Classroom Management: Improv Scenes

For my next article in Classroom Management, I will discuss improv scenes and student engagement.  Teachers have posed many questions to us concerning management techniques.  I will answer this and then request other ideas from this community.  The questions are stated exactly as they have been presented to me.  I will do my best to interpret the questions and provide an answer from my background.   Just send us your ideas and thoughts and we will get the conversation started.  None of us are as smart as all of us, so jump in and share what you know relating to each question presented.  Creative classroom management can lead to creative thinkers.

Here is our next question. It affects 4th grade through high school practitioners:

"How do you pace improvisational or scene activities where most of class is in the audience?"

There are different approaches to improvisation (see my blog article, Five Approaches to Improvisation, to understand the different approaches).  This  management article addresses the question of class structure and engagement for the Basic Improvisational Performance approach.

For improv scenes based on the Basic Improvisational Performance approach I use a seven step process that works well with middle and high school.  At the end of the steps I will share some minor alterations I make for fourth and fifth grade students, useful as well for classes that are a bit more hesitant about improvisation work.

Step 1.  I plan.  I lay out an order of performance improvisational skills I want to teach the students (i.e. concentrating, listening, imitating, action, changing action, help/hinder, saying “yes,” building character, taking focus, giving focus, creating setting, etc.).   I then devise or select a drama skill building activity as a warm-up (some call these theater games but I stay away from the connotation of “game” which infers winners and losers to some young actors).  The warm up activity chosen is a strong one which introduces and reinforces the desired skill of the lesson.

Step 2.  The lesson begins with my introducing the skill, modeling, and explaining the warm up activity.

Step 3. Then, students find personal or partner space and quickly try out the skill and activity.  (5 minutes)

Step 4. Here the students engage in trying the skill out in front of their peers.  This is often a relay, where one or two actors at a time try out the skill/activity with my side coaching. (10 minutes) This activity happens very quickly in an high paced, energetic relay (think of a quick relay race) and takes very little time as each actor has their chance to demonstrate.

Step 5. Students are now divided into partners or teams and given directions for an improvisational scene which utilizes the chosen skill building activity (along with any skills learned from previous classes).   They are given a starting moment and simultaneously begin their scenes with my side coaching of the entire class.  (10-15 minutes)

Example:   if we are working on help and hinder (infusing and understanding conflict) I might ask all of the teams to begin in “help” mode as their characters (doctors) are operating on a patient, and then, upon a class signal from me, they must switch to hinder mode (keeping one doctor in their scene from completing their task).  Upon another class signal from me they all switch back to help mode.  Back and forth they switch from help to hinder until time is called.  Each time a different character is hindered by the rest of the team.  Each hindered character tries valiantly to carry on but cannot until help is signaled.  In this way, I coach and observe all of the teams.

Step 6.  The class gathers together and we discuss the purpose of the skill learned and what they noted about the skill and why it worked or did not work for their team.  They discuss how best the skill might be used in unpracticed, unplanned, “in the moment,” improvisational scenes. (5-10 minutes)

Step 7.  Teams volunteer to perform an improv scene in front of the class.  They are given a short scenario idea from the class or the instructor.  They try out a very short scene demonstrating the new skill knowing the instructor is there to side coach if needed.  Volunteer teams continue until the last five minutes when reflection is conducted and the class dismissed. It is perfectly acceptable not to have everyone share as everyone has had a chance to work throughout the class session, so you can let teams pass who are not comfortable with the skill yet.

The timings listed above are approximate and you should pace the lesson to fit your students.  This process keeps the observing students engaged, analyzing, and considering how they will alter their own work.  Students are highly eager to view each other’s work because they have tried it a couple of times, discussed it, and are keen to see how the skill will be handled by other actors.

Adaptation for fourth and fifth grades.  This age doesn’t always like the relay (step 4) where students first try the skill one at a time in front of the entire class.   If this is the case, have the students move into larger teams of 6 or 8 and share or relay only within those teams.   This is also a good adaptation for older actors who are new to performing.   For step 5, you might also give students at this age a moment for each team to plan their scene before presenting it.

Try this out with your next improv scene and let me know how it goes.

by Karen Erickson

Karen Erickson

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