Dramatic Improv Brings Unexpected Insights to the Classroom
Improv isn’t just a technique for theater and comedy. At its core, dramatic improvisation is about being a creative and analytic thinker. It can be a powerful tool for students to gain a deeper understanding of the curriculum while developing essential interpersonal skills like empathy, self-awareness, open-mindedness, and more. To set the stage for student success, drama and music teacher Ms. Holly Florian is bringing the magic of improv to our Lower School classrooms.
A Student-Driven Approach
Students learn best through memorable experiences driven by their own curiosity. As students physically act out a historical event or character from a book, that mental and physical connection creates a lasting impression. By nature, dramatic improv is inquiry-based as students guide the direction of each activity. It generates rather than transmits knowledge.
An “aha” Moment With Wonder
Ms. Florian has been working closely with our 5th graders as they read the novel, Wonder. Wonder tells the story of Auggie, a young student born with a facial deformity who struggles with being the new kid at his first mainstream school. For the culminating lesson of this unit, 5th graders write a chapter of the book from a new character’s perspective, their own. Ms. Florian took the class through several exercises to enrich their understanding of the story and its characters with the ultimate goal of improving their writing.Ms. Florian asked the class to act out a busy hallway at school on Auggie’s first day. As a group, they discussed how different characters might behave and then improvised several versions of the scene using their own interpretation. Ms. Florian then assigned specific students to the role of Auggie. And without telling the rest of the class, she chose one student to act as Jack Will, a boy who stands up for Auggie in the book. As our 5th graders took on these personas, Auggie shrunk in size and didn’t make eye contact. The bigger group of students pointed and whispered, making comments while others chimed in. The student who stood up for Auggie could barely be heard.
“It was this really intense moment. The kids said they couldn’t tell who was standing up for Auggie. They realized that it is hard to hear and see an upstander if everyone else goes along with the crowd. Those are the kinds of moments you can’t plan for. They created the experience themselves so it had a real impact on them.” — Ms. Florian
Complex Ideas in a Framework of Fun
Ms. Florian also used dramatic improvisation techniques with our second graders to explore The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and mystery as a genre. After demonstrating how to step into the shoes of each character, Ms. Florian guided the classes through improvised scenes and encouraged them to act as detectives to solve the mystery.
“We acted out multiple scenes from different viewpoints. We talked about what we actually know as opposed to assumptions based on stereotypes like the ‘scary big bad wolf.’ It’s about encouraging them to shift perspectives and think about all sides. And they really love stepping into these characters and scenes!” — Ms. Florian
Layers of Learning
What may look like play from afar is a many-layered, multisensory experience. As our students build critical thinking and comprehension skills, they grasp abstract concepts in ways that are meaningful to them. They learn to examine events and people through different lenses, internalizing empathy and compassion for others while tapping into their natural curiosity. These kinds of lessons build character and confidence while making learning a ton of fun.