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Improv in the Classroom

May 26, 2021

Every good teacher knows that students are most engaged when having fun. Fun takes the pressure out of lessons, allowing students to learn without fear of making mistakes. And you know what’s fun? Improv!

What is improv?

Improvisational theater, or improv, is a type of theater in which the actors make up the play or scene on the spot. This means there is no script, no director, and no costumes. Actors develop their characters while they are already on the stage and react to each other in real time, working together to build a story. 

Aside from being fun, improvisational theater has many benefits. It can help people gain confidence, improve public speaking skills, and become more adaptable in unpredictable situations. It sharpens transferrable skills that are useful for acing job interviews, building relationships with peers and colleagues, and connecting with one’s inner child. Applied to ESL students specifically, improv provides opportunity to practice vocabulary and build confidence in both speaking and listening.

The main principles of improvisational theater also apply to life

Yes, and!

"Yes, and!” is the most famous principle of improv. The meaning behind these two words is simple: “Yes” means you must accept whatever information your scene partner gives you, and “and” means you must build upon that information. 

Here’s an example:

Student 1: Hello, John. Good to see you again. It says on your chart that you’re here because of a knee injury.

(From this information alone, Student 2 can infer that Student 1 is playing the part of a doctor. Student 1's tone implies that they have met before.)

Student 2: Yes, Dr. Rodriguez. I tripped over my dog this morning and hurt my knee. I’m afraid it might be serious.

(Here, Student 2 has accepted Student 1’s proposition of being a doctor. Student 2 has named Student 1’s character and added the information that the knee injury was caused by tripping over a dog.)

In a less literal sense, “Yes, and!” also highlights the spirit of positivity in improv, which is of course also relevant to the classroom since positivity is conducive to a healthy learning environment. Let’s return to the example above. What would happen if the scene played out like this?

An example of what not to do:

Student 1: Hello, John. Good to see you again. It says on your chart that you’re here because of a knee injury.

Student 2: My name isn’t John, and you’re not a doctor!

Here, Student 2 has denied Student 1’s idea, and now the scene cannot go anywhere.

Mistakes are gifts

What could be more empowering than the idea that you can never be wrong? While of course it is possible to be wrong when it comes to grammar, students find it liberating to not have to worry too much about what comes out of their mouth. After all, whatever they say must be supported by their scene partner, so the idea that they might be shamed for saying the wrong thing is completely nonexistent.

Listen to your partner

Listening skills are important both to learning the English language and to performing a strong improv scene. Listening not only to one's partner’s words but also to their tone allows the listener to pick up on all sorts of information that then can be used in the scene.

So, how can we use improv in the classroom?

The easiest way to incorporate improv in the classroom is simply by performing two-person scenes. The teacher can give each group of two a suggestion, such as a relationship: “brother and sister,” “therapist and patient,” “king and servant”; a single location: “You’re in an airplane!,” “You’re at a gas station!,” “You’re at a child’s birthday party!”; or even just a single word of inspiration: “Pineapple!,” “NASA!,” “Anniversary!”

However, teachers might want a bit more guidance than this, and ESL Library has a number of resources that can be adapted for improv activities. For example, words from the Flashcards section can be selected at random for scene inspiration.

For a more structured approach, there are a number of scene ideas in our Role-Play section, which provides not only situations but also teachers' notes, including suggestions for dealing with shy students. Take information from the “scenario” section and choose two students to perform the scene while the rest of the class watches. For an additional task, have the students in the audience copy down sentences they hear. I always encourage the entire class to shout “Best Scene Ever!” after every scene to add to the spirit of positivity and fun.

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