Start a Knife Fight

Turn your next staff meeting into a knife fight

OK, calm down. The first thing you should know: everyone leaves laughing (and no one dies).

The second thing you should know: if you want to experience this sort of laughter yourself, come join us for a Free Intro Talk this Thursday at super.BUILD.

(If you can’t make it this week, don’t worry. We have Free Intro Talks every month.)

So why did I turn a group of educators into a professional knife-throwing team?

This month, I started my 20th year in education, not counting the 24 years I survived as a student, from preschool through “doctor school.”

For the last two decades, I have served elementary and middle schools in the West and Southwest parts of Philly as a school psychologist. Most of the time I’m on a treadmill. I test, I write, I test, I write. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Like many of my colleagues, I have all these other skills that I can rarely use.

This year I got lucky. I found my way into a new program, a blank slate. I am so excited that I get to use all of the things I have learned along the way. It’s kind of unreal.

My main job this year is to run groups, “restorative circles” to be exact. In order to build community in our new program, we’re starting by circling up our staff, in the week we have before the scholars start school. These staff circles will also show the teachers how they can run groups in their own classrooms.

Earlier this summer, when I first looked at the circle format, I did what we all do. I quickly scanned past the stuff I knew I could do well and focused on my weaknesses. “I don’t know how to plan a fun activity,” I thought. “I’m not an art teacher with a pocket full of projects or a music teacher who can start a sing-along.” That’s when the cold sweats started.

“Can I really do this?” leads to more insidious thoughts like, “They’re going to figure out that I don’t know what I’m doing!” The thoughts started circling my head like vultures.

Everyone I know runs this game in their head. First, I stumble, then my mask falls off revealing the imposter I know I am. Then they kick me out of town (fill in your own horrible ending).

Enter my inner Tom Kelley to wave the vultures away. "This one's not dead yet. Shoo!" Thanks, Tom!

A couple of years ago, I started to take improv comedy classes to get more comfortable with public speaking. Tom is a professional actor and my improv teacher.

Getting up in front of people is scary. Tom made it easier for me. He assured me that no one is going to get hurt doing improv.

Tom has an amazing ability to make it feel safe to be on stage. That imaginary cliff you’re about to fall off of? It’s hard to remember that it’s all in your head. Tom reminded me that my ego was the only thing I could dent. And in time my classmates and I learned that your ego bounces back pretty well.

My favorite direction Tom delivered was at the moment I froze up in a two-person scene. I started to fall back on the improv-error of asking my partner, “what are you doing?”

Tom immediately reassured me, “you know what they’re doing. Just go with your next idea.”

Wait, what? I have that power?

photo credit:  James Pond/Unsplash

photo credit: James Pond/Unsplash

Far from the improv class, sweating it out at my new job, I froze up and thought, "I have no idea" for a fun activity to start the first circle I was about to lead.

Just then, my inner Tom whispered, “you know.” It came in a whisper, like Yoda reminding me about the Force. I took a breath and calmed down long enough to remember all the fun warm-up activities I learned in improv class. I may not be an art teacher but I do have some tricks up my sleeve.

Enter the knife-throwers…

In my favorite improv class warm-up, you make eye contact across the circle. A heartbeat after you throw an imaginary knife at your classmate’s head, she claps her hands in front of her face. And we all breath a sigh of relief! No one wounded… yet.

The stakes would be higher if we played the game with metal blades. In my version (Spoiler Alert) everyone catches the blade just in time. Still, even with invisible knives, the eye contact/throw/catch still brings a lot of suspense to the game.

Everyone starts out a little stiff and careful. Whom am I going to throw this to? Then we speed it up. That’s when we get out of our heads. That’s when the laughter starts…

So far, games like this are working. We're building community by making eye contact and getting to know each other. I've been getting comments like, “I have never started a school year like this!” Our staff circles are generating a lot of optimism, already, just in the first week.

It shouldn’t feel so foreign to make eye contact.

When was the last time you had a real conversation that wasn't interrupted by technology? No one feels heard. And without a place to open up, we don’t bother to speak up. So no one is talking and no one is listening.

I am so excited to run circles at school and now in my practice! It is an honor to make a space for people to connect.


For more information about the super.BUILD program, click here.

Robert Zeitlin