Improv in the Classroom

I know I usually write about the fiction writing process on this blog, but last week I had an opportunity to lead a professional development session for my fellow teachers, and now I feel compelled to share my experience, as it felt like quite a success!

I’ve always said that improv has helped me with pretty much every aspect of my life, since I began to practice the craft. (I realize my choice of words here may sound pretentious, but improv, like writing, is an art, and requires practice and dedication, as counterintuitive as that may seem to those who do not practice it.)

First of all, if it weren’t for improv, I probably wouldn’t be a teacher at all. I applied for my current job (as an ESL instructor at EF San Francisco) about five years ago, and did not get it. I was nervous, and far too aware of my lack of experience. This was before I’d ever given improv a try. Now, I’m not claiming that correlation implies causation, but I can tell you that my level of confidence during that interview cannot hold a candle to how I rocked this other interview the second time around, about a year and a half ago. I was much calmer, much more collected, and much quicker when it came to responding to unexpected questions. I have no doubt that that’s because of my improv experience.

But improv didn’t just help me with the interview. It also helps me on the job itself, every single day. Of course I plan all my lessons, but if something goes awry, I’m not afraid to change the plan in a more suitable direction, at the drop of a hat.

And it’s not just beneficial for me, either. I love trying out various improv activities and warm ups with my class. It’s a great way to loosen the atmosphere in the classroom, and get brains racing. If we’re doing a lot of textbook work or slower paced, solitary activities, this is a great way to break things up and bring some energy to the lesson. Of course, its not successful one hundred percent of the time, depending on the various attitudes in the room, but so far, I’ve found that the majority of students tend to enjoy this opportunity to “play”, and to shake things up a little.

My fellow teachers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and have all different levels of experience. I certainly don’t claim to know more than any of them. But after realizing how helpful improv has been to me as a teacher, I was excited to share what I know with my colleagues, in case any of them wanted to try it out with their class.

I began with a brainstorm, eliciting ideas about how improv might be beneficial in a classroom setting, both from a teacher’s perspective, and then from a student’s perfective. We made a mind-map on the board, visually exposing our various ideas. And then came the fun part… the practical element!

I was quite excited to get my colleagues to participate in these various activities. There’s generally quite a loose and friendly atmosphere in the teachers’ room, and I had a suspicion that some of them would actually be quite brilliant at it. (And they were!) We began with a “Shake Out”, to get our bodies warmed up and alert. I’m quite sure that at this point, more than one of my fellow teachers were thinking: “What in the world does this have to do with teaching?”

After that, we played “Three Things”, a category game that requires quick thinking, and favors speed over accuracy. (Incidentally, it’s also the name of my first novel… Shameless plug?) After the activity, I asked my colleagues to tell me how they thought it might be helpful for students. Personally, I have found that many of my students claim to not have much vocabulary, when in fact, they have far more words at their disposal than they’re aware of! I think this game helps them understand that. It’s both a vocabulary game and a confidence builder. True to the improv spirit, I was sure to let them know that mistakes are to be celebrated, thus making them less afraid of failure. There was much more laughter when people were throwing out non sequiturs, than when they were accurate!

We then did a variety of other activities: “Mind Meld”, in which participants try to think of and say the same word at the same time, “Beastie Boys Rap”, a rhyming game that’s great for higher level pronunciation classes, and finally, we brought back our focus with an intentional round of “Group Counting”, in which everyone closes their eyes and attempts to count to a certain number, one at a time in no particular order. If any two people say a number at the same time, the group goes back to one. This was a little bit erratic at first, but as soon I encouraged everyone to take a deep breath and stay focused, we managed to make it to twenty and achieve our goal. And there was much rejoicing!

I received a lot of great feedback from this mini workshop, and it felt amazing to share my knowledge with my colleagues, whether they choose to try these activities with their own classes or not. I would love to hold another one at some point in the future.


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