Card Tricks, Playing Tag, and Jazzing Around


Dramatism and Improvisation in the Writing Classroom


Moodle Post on David Blakesly's The Elements of Dramatism


Excerpt From My Blog


Jarrett's Signature Experiment


Excerpt on Jazz from

Class Voice Thread Project


The following is a reflective essay written for David Stacey's English 612 Class at Humboldt State University. I have included several links to related writing from this course, both in the body of the text, and in the "links" section on this page. 

Card Tricks, Playing Tag, and Jazzing Around 

Card tricks, playing tag, and jazzing around—what unites these three distinct activities? The answer is simple: they are all integral to the twin arts of writing and teaching. Looking back on my experience in Dr. David Stacey’s English 612 class at Humboldt State University, the clearest and most memorable portions of the class are encapsulated by a card trick, a game of tag, and a general sense of jazzing around.

           Kenneth Burke’s concept of dramatism, as a means of revealing motives and understanding “what is involved when we talk about what people are doing and why they are doing it” is among the most provocative and unforgettable pieces of theory I have ever encountered. From Burke’s two pentads—the first of which describes human actions through the mutable and endlessly adaptable device of the pentad and pentadic ratios, or combinations and interactions of the fivefold division of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose; the second of which defines sign and signifiers through the fivefold division of primal, jingle, lexical, entelechial, and tautological—to the concept of terministic screens that control and shape human perception, discourse, and action, Dramatism proves to be an exciting, provocative, and widely applicable theoretical facet of “Burkeology.”

The viability of Burke’s dramatism crystallized for me when I read of his analogy of a card trick that illustrates the process of merger and division in relation to his concepts of terministic screens, identification and consubstantiality, and perhaps even motives. David Blakesley describes the trick as follows: first, the magician, who has selected a face card and placed it in his breast pocket, let’s say the Ace of spades, for example, asks the spectator to name the four highest cards (Jack, Queen, King, Ace). Next, the magician asks the spectator to select two of those. For the sake of our example, let’s pretend that the spectator picks the King and the Queen. Since the magician has the Ace in his pocket, he divides from the spectator’s choice, and says something like, “OK, that leaves the Ace and the Jack.” Then the spectator is asked to choose between the Ace and the Jack, and the magician either “merges” with, or “divides” from, that choice. For instance, in our example, if the spectator chooses the Ace, the magician “merges” with that choice by saying, “OK, Ace,” and that part of the trick is finished—the spectator has been led, through a series of cunning questions, to “choose” the denomination of card that the magician has in his pocket. The magician simply repeats the process of merger and division with the suit, leading the spectator, in our example, to “choose” the Ace of Spades.

And while Burke’s discussion of the card trick pertains to his concept of the dialectic, it seems to me that it is a useful example for understanding dramatistic theory in a more general sense as well. Be it our terministic screens, our attribution of motives to actions—whatever—the card trick is a perfect and brilliantly clear example of effective rhetoric. Blakesley extends the card trick analogy to the dialogues of Plato, claiming that Socrates (as written by Plato) followed a similar pattern of merger and division in his questions. It was no great stretch for me to see connections between the process outlined in the card trick beyond Burke and Plato, in genre theory, for instance (where both creator and consumer are positioned in and confined by genre in such a way that their choices are, while admittedly more varied at the start, ultimately as limiting as the choices that the magician offers to the spectator in the above example). Rhetoric is a pervasive force in our lives, and I had the opportunity to further discuss the importance of Burkean meta-interpretation in a classroom discussion that is recapped nicely in this "Moodle" post.  

When I was a child, I loved magic tricks of any kind, especially card tricks. Little did I know that sleight of hand (or, more accurately sleight of mind) would feature in my graduate studies! Even more surprising, another childhood joy—a game of tag, would prove unexpectedly instructional as well.

            When James Peck, a teacher of physical theater and “games” at Dell Arte School in Blue Lake, California, paid a visit to our English 612 class on March 4th, 2008, I did not foresee the impact his visit would have on my classmates and me. I think this is especially true for those of us who intend to go on to become teachers. James’ visit made improvisation real for me in a way, and to an extent, that simply reading about it never could have done. What’s truly amazing is that this lesson came not through intense erudition, but rather through playing a game of tag. 

    An online discussion of James Peck’s visit, including pictures of the class playing tag is available at our English 612 Voice Thread project.

            Because he spoke very well and engaged the entire class immediately in a series of “exercises”, all of which he made relevant to teaching (and to life in general), it took me almost half-an-hour of playing tag (in various ways) before I realized that that’s what we were doing. For me, the most salient lesson in James’ visit is that fear can be crippling. And as I look forward to teaching my own class next semester, I feel a mix of fear and excitement that is surprisingly similar to that I felt when a classmate in James’ tag exercise would come towards me, ready to tag me out. A classmate and friend put it well, I think, when she said “fear and excitement often go together, but that’s good—I’ve always loved roller-coasters.” The fear you feel in the pit of your stomach as you glide toward the peak of a roller coaster is exactly the kind of fear and excitement I felt in James’ tag activity, and that I feel now as I look forward to “working without a net” next semester when I teach my first section of English 100. Over the course of this past semester I have become increasingly aware of the importance of inventiveness and the ability to ad-lib in teaching, thanks to the direct experience of James’ improvisation exercises coupled with readings on improvisation studies.

            One such reading, Keith Sawyer’s article, “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation” discusses in detail the place of improvisation in the classroom. Most significantly, I think, he redresses the shortcomings of previous concepts of improvisation in teaching by suggesting a shift away from scripted lesson plans for the teacher and by advocating for a more equitable conception of the teacher as participant (rather than director) in classroom activities. I’ve written more on this in this excerpt from my blog.

            Playing tag in graduate school (especially as part of required coursework) may seem unconventional indeed. But while going against the grain often offends the generally conservative, neo-puritanical sensibilities of Administrators and “Old Duffers” (especially when it means having fun), going against the grain (and having fun) doesn’t have to preclude the educational merit of activities. Leo Buscaglia, a teacher who worked with special needs students in Southern California put it this way, “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” Did our class play when James Peck visited us? You bet. But did we also learn valuable lessons, not only about teaching, but also about one another, and about life in general? My sources say yes.

            Modern Jazz serves as a fine example of what Sawyer calls “Disciplined Improvisation”, and while I was reluctant to listen to, and write about, Jazz this semester, the significance of improvisation in teaching allowed me to see the value of Jazz as a model for improvisational instruction. Three lessons that I will take away from studying Jazz as a model and metaphor for teaching with improv are the importance of listening to others, remaining flexible and incorporating play into our work (and our classrooms). A teacher who lectures and who solemnly adheres to a rigid lesson plan employs none of these valuable skills. Listening to others and taking a dynamic approach to teaching allows for effective collaboration and improvisation in the classroom. I’ve written more about jazz and improvisation as part of English 612 on Dr. David Stacey’s class page at You can read a salient portion of that writing in this Excerpt from Nicenet

            But while flexibility and attentive listening are vital, it is the incorporation of play into our work that I find most valuable to teaching. And the playfulness of Jazz extends to writing itself as well as to the teaching of writing. In Drifting, Michael Jarrett explores the application of the “signature” jazz performance in writing. The word “signature” takes on a double meaning here in that it refers both to the uniquely personal quality of a jazz performance and to the actual written signature of one’s name. While I was initially somewhat turned off by Jarret’s explanation and example of “the signature experiment,” I eventually saw the value in this kind of writing as a form of play. With the growing emphasis on personal and autobiographical writing in freshman composition courses, Jarret’s “signature experiment”, where you research and analyze your own name, might prove a useful way for me to incorporate play into the work I assign my students in English 100. I decided to try this experiment out myself, and I found it both instructive and fun. As I was doing this activity, I realized that I was writing for class (albeit not required writing) and I was actually having fun. Just like playing tag with James Peck, this activity let me play as I worked and learned. Jazzing around was more useful than I would ever have suspected. If you’d like to read my personal signature experiment, you can do so by clicking The Name Game.

            So yeah. Card tricks, playing tag, and jazzing around proved more instructional, in many ways, than a library full of books on pedagogical theory. And while there’s a lot more for me to study and experience in the realms of dramatism, improvisation, and jazzography, I feel that this past semester in English 612 made me aware of the importance of improvisation skills for teaching, and it equipped me with some valuable practice at understanding fear and comprehending the difficulties in “teaching without a net.” Whether one willingly embraces improvisation or not, effective teaching requires the ability to improvise, because no matter how tightly scripted a lesson plan one may have, students are bound to ask “unscripted” questions. A teacher who is unable to improvise will be ineffective inasmuch as he or she is unable to address such questions adequately. Some are born to improvise, some achieve improvisation, and some have improvisation thrust upon them.


About Me: 

My name is Chris Hall, and I am currently working on a Master's degree in Teaching of Writing at Humboldt State University (HSU) in Arcata, California.  

 I will be teaching my first semester of English 100 as a Teaching Associate at HSU in the fall of 2008.