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Help students learn by applying improv comedy principles in your classroom and keeping an open mindset to teaching and learning.

4 ways to create a comedic classroom

Help students learn by applying improv comedy principles in your classroom

Key points:

“In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants

The art of improv comedy is to create a scene from nothing but a suggestion. An actor can never say or do anything that will be wrong. There are no bounds to how a scene can develop. People often feel pressured to force something funny, but good improv only requires a genuine reaction.

The art of teaching is similar to the art of improv. Students can say something that might not align with the goal, but teachers have a choice of how to respond. It is easy to be resistant if students seem to deviate from the intended learning goal. That’s why I want to offer suggestions on how improv can help teachers be more flexible in accepting their reality.

Say “yes”

“Yes” is a mindset of openness to the moment’s offering. Only when we are in a state of perpetual “yes” are we truly open to another person. However, “yes” indicates acceptance, not necessarily agreement. In improv, a scene might start like this:

Wife: You never take me out on dates anymore.

Husband: I just took you to Chuck E. Cheese!

You can see in this example that the husband’s character accepts the establishment of a relationship gone stale by disagreeing with the wife’s claim.

In her LinkedIn Learning course, Harnessing Change to Unleash Your Potential, Anastasia Montejano shares a continuum of acceptance: deny, resist, explore, accept.

Consider where you might be on this continuum as a classroom teacher. You can apply a “Yes” mindset to accept the hand that’s been dealt. “Yes” might mean:

  • I’ve got 18 out of 25 students who are below grade level.
  • I work with a first-year co-teacher.
  • I work with a 21st year co-teacher.

When you can accept your reality with curiosity, everything becomes an opportunity.

Yes, and…

Once I’ve accepted what my scene partner has established, I can build on it. There’s a saying in improv: “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” I can’t play out an entire scene I’ve created in my head (cathedral) because my partner can’t read my mind. They can only react to what I say or do (brick). And–together–we get to build a unique cathedral. I have to actively listen to what my partner says before I respond instead of jumping in just to be funny.

Consider what improv in the classroom might look like. Do you find yourself waiting for students to be done sharing, or are you actively listening to what they are saying? The challenge for teachers is that we often know the cathedral (scope & sequence) that is being built. So how can we lay bricks alongside students and build a cathedral together?

One practical suggestion is to facilitate listening-centric experiences with students. I encourage you to use NWEA’s Formative Conversation Starters in your classroom.

Make statements

Improvisers can establish the location, characters, and relationship within the first three lines of dialogue. Actors do this by giving a gift, which is setting something up in the scene for other actors to react to.

Gifts are often through clear statements rather than questions. For example, instead of a character saying, “Where are we going?” they might say, “Ugh, I hate going to the mall this late.” The first scenario is wasted dialogue because it remains ambiguous. The second scenario establishes the characters are going to the mall at a late hour.

Additionally, providing specific details is often funnier than supplying generic information. For example, instead of saying, “Wow, I can’t believe you bought my dream car,” a character might say, “Wow, I’ve always wanted a Hyundai Sonata.” Something about the specificity of the car makes this scene funnier. No one’s dream car is a Hyundai Sonata (I think?). The character has offered their scene partner a gift with this detail.

In the classroom, teachers can provide gifts for students with clear expectations through learning statements and success criteria. Learning statements share the expectation of cognitive understanding. Success criteria share the expectation of actions to show their cognitive understanding.

Additionally, this requires teachers to be intentional with their assessments. Is it formative or summative? How will it inform them of what students know and don’t know? What will teachers do with the information from these assessments?

Less ambiguity decreases anxiety for learning. For teachers, getting transparent means getting honest about our own goals, and it helps us locate exactly where our students can join us in collaboration. If we can show our learners the game plan, they might be more inclined to take ownership of their academic growth.

There are no mistakes

In improv, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. This means that I must let go of what makes sense. A scene might play out that I’m a talking pencil trying to escape from a pencil case with my best friend, the highlighter. If I can surrender the rules of life, then I can play more freely and creatively.

After a performance, I evaluate my soft skills and not the content. In other words, I don’t reflect on what I should have said or done; rather, I focus on how well I supported my scene partner and embodied my presence. Maybe there’s a character I want to try out, or maybe I need to work on eye contact. These are the skills that will help me become a better improviser.

Similarly, as a teacher, I aim to listen to my students and understand their point of view. I help them explore ideas in different ways. I can create a culture where weEmbrace mistake making in math.

Don’t force the funny; the funnies will come

A judgment-free zone makes improv fun and safe. We get to create a world together with a “yes” mindset.

Learning should be fun. Teachers, consider how to apply these improv principles in your classrooms to create safety. It might not go as planned, but student learning will eventually come. To paraphrase Tina Fey, you and your students can discover beautiful happy accidents together along the way.

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