When you think of improv, you probably imagine comedy queens Tina Fey and Amy Poehler killing the laughs without a script. That can make the idea of using improv in the classroom pretty intimidating. But while improv is about thinking fast—there’s so much more depth to it than comedy. And that depth makes improv a perfect learning tool for both students and teachers.
“Improv is about being creative with our thinking,” explains Jessica Rogers, a veteran eighth grade language arts teacher in Chicago Public Schools, “It’s another way to develop academics and teach social-emotional learning. It supports empathy and different learning styles.”
As a performer and improv instructor with The Second City’s Training Center, Improv for Creative Pedagogy, and The iO’s Training Center, Jessica teaches other educators how to use improv in the classroom. “Improv encourages listening, team building, and brainstorming,” says Jessica. Those central tenets, along with cooperative learning, make improv a fun and impactful addition to a learning environment.
So you’re not an SNL comedian, and you don’t have to be. Check out these easy ways to start using improv in the classroom.
1. Break the ice
When introducing improv in the classroom, have everyone in your group form a circle. “Now everybody can see each other. I always make it clear that ‘You’re part of this whole. And we cannot function without everybody’s complete participation and attention,’” explains Jessica.
Then play a basic name game. Go around the circle. At each person’s turn, they say their name with a physical gesture. Everybody in the group then mirrors it.
“Once everyone’s had a turn, applaud them for successfully completing their first improvised piece,” says Jessica. “Nobody came into the circle knowing the motion that they were going to do. Everybody had an opportunity to take the focus and everybody had an opportunity to give their focus.” And by mimicking gestures, everyone experiences the group listening to and agreeing with their contribution.
The takeaway is you can’t mirror those in the circle if you’re not paying attention and staying in the moment. “This basic game hits on eye contact, acceptance, listening, and it reminds us that we don’t have to be funny for everybody to come along,” says Jessica. “We just need to support and trust—not only our partners but ourselves.”
2. Improve communication
Improv in the classroom builds non-verbal communication skills. It helps you read others and recognize what they’re saying via their gestures and facial expressions. It helps you understands your own body language so you know if your words match your movements. Are you giving appropriate eye contact? Are you truly listening?
Jessica suggests a basic communication exercise where everybody sits in a circle to tell a story—but each person only contributes one word. “To make this a successful story, everyone must resist the temptation to be funny,” she says. Everyone has to fill a role, even if it’s just contributing a “boring” conjunction or article. “You might not be able to give that exciting SAT word,” Jessica says, “You must listen to connect the ideas, help the story make sense, and set everybody up for success.”
You can even connect this activity to a literacy lesson by writing the story out on the board without punctuation or correct grammar. “Then everyone must write it out properly and make all the corrections,” suggests Jessica. The group activity can produce the beginning of the story, then the students can get into groups to write the middle and end. “What you’ll see is how every group started at the same place, and how differently each journey ended.”
Another game that teaches good communication is “Yes, and … .” You start with one sentence. Jessica suggests, “We’re planning a party.” Then two students take turns contributing to the story, beginning each turn with “Yes, and … .” The listener can’t plan ahead, they have to wait to hear what their partner says. And the speaker has to provide enough information because no questions can be asked.
Here’s an example of how a “Yes, and …” exchange might go:
- “We’re throwing Sally a party.”
- “Yes, and it’s going to be a baby shower.”
- “Yes, and Sally is having a girl.”
- “Yes, and since she has two boys, this is very exciting.”
- “Yes, and we can buy her pink dresses.”
The listening, sharing, and non-verbal reading skills these improv games teach are crucial to great communication.
3. Revamp reviews
Improv forces you out of your comfort zone and makes everyone a critical part of the group, even if they wouldn’t otherwise work together. To be successful, you have to learn how to find your voice and feel confident exercising it. It teaches you how to support others and how to know when to ask for help. Jessica suggests that a good game for building these skills is “Pass the Snap.” One person snaps their fingers and whoever they make eye contact with “catches” the snap and passes it along.
You can modify this game and use it to review for tests and other memory based lessons. Jessica uses a geography lesson as an example, “Pass the State Capitols.” “The first person in the group says ‘Florida’ and then makes eye contact with the person they want to answer with ‘Tallahassee.’ That person will send, say, Illinois, to someone else and the pattern is developed from there,” she says.
The game not only reviews subject material, but as Jessica points out, teaches eye contact, non-verbal communication, and inclusion. “Everyone is working together and helping each other learn.”
4. Dig deeper into learning
Breaking your class into groups for improv is a great way to mix up your routine and give your students a brain break. One of Jessica’s favorites is an exercise called “Panel of Experts.” On the stage, Jessica and her improv team call for a random topic from the audience. Then they become experts in something like hamster farming.
“It’s an opportunity for improvisers to assert their brilliance and recognize that there are no mistakes in improvisation. You are the expert in this world you are creating. If hamster farming is a lucrative business where one must adopt hamsters—it is what it is. That’s the fact.”
So, how do you bring that into the classroom? Jessica uses it when her class reads To Kill a Mockingbird each year. She breaks her students into groups and assigns each a character. Cooperatively, the students need to dig deep into the character’s personality, physical traits, and story. The goal is to understand the character so you’d know how they’d react to certain situations.
“Then, I ask for a panel of six experts—I bring up one Scout, one Jem, one Miss Maudie, and so on. The rest of the class then asks the ‘characters’ questions and the students answer in character because they’re the ‘expert.’”
This game helps students empathize with the characters on a deeper level or like Atticus says, “Step into their skin.” It’s also an assessment tool to gauge how well students know the characters, how closely they’ve read the novel, and what they’re taking away.
“It’s great fun, but it is improvised. You can try to be as prepared as you want, but you don’t know what questions are going to come from the other groups,” explains Jessica.
5. Build a lifelong skill
If there’s one main takeaway from improv in the classroom, Jessica says it’s learning to be present. When teachers are present, they’re able to stay flexible and spontaneous in the classroom and with their colleagues.
“Our job as teachers is to set others up for success. And what I teach to other teachers, administrators, and students about improv all comes down to good life skills,” explains Jessica. “Improv teaches how to take in information and participate in a conversation. That spills over into college admission preparations, entering the job force, or giving public speaking presentations. In a world filled with smartphones and extended screen time, listening is not a strong suit anymore. With improv, you have to listen in order to be successful.”
If you would like to talk more with Jessica about using improv in the classroom, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.