Wednesday 13 Nov, 2013

Improv in the Classroom with Dr. Katherine McKnight

Last week, we attended the American Middle Level Education Conference in Minneapolis and met some really incredible people.  We were so excited to have EF Group Leader, teacher, author and recipient of the 2013 Teachers’ Choice Award, Dr. Katherine McKnight join us at the conference to speak at our session,  Active Learning and Improv in the Classroom.  One of the reasons we asked Katie to speak (aside from the fact that she’s a lot of fun and a true inspiration!), is that she’s a big believer in experiential education.

Katherine McKnight at AMLE Conference

Dr. Katherine McKnight signing copies of her book at AMLE

You blew away the teachers in our session this past week at AMLE…can you tell our audience a little bit about your background?

I started as a teacher over 25 years ago in the Chicago public schools in the inner city: high school English and social studies. Along the way, as I was in the classroom for a little over ten years, I earned my masters and my PhD in reading and literacy. And one of the things I quickly learned working primarily with struggling readers is the more ways in which we can help kids experience text, the more likely they are to develop those essential reading skills and content knowledge.

What made you decide to experiment with improv in the classroom?

I had always been interested in using creative dramatics in the classroom. I was fortunate enough to be part of a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant teaching Shakespeare and that’s really where it became clear to me that using creative dramatics would be very helpful in helping kids to understand text and to also create text.

How did you get started?

My sister, Mary Scruggs, who is a co-author of The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom was the Head of the Writing Program at Second City in Chicago and the Director of Educational Programming. She and I have had many, many, many conversation about improvisation in the classroom and where it belongs and those conversations became the catalyst for having a more formalized inquiry about the positive effects of improv in the classroom and then how to actually integrate it in the teaching of content and then also developing literacy skills.

So Mary and I presented at a lot of different conferences to try out our crazy ideas that improv really was an effective pedagogical tool. And what we found was that going to conferences like the National Conference for Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and others, that teachers were hungry. Hungry for something like improvisation in the classroom that integrated all of the modalities of learning, of speaking, listening, visualizing, experiencing, social, and emotional. 

We found out very quickly from a research study that I led on using improvisation in the classroom in five different schools in Chicago was that it had very, very positive effects not only on the development of literacy skills and content knowledge but also in creating communities and a democratic classroom. Also in classrooms where they practice inclusion where there are students with special needs, with improvisation the classrooms became more of a cohesive and integrated community. 

Since then, we wrote a book and I still present on the topic, most recently at AMLE and again, it has that same effect—teachers really get how improvisation can develop those critical literacy skills: understanding, comprehending, and creating text while learning content knowledge. And above all, it’s actually fun! And we laugh and we have a good time doing it while engaging in rigorous learning and that’s really the hidden beauty of improv in the classroom.

Stay tuned for the next post in a series with Dr. Katherine McKnight: Guidelines for using improv in the classroom and links to excerpts from her book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom. Thanks for your valuable time, Katie!