Monday, April 11, 2016

SHYNESS EVAPORATES: College Science Students Use InterPlay Storytelling Methods to Convey Their Nature Observations

BECOMING THE ANIMAL. Embodying the animals they study, observe, and track in their freshman seminar course, "How to Interpret Behavior You Did Not See," gives the students a new way of thinking about science. Here in this InterPlay following and leading activity, Emory students are experiencing "flocking behavior." (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Written by Ruth Schowalter, Certified InterPlay Leader and InterPlay Art and Soul Creativity Coach

Bi-annually, my husband Tony Martin, an Emory University professor, teaches a freshman seminar titled “How to Interpret Behavior You Did Not See.” Enrollment is restricted to eighteen students, who during the semester will learn the art of nature observation and then how to make hypotheses using the evidence they have collected.  In March near the end of spring semester, Tony invited me to this class as a guest instructor to offer InterPlay improvisation storytelling activities. My facilitation was to provide his students with the tools to breathe life into their nature reports. I was to offer them the avenue of becoming impassioned storytellers, inspiring wonder both in themselves and their listeners!
BIG BODY STORIES. Students took facts from their nature observation journals and had the experience of expanding their enthusiasm both vocally and physically by taking incremental steps with different partners, first in 30-second short "tellings," then a minute-long story, and finally a longer fuller bigger story. On the far right, standing, telling his "big body" story is Tony Martin, who paired up with a student. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Identifying tracks of deer, squirrel, raccoon, feral cat, coyotes, and other animals in the areas surrounding the Emory campus is just the beginning of what these first-year students learn. Tony teaches them how to look at gait patterns and determine if the animals were walking, trotting or galloping. In fact, he gets them out of their desks early on to “become” the animals and act out the gait patterns—a creative way to stimulate the students’ imaginations by getting them to think and move like the animals they are tracking in this Georgia Piedmont.

A regular part of this animal tracking class is venturing outdoors with Tony to nearby creeks and tree stands on campus so the students can examine tracks, discover other sign like scat, chew marks, and nests. They also listen to bird calls to discern together what these animals were or are doing. Traditionally, tracking animals has been a communal or shared endeavor by both women and men to hunt down their food source or to avoid predation—so its fitting that the elder—the professor—initiates the youth in ways of observing animal sign, its significance, and how to talk about it.

Apart from these class activities, students are given the assignment of choosing a semester-long “sit spot” on the Emory campus with its 154-acre nature preserve, Lullwater Park, and other creek-rich forested landscapes. On their own, they are to spend time in this designated spot twice a week for periods no shorter than 15 minutes, recording in journals what their senses reveal to them. In addition to verbal documentation, Tony encourages them to draw what they see, as well as writing down temperature, the direction the wind is blowing, and more. All great fodder for storytelling!
DESCRIBE YOUR "SIT SPOT." Students were directed to turn to the diagram in their journals that they had drawn of their designated "sit spot" on the Emory campus. Then with their partner "witnessing" or listening and not talking, they were to describe the diagram in detail speaking slowly, pausing, and then speaking normally again. Practicing playing with speed (regular, fast, stopping, and slow) provides students with new delivery skills. They can see for themselves what works to communicate the ideas they want to express. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Can you imagine what a treat it was for me to join this class mid-to-end of the semester and facilitate the sharing of their recorded journal experiences using InterPlay activities? Yippee! For those of you familiar with InterPlay, you know that one of the four components of this improvisational system is storytelling (the other three being movement, voice, and shape and stillness). InterPlay was a perfect fit with its improvisational toolkit for these students at this time in their animal-tracking curriculum and storytelling skills! The world becomes more alive when you share information through stories, especially when those stories can be stream of consciousness, free form, and impassioned.

Jon Young, one of two authors of Animal Tracking Basics, the textbook Tony uses for this course, says that we tell stories “to elucidate the edges of our experience.” We also use storytelling to propel us to perceive more deeply, discern what we are seeing, link disparate concepts, know our place, know ourselves, develop a passion for living, learn and laugh—to live more fully in the moment.

Both fifty-minute InterPlay classes included physical warm ups, introductions, playing around with expanding verbal range (volume, speed, and pitch) and physical range (face, hand gestures, moving off “the spot” and using available space), leading and following, and “embodying” the story.

During the first workshop, I asked the students to do short storytellings (in InterPlay we call these tellings “babbling”) at 30-second and 1-minute intervals about different native animals, weather observations, bird language and more. Students then had longer time periods to open their journals and describe their “sit spots” in detail playing around with speed by lengthening their words, pausing, and stopping. To shift students into using their imaginations even more, I asked them to pick something animate or inanimate from their sit spot and to tell a story from that perspective. Lots of energy erupted in the classroom for that activity.

In the second workshop, I built on the skills of expanding both verbal and physical range. After warming up with following and leading activities in pairs and groups of 7, I led them in the InterPlay form of the “big body” story, which has the storyteller move in ever increasing “body bubbles.” The workshop culminated in students “becoming” an animal they were curious about and had researched either folklore or scientific fact about. In groups of three, students spoke as the animal demonstrating its behavior and telling its story! I was so surprised when I said, “Begin!” and all of the storytelling students dropped to the floor on their hands and knees and crawled to their listeners. Wow! They were engaged, and so were their listeners.
BECOME THE ANIMAL. After investigating an animal they were curious about for homework, students were asked to be prepared to speak from that animal's perspective. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Tony and I left the classroom with one student participant who was dressed in a suit. He had informed me before the workshop started that he was giving a presentation in another class later in the afternoon. I asked him if he felt more prepared to present after my InterPlay workshops. He laughed and responded, “I’m ready for anything now.” Hurray for the empowering system of InterPlay!

Here’s some direct feedback from Tony about the effects of InterPlay on teaching storytelling skills to his students:

2016 Spring Semester Class, "How to Interpret Behavior You Did Not See." Professor Tony Martin leads the way for expressiveness as he stretches out in front of his first year Emory students enrolled in his animal tracking class. Some of the students grasp their observation journals in their hands. (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
“Storytelling is an important skill for my first-year students to learn in my animal-tracking class, "How to Interpret Behavior You Did Not See." In fact, the author of the textbook for this class (Animal Tracking, by Jon Young) devotes an entire chapter to this skill. As a way to introduce my students to storytelling methods, I invited Ruth Schowalter (my wife), a certified leader in the improvisational system of InterPlay, to conduct two 50-minute workshops.  My goal was for the students to bring their journals in which they had been recording observations from their designated "sit spots" around the Emory campus, and to use that content to tell stories.

Most traditional education systems involve reading, sitting, listening to a lecture, and reciting back facts, with students and instructors alike staying mostly in their heads. InterPlay's activities emphasize using the "whole" person--body, mind, and emotions, engaging  the students’ kinesthetic imaginations. I saw my students transformed by this full-body approach to learning.

As they shared their records of tracks and sign and created "animal stories," their shyness evaporated and they became involved in communicating their nature observations meaningfully. The dynamic InterPlay storytelling exercises enlivened the students as they worked with one another in pairs, small groups, and the entire class.

Based on what I observed, the combination of student-generated content and interactive InterPlay exercises in these workshops will be memorable to my students. What a wonderful opportunity to enjoy making meaning out of scientific fact, and crafting that content in a way to engage listeners!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: First many thanks to Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, to co-founders of InterPlay. Special thanks to Phil who mentored me during my InterPlay leadership training and made suggestions I implemented the first time I facilitated InterPlay in Tony’s freshman seminar (read about that workshop HERE). I’m appreciative to Tony and his interest in encouraging his students to have fun learning and gain presentation skills at the same time. I am grateful to those freshman who were courageous in moving outside their comfort zones to embody their stories. And, as Tony always does, I want to thank the tracemakers who inhabit the Earth and make our world a fuller richer place.

Integrating InterPlay with Science Communication. Thank you to my husband Tony Martin (his photo of me), who continues to enlarge my life-experiences through travel, geology, paleontology, modern and ancient ichnology. It is such a joy collaborating with you. Here are links to two other blog posts about our collaborations of merging InterPlay with science communication: 


  1. Replies
    1. Melissa, I respect you so much as a colleague and the work you do. Thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a supportive comment.