately following our initial play sessions, creativity in the center spiked. A good example: online tutors submitting phony papers (constructed from randomly chosen sentences found online) and responding playfully.

·         Play helps us get over the anxiety we might feel about writing and tutoring, since the improvised play and writing happen quickly and there are “no rules.”

·         Improv games help us rethink the tutoring session.  They remind us that a session is an exercise in the moment, in trying to find ways to assist the writer in real time.

THANKS to friends who have contributed to our play-work: Roberta Kjesrud at Western Washington University, Sonoma State’s Scott Miller and company, our dear friend Brian Patterson, and many writing center tutors, including Christopher Patton, Kelly Kincaid, and Sarah Wilson.

This is going to sound crazy.  Say yes to everything.  Accept all offers.  Go along with the plan.  Support someone else’s dream.  Say “yes”; “right”; “sure”; “I will”; “okay”; “of course”; “YES!”  Cultivate all the ways you can imagine to express affirmation.  When the answer to all questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure….  Yes glues us together.  Yes starts the juices rolling….  Yes expands your world.      
                                       —Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Wisdom (27)

A Reading List

Berk, Ronald.  Humor as an Instructional Defibrillator: Evidence-Based Techniques in Teaching and Assessment.  Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, Inc., 2002. 

Boquet, Elizabeth.  Noise from the Writing Center.  Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2002. 

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly.  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. 

Dunn, Patricia A.  Talking Sketching Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing.  Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 2001. 

Geller, Anne Ellen, Michele Eodice, Frankie Condon, Meg Carroll, and Elizabeth H. Boquet.  The Everyday Writing Center: A Community of Practice.  Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007. 

Honaker, Kiersten.  “Searching for a Style.”  Writing Lab Newsletter 30.6 (February 2006): 13-14. 

Johnstone, Keith.  Impro for Storytellers.  New York:  Routledge, 1999. 

Johnstone, Keith.  Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.  New York: Routledge, 1979. 

Koppett, Kat.  Training to Imagine: Practical Improvisational Theater Techniques to Enhance Creativity, Teamwork, Leadership, and Learning.  Sterling, Virginia: Stylus, 2001. 

Lochman, Daniel.  “Play and Game: Implications for the Writing Center.”  The Writing Center Journal 10.1 (1989): 11-18. 

Madson, Patricia Ryan.  Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.  New York: Bell Tower, 2005. 

Welch, Nancy.  “Playing with Reality.”  College Composition and Communication 51 (1999): 51-69.

Welch, Nancy.  “Return of the Suppressed: Tutoring Stories in a Transitional Space.”  Writing Center Research: Extending the Conversation.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.  203-220.


Having fun loosens the mind.  A flexible mind works differently from a rigid mind.  The pleasure that accompanies our mirth makes learning easier and creates a climate for social as well as intellectual discovery.     
—Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Wisdom (137)


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA