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Unlocking Joy and Building Community with Public School Teachers

Pictured: Houttuynia cordata

The word Cordata comes from the Latin adjective meaning ‘heart-shaped’. This heart love comes through at Cordata Elementary where staff are dedicated to creating a safe, loving, supportive environment for their kids.

Last winter I had the privilege of facilitating an applied improv workshop with approximately 40 teachers and staff at Cordata here in Bellingham. The principal, Analisa Ficklin, had been a participant in a multi-session improv class that I taught.

I am more and more convinced that applied improv is a powerful tool for so many realms, not least of which is our public schools. Our teachers are giving of themselves day in and day out.

I asked Analisa to respond to some questions after my workshop to give you a sense of her school, their vision, why she invited me to lead a workshop with the teachers and staff, and what impact it has had.

Q: Tell us about your school.

Analisa: Cordata is a school of 400 students in preK through 5th grade. We are a very diverse community. One third of our children have a primary language other than English – Spanish, Russian, Ukranian, Vietnamese, Punjabi, Tagalog, Marshallese, and many other languages are spoken by our families! We are also privileged to have one of our district’s Life Skills (special education) programs in our building, which adds to the beautiful diversity here. 65% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch. We are a school that has experienced a great deal of change and transition, with many students moving in and out over the course of the year, and school attendance area boundary changes that have happened multiple times since our opening. The frequent change, the high rate of poverty, and the language barriers for many families, mean that many of our children are dealing with chronic childhood stress. We are proud to be a school that focuses on the whole child, and we believe that the social emotional skills that we help kids to develop are as important as the academic skills.

Q: What kind of environment to you hope to create for students at Cordata and why?

Analisa: The best way to describe the environment is to start with our vision.

We believe that Cordata kids have unlimited potential and that education leads to opportunity. We aim to create a culture in which Cordata students:

  • build compassionate character

  • develop curiosity, independence, and joy in learning

  • deepen knowledge and expand skills

  • form connections to one another and the world around us

Our collective belief is that children need to experience a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, and a sense of significance. When these are in place, students are ready to take a risk to learn. We want to create an environment at Cordata that is rooted in compassion and strong relationships, and challenges kids to become independent learners.

Q- Why did you have David lead an improv workshop for your staff?

Analisa: I first became interested in improv through a workshop that David led in my church. Initially, I watched from the edges – improv felt way out of my comfort zone! But watching for just a short time, I quickly saw that David created a safe environment for exploration and learning and laughter, and I gave it a try. When I began to learn about the impact of improvisation on social and emotional health, I wanted to know more! In our school environment, we work with many children whose backgrounds include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), or toxic stress. Research tells us that ACEs are linked to emotional, physical and social challenges later in life, and we frequently see the impact on their developing brains in the form of difficulty maintaining focus, difficulty attending to learning, and difficulty managing emotions and solving problems. We are intentional about teaching social emotional competencies explicitly, and weaving positive behavior strategies into all aspects of the school day. And [applied] improv provides a unique way to address these challenges, by building community through laughter, and fostering a sense of openness and opportunity when facing the unexpected.I wanted to bring improv to my staff so that they could experience the joy and possibilities, in hopes that we could eventually bring improv to our students.

Q: What was the impact?

Analisa: About 40 of our staff members gathered in a circle in the library for our improv workshop with David. Some were excited, many were apprehensive, and most were confused about how an improv workshop could impact our collective work. As the workshop got started, we all felt the energy shift. Through interactive games and laughter, David taught us the power of “Yes, And…” David knew how to create a safe space for all, no matter how “out of their comfort zone” they originally felt improv would be. As we got more comfortable, he challenged us to try some things that stretched us out of our comfort zones, and invited us to reflect on what happens to us emotionally and even physically when we approach one another with openness to building upon one another’s creativity. When the session came to a close, David asked participants to share a word or phrase to capture the experience. Joyful, necessary, bonding, community-building . . .These were the kinds of words we heard. In the days that followed, one person after another extended their appreciation for the opportunity, and an interest in learning more.

As a school staff, we have limited time to gather for collaboration and professional development, and there are many important things for us to address. This hour was incredibly well-spent, and something I will plan again in the future, because it brought us together in a unique way, that helped us to draw on our own and one another’ strengths, and to carry those into the days that followed.

Q: Would you recommend David’s workshop to others?

Analisa: I absolutely recommend David’s workshop! It was outstanding! David seeks to understand and connect with people, and to help them understand and connect with one anotherImprov, under his direction, is a remarkable tool for doing that!


I’m happy to report that Analisa received Bellingham Public School grant to hire our local children’s theatre BAAY to come to Cordata and lead improv in the 4th grade classrooms! And Allied Arts jumped in with their own funding to bring Deanna Fleysher to Cordata to lead improv with K-3rd and 5th grade students! Each classroom participated in three separate hours with the goal of increasing joy, laughter, and connection.

I asked Analisa a few months later about the impact of the workshops with staff and students she said,

"It's been a game-changer."

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