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One Weird Trick To Become A Better Teacher

Study improvisational theater.

Improvisation teaches us to play and have fun with whatever comes our way. Flexibility, play, and listening, that’s what we learn when we improvise.
Photo by Josh Calabrese vis Stocksnap

Seriously.

That’s the trick.

I mean it. If I could add one required course to all pedagogy curricula, it would be one that teaches improvisational games, like the sort you see on Who’s Line Is It Anyway.

I never had to take such a course. I was never a drama kid (I was a band kid). And, as a college teacher, the amount of teaching practicum I had to do before being allowed in the classroom was, um, pretty much none (although as a scholar in rhetoric and composition, it’s probably more than many college instructors have!).

All that being said, it’s being able to do improvisation that I consider my greatest skill as a teacher.

Although I never took such a class, never participated in a school or community play, or any of that, I did grow up in and around renaissance fairs, which as part of their cast training typically teach improvisation (because that’s the cast’s main means of entertaining patrons).

What does improvisation teach teachers?

  • Active listening
  • Flexibility
  • Play
  • Building on the unexpected
  • Projection and enunciation
  • Body awareness and presence
  • Probably a bunch of other stuff too 🙂
The author teaching a fair patron at the Virginia Renaissance Fair in 2017
Photo from the author’s collection

Active listening: The game that comes to mind here is the “Yes, and” game–in fact, I often think this was the most valuable exercise we did in fair rehearsals. The rules of the game are that you are collaborating with the other players on a project (say, building a bridge) and you take turns saying what you will do or what the thing is like. You always start with “yes, and” and you can’t remove or contradict anything that has already been said.

As a teacher, our job is mostly listening. We have to respond to whatever students say in answer to questions or prompts, and we can’t just contradict things. We have to somehow turn everything into the direction that the class requires. This requires active listening skills, such as one uses when playing “Yes, and” and other improvisation games.

Flexibility: Just as in the case of active listening, our job is to build on what the students already know. But we don’t know what our students already know when we write our lesson plans. I know I can’t be alone in saying that some of the most effective lessons I’ve taught were the ones where I ditched my lesson plan entirely to respond to something going on in the classroom. I know some of the most effective lessons I’ve had as a student were these.

Improvisation teaches us this flexibility. It teaches us stock moves to use rather than preparing lines and strict directions. It teaches us how to select from a tree of possible responses rather than to stick to a rigid plan.

The author (foreground, blue sleeves) at the Ohio State University Renaissance fair many, many years ago (circa 2002 maybe?)
Photo from the author’s collection.

Play: Improvisation games are, well, games. They’re about having fun within a set of rules. As James Paul Gee and others have argued repeatedly, learning–real, deep learning–is always play. Classes aren’t always fun, yes, but to make them engaging we need to play.

Improvisation games help us learn how to build spaces where people feel safe doing goofy things and taking risks doing things they might not otherwise have done. That’s what we need in a classroom. They also teach us to play with what we’re given, to have fun with it. As teachers, we should be having fun in the classroom, as should our students. We should be playing.

Building on the Unexpected: When we ask questions, we often have an answer in our minds.

That’s almost never the answer we get.

Improvisation teaches us to work with these answers, not against them. Rather than saying to a student “No, that’s not it,” we learn to say “Yes, I can see where that answer comes from. Let’s explore it.”

Active learning happening at The Virginia Renaissance Fair
Photo from the author’s collection

Projection and Enunciation: We are performers in the classroom. Like all performers, our voices are often our primary medium. Any lesson can sound dull if your voice is dull or timid, but it takes practice to develop a strong, engaging voice that doesn’t give you a sore throat after a whole day of using it.

Improvisation and other theater skills will teach you to use exactly the kinds of voices you need in a classroom–dynamic, engaging, clear, and healthy.

Body Awareness and Presence: In fair rehearsals, we learned how to develop our characters by using our whole bodies. We learned how to “lead” with different parts when we walk to deepen our characters, and we learned where to direct our gazes relative to other people to show our characters’ relationships with each other. We learned how to use gesture to make ourselves take up more space, to make our characters more vivid.

All of these things work in the classroom. We want to direct attention with our whole bodies. We want to portray a carefully selected teaching persona. We want to show respect to our students with our body language by directing our gaze, for instance, at the upper half of their face. We want to carefully portray emotions to respond to material and make it memorable. We need control over our bodies, a skill we learn when we learn to take the stage as well.

Probably a bunch of other stuff as well applies here too. I’ve been doing fairs so long that I can’t really remember when I learned some of this stuff. But I do know that it makes me a more confident teacher to have learned how to do improvisation games. The skills actors need on stage are very much the same skills we need to make our own performances in the classroom.

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