For the last 15 years or so, I have performed improv comedy in Chicago. During much of that time, I also taught English classes at Kendall College, a culinary and hospitality school. As you might imagine, my improv skills come in handy in the classroom. Here is a brief introduction for how the basic concepts of improv, when employed skillfully, help improve the classroom climate.
- “Yes, and …” “Yes, and …” is probably the most fundamental concept in improv. It’s pretty simple to understand. Basically, when you are onstage with a scene partner, the two of you are tasked with creating a scene together. To do this, you need to support each other’s choices. So, if your scene partner proposes that the two of you are astronauts who have just landed on the moon, you must affirm this choice and then add something to it. The reason for this practice is that if you were to negate your partner’s choice, the scene would become bogged down in argument. This applies to the classroom in a number of ways, but for me it applies primarily to discussions and brainstorming. Practicing “yes, and …” while facilitating classroom discussion puts me in an affirmative rather than combative mind-set. I am there to help students tease out their ideas and opinions rather than to tell them they’re wrong. “Yes, and …” is also helpful when teaching brainstorming. By practicing “yes, and …” you can model for students how quickly a group can put a coherent brainstorm together. “Yes, and …” seems to protect against some of the critical self-censorship many students are prone to. Given a task, they might begin it but almost immediately feel compelled to circle back and scrutinize their ideas to the point of paralysis, severely bogging down the writing process. By practicing “yes, and…” we circumvent this self-editing tendency in favor of simply going with the flow, following the last thing.
- Your first answer is your best answer. On stage during a show, you don’t have time to think. No audience will enjoy watching you up there trying to think of the clever thing you want to say. Good improvisers become very practiced in letting go of this need to say something that is perfectly formed. In a way, you get practice in saying many dumb things in front of large groups of strangers. This is helpful in that it loosens our need to always be right. And it can be good practice for students who, again, often feel hesitant to participate in discussions or show you rough drafts of their papers. I encourage students to simply say what is on their minds and to say the first thing on their minds. In this way, the classroom can become an encouraging place to experiment, where students are free to play with new ideas and ways of thinking.
- Improvising around the lesson plan. Every class has an individual energy, not just over the course of a term but also during each particular class meeting. This energy is subject to change, I’m sure you know, from moment to moment. Given the ever-changing energy of any individual class, one is called upon to improvise around the lesson plan. Maybe this means dropping a planned activity altogether. Maybe it means one day extending discussion beyond the 10 minutes allotted for it. Maybe this means, as happened to me recently, calling upon a student to come to the front of the class and teach for five minutes because this student seemed exceptionally knowledgeable about the topic at hand. Whatever the case, this kind of improvising requires the kind of deep listening one finds among the best improv groups. This listening, a form of awareness, I believe, can be developed, but it entails sometimes being quiet and paying very close attention not only to what students are saying (or not saying) but even to how they are moving about in their chairs (also, do you have them moving about?). We get caught sometimes stubbornly conducting our lesson plans against a classroom dynamic that has shifted before us, hoping that this dynamic will somehow shift back toward our preference. Instead, wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge the changed dynamic and then make changes to a lesson plan in accord with it?