Dallas Comedy House (DCH) performer and tech Scriven Bernard was a teacher assistant this past term for a Level 1 class led by Sarah Adams. The assistants are instructed to send follow-up notes reinforcing what the students learned in class each week. Scriven changed the note-giving game by turning them into music videos.
I recently sat down with Scriven in his Plaid Park studios to learn more about the project.
How did you come up with the idea to produce the videos?
I came up with the idea to produce the videos during the first class of the term. Sarah Adams and I recognized that the students had a lot of energy and seemed like a really cohesive group, and we really wanted to capitalize on that. So she turned to me and said, "We should do some sort of bit with them." I wasn't sure exactly what to do at first, but I knew it would involve music and costumes because I love both of those things. I told Sarah I'd think about it and that I'd draft something when I did the notes. The next day, I recorded that first video during my lunch break and sent it over to her. She loved it and insisted that I share it.
I also tend to get bogged down in the structure and rules of everything and forget that after all, we are improvisers. We are all here because we love spontaneity and supporting other people. So, these videos are another way of sharing that spirit with the students and reminding all of us that while there is a structure to the program and while there ARE higher-percentage choices, we can still let loose and have fun.
What kind of reaction have you received from the students, teachers, and other T.A.s?
The students seemed to love the videos. They were excited each week to see what I'd come up with next, and I think it made them feel more comfortable about coming out of their shells. And they were absolutely thrilled when I told them I wanted them to be in the last video with me.
I've only spoken to a small number of teachers about it, but a majority of the reviews have been positive. For the most part, the teachers love the idea and the energy that the video notes bring. The teachers with reservations about them value the structure, consistency, and neutral energy of the traditional note-taking system. One of the fears expressed is that a shy student might feel out of place when confronted with such strong energy in a Level 1 class, but I have not yet had that experience, and I will continue to make sure that all students feel welcomed and comfortable regardless of how I'm sending the notes.
Fellow T.A.s have loved the idea, but some have expressed concerns over its sustainability. And yeah, I definitely had that fear at first. I thought, "Oh, crap, what have I gotten myself into?" But, you know, I'm having so much fun with it. I love doing the videos, I love getting the students involved, and until someone tells me to stop, I'm going to keep finding fun ways to enhance students' improv experiences.
How can you top what you did this term?
I learned a few valuable lessons when writing the lyrics to the music videos. The first is that I can't choreograph to save my life, and the second is that things are better when I let them happen naturally and don't try to force them. When I'd write out the notes first then let the natural rhythm of the words inspire a song, the end result was far better than when I picked a song and tried to force the words into it.
I'll adopt that second lesson with figuring out what to do for this next Level 1 class. The idea for the video notes came naturally from my desire to have fun with the class, the energy dynamic between Sarah and me, and the overall chemistry among the students. So, just as in an improv scene, I'll listen to the situation before I respond. I'll let the ideas form naturally, then I'll see where that takes me. Perhaps I'll do another round of video notes. Perhaps something even better will happen. I don't really know yet, and that's the beauty of it.
If I had to give advice for how everyone can top the notes, I'd say this: Adopt the teachings of improv in everything you do. Follow the normal structure, but support the moves of everyone around you and have fun. Listen to the things happening around you and respond honestly to them. Be spontaneous. Make each other laugh.
A rundown of the song list.
Week 1 - "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars Week 2 - "Africa" by Toto Week 3 - "Price Tag" by Jessie J Week 4 - "Hello" by Adele (Fun fact! Rob Howe subbed in for Sarah during this week, and before we'd talked about choosing a song we each independently wrote our own lyrics for "Hello." I ended up combining them.) Week 5 - "MMMBop" by Hanson Week 6 - "Dragostea Din Tei (Numa Numa)" by O-Zone Week 7 - "Bye Bye Bye" by *NSYNC