This is the second post in a series of three blog posts with Dr. Katherine McKnight. We spoke with Katie, EF Group Leader, teacher and author of The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom, about how she got started using improv in the classroom and why it is so beneficial. The great thing is, you don’t have to be an expert to get started using improv in your classrooms.
Katie, can you help us understand some of the basic principals of improv? What do teachers need to know before using some improv exercises in their classrooms?
This is why improvisation works in the classroom: To be an improviser (and this is true of improvisers who perform on “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or “Saturday Night Live”) they have very similar skills to what we want kids to see. For example, meaningful study of improvisation requires discipline, collaboration, social interaction, A LOT of practice, critical thinking skills, analytical thinking skills, intuitive thinking skills, and also creative thinking skills. These are the kinds of skills that we want our kids to have. Common Core’s latest educational initiative really promotes this high level thinking. Improvisation is the ideal pedagogical approach or strategy for teaching and learning because it’s inherent in structure and flexibility.
When you get started with improvisation, building an ensemble and building a community is absolutely essential. There are a couple of basic tenants that you can apply in your classrooms as you start that will also help build classroom community.
Yes And: What that means is whatever I bring to the table or whatever I suggest is not negated. It’s embraced and from there we build on it so it’s not rejected. If I said to you, “Oh, here’s a notebook” and I hand you an imaginary notebook and you say to me “That’s not a notebook, it’s banana!” you’ve already rejected what I presented and then we have nowhere to go. In the improv world, that is just taboo. So instead when I said “Here’s a notebook” and then maybe my theme partner might say “And did you see there’s a hidden wall inside?” There we have something to build on because they’ve acknowledged the fact that it’s a notebook and there’s something else there. It’s a community and we want to build on each other’s ideas.
Each exercise has a point of focus or a point of concentration which you’ll see in a few different exercises like One Word Story and Panel of Experts. So what happens is there are loosely structured exercises except for that point of focus or concentration. We don’t need to give a lot of rules or tell students what to do. For example, with One Word Story we could say “Hey, you’re going to create a story one word at a time” to a group of 8-9 students and that’s their focus. Viola Spolin, the foundational artist of improvisation said “Let the games or let the exercises teach themselves”; kids learn a lot when we create structures in which they can explore and they can experiment and they can engage in critical thinking to solve a problem which is much of what improvisation is about. Here is a point of concentration (create a One Word Story) and as students are working through that, they may discover all kinds of things like how a word can shift a story, how syntax and semantics really impact the development of a text, how to work with each other, how to listen to each other, sequencing, predicting, reflecting and high levels of comprehension which are part of a seemingly simple exercise of creating a story one word at a time. That’s what I really love about improv…at first it may seem that it’s a bunch of simple exercises but there’s a lot of complexity in and layers to those simple exercises that force you to develop those skills.
Stay tuned for our third blog post with Katie, which will include two improv exercises as well as excerpts from Katie’s book, The Second City Guide to Improv in the Classroom.