April 19, 2021
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching
Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students.
Imagination is a muscle. It needs exercise in order to stay healthy and strong.
The late great Oran Sandel, my mentor, co-teacher, and dear friend, taught me these words over 20 years ago. They continue to inform Inspired Teaching’s work with teachers every day.
Thank you for the Bag of Rocks! is an improv game we play as part of our teacher training. Participants work in pairs, with Player A pantomiming climbing a steep and dangerous mountain, while Player B hands A “gifts” (written on index cards) which A must incorporate into her climb. The gifts range from a bag of rocks to a broken leg to a violent thunderstorm to a mountain lion on your back. In other words, they are things most of us would consider formidable obstacles. Player A must enthusiastically thank player B for each gift, then use it to enhance her climb.
Player B – Here’s a bag of rocks.
Player A – Thank you for this bag of rocks! It’s just what I needed to weigh the end of this rope down so it doesn’t keep flapping in the wind.
Player B – Here’s a violent thunderstorm.
Player A – Thank you for this thunderstorm! I ran out of water yesterday and couldn’t find a clean stream. All this rainwater is going to help me get hydrated.
In this activity, participants learn through play. We stretch and strengthen our imaginations as we literally transform obstacles into assets. And this exercise makes it easier for us to utilize our imaginations elsewhere.
The word imagination tends to conjure up images of unicorns or purple giraffes or other fantastical creatures. At Inspired Teaching, our definition of imagination encompasses fantasy and goes deeper. Imagination involves generating possibilities that are below the surface, that extend beyond the usual.
Children’s imaginations are naturally strong and healthy. Without hesitation, they create invisible rivers to swim on their way to the lunchroom; engage in heated arguments with imaginary friends; create indoor rainstorms by tapping their hands on the sides of their chairs; and more. They can also see solutions some of us adults might miss, like how to adapt a game that worked one way in-person into a new form that works online, how to organize an activity so everyone gets a turn, and the like.
If we are wise, we nurture our students’ imaginations and embrace their ideas and contributions. And, we put in the work to keep our own adult imaginations sharp. Renowned improvisational theatre pioneer and founder of Theatresports, Keith Johnstone refers to adults as “atrophied children” because we often neglect our imaginations, or worse, consider them frivolous in the face of the challenges we encounter as grown people. However, the most significant advancements in human history required imaginative thinking; so we allow our imaginations to atrophy at our own peril.
We can give our imaginations a workout every time life hands us a metaphorical bag of rocks, and rather than lament the new burden, use the obstacle to grow.
- The bread for your morning toast is moldy. What new breakfast might you come up with?
- The copier is broken and you needed it for an assignment. How might students practice their verbal rather than written skills in this lesson?
- Your boss gives you some critical feedback. How might you respond with curiosity rather than hurt feelings?
- A national news event disrupts the school day. What can you do to make students feel safe and supported?
A strong and healthy imagination allows us to conceive of things not yet created. When our imaginations are active and fully developed, we are better able to think on our feet, be spontaneous, and even come up with solutions to problems that feel intractable. When we include building imagination among our goals for our students, we not only increase the likelihood they will learn and understand the content in the curriculum, we also increase the likelihood they will enjoy their time in school.
Imagination can transform a bag of rocks into an asset. Imagination can also help us do things like transition students from remote learning back to in-person, turn health and safety protocols into community-building opportunities, and teach complicated math concepts in an interesting new way. As we strengthen our imaginations, we allow our true selves to shine through, in our interactions with our students and with others in our lives. Bringing our true selves to our work as teachers is at the core of the 4th I, Integrity. More on this next week.