If you're a teacher struggling with students who aren't writing enough, don't listen to each other, or are disengaged, bored, or even combative, you're in good company. I think I just described nearly every teacher the world over, especially now that we're struggling with remote or hybrid learning. But if you're a teacher struggling with any of these issues, you may also want to read on for the benefits of improvisation in the classroom.
I've seen improv improve student outcomes in my own classrooms. I've been a middle and high school English teacher for five years and have seen shy students start speaking up and unfocused students start to get more engaged after adding some improv exercises into the curriculum.
A caveat: just like any curriculum planning, the more thoughtful, informed, and strategic you are about how and when you add improv into the mix, the better. Just playing some random improv games can be fun, but thinking carefully about which exercises will have the biggest impact on your specific students will help unlock more benefits of improvisation in the classroom.
The improv I'm talking about here is improvisational theater. Students make scenes up from scratch by collaborating with each other. There are various improv principles or rules that help students to be more successful improvisers.
Some Improv Principles:
Improvisers have to listen very carefully in order to integrate each other's ideas into scenes. If my scene partner says her name is Samantha, I'd better be listening when she states that fact, so that I can call her Samantha when the time is right.
The Yes And principle, sometimes called the rule of agreement, really helps scenes grow. The whole idea is that I have to agree with my partner's reality and then add new details to that same reality. This helps scenes get fully fleshed out with lots of details about who the characters are, where they are, and what's at the heart of their relationship.
When players reject each other's ideas, scenes tend to disintegrate into conflict. If I say I'm a cobble and you disagree and tell me I'm a pilot, we have to spend time figuring out who's a liar or who's wrong or confused. This doesn't feel great while improvising because no one really knows what's true for the scene.
When you Yes And, you can quickly add details collaboratively, which feels much less uncertain.
Make your Partner Look Good
Improvising is collaborative. Completely. There's no star. No improv diva. When everyone onstage is doing well, the scene is doing well. So, another improv principle is to actively make your partner look good.
Don't be defensive or combative. Be positive and accepting and encouraging, so your scene partners can perform their best. This only makes you look better.
One of my favorite things about improvising was going around to each of my teammates before the show, patting them on the back, and literally saying, "I got your back." That's the kind of camaraderie that successful improv requires.
The improv principle that supersedes all others is that there are no mistakes. That means that if you mess up one of the other improv principles...or anything really, you don't crumble. You don't stop and apologize.
You keep going and integrate it into the scene. Either you or your teammate can justify the mistake--make it make sense in the context of the scene--and then keep right on going.
It's really powerful to see students getting better at making mistakes and then supporting each other when they do.
There are more improv principles, but I think these start to give you an idea of how powerful the benefits of improvisation in the classroom could be.
Benefits of Improvisation in the Classroom:
1. Students Write More
Mary DeMichele published a study that showed students wrote more words and sentences after participating in an improv workshop. She attributes this, in part, to the Yes And principle. Students practiced agreeing and adding on during improv exercises and were then able to transfer that skill to their own narrative writing.
2. Students Listen Better
To practice improv is to practice our listening skills. Playing games like Word at a Time Story can help students focus more closely on what their peers are saying. Many improv exercises fall apart when people aren't listening, so if you want your students to experience a crash course in listening, improv offers a fun, active way to do so.
3. Students get more Comfortable with Taking Risks
In order to learn, we need to take some academic risks and make some mistakes. Studies are starting to show that improv helps people get more comfortable with uncertainty. This leads to decreases in anxiety and perfectionism and increases self-confidence. What all of that adds up to is a more trusting classroom where students can take some academic risks in order to learn.
4. Students Collaborate Better
Improv isn't just about listening, it's also about collaborating. When students practice Yes And, they see firsthand how powerful agreeing and adding onto each other's ideas can be. I like to play Yes And with students and then reference it when we're doing group work or having class discussions. Are you agreeing with her reality? Are you adding onto her idea or are you negating it? Did you Yes And?
5. Students are more Creative
Improv also helps reduce shame and self-consciousness. Shame has been shown to have an outsized impact on creativity. When we feel ashamed, we're more likely to shut down. But improv can prevent this creative suppression. Students start to feel seen and heard, and they start to experience firsthand what agreeing and adding onto each other's ideas can do. This helps them feel safe enough to get more creative in the classroom.
6. Students are less Judgmental and more open to other Perspectives
Another improv principle is about approaching teammates without judgment. Practicing this skill through improv can be central to helping students reduce their judgment of others in other contexts. When students practice reserving judgment while improvising, with some coaching and support, they're also better able to reserve judgment of each other in the halls, during discussions and group work, and ideally even beyond their stint in your classroom.
7. Students have Fun
Finally, and this is a major part of its appeal, improv is fun. It's the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine of learning social and emotional skills go down. Students learn better through active, embodied experiences. You can tell students until you're blue in the face that they need to listen; that doesn't help them listen better.
But when they feel what it feels like to be heard during a fun, interactive improv game, students start to make those connections (as long as the teacher gives room for thoughtful debriefs after the exercises). Students need to have a chance to transfer the skills from improv to their academic, social, and emotional toolkits. This gives you, the teacher, something to refer back to throughout the year.
Remember what it felt like when that improv scene went south? How can you tell you're truly listening? Are you agreeing and adding on or are you forcing your own idea into the discussion?
Final Thoughts on Benefits of Improvisation in the Classroom
I hope this article gives more teachers the permission they need to start integrating improvisation into their curricula in strategic and thoughtful ways.
It's not just a fun reward on a Friday after a quiz. Improv can be central to teaching students how to listen, collaborate, take risks, get creative, be less judgmental, have some fun, and even write more in the process.