Improv in the Classroom

Post date: Apr 8, 2019 8:05:38 PM

Turtle Talk with Crush is one of Disney's best kept secrets. It is a digital puppet show that takes place in the Animation building in the Hollywood area of Disney California Adventure. The technology used never ceases to amaze me. I've seen the show probably 20 times and I still don't know how they manage to pull off the live digital puppetry. Crush's face shows proper emotion, he moves to proper locations and it is all seamless and happens in context. When a baby cries and you see Crush's face contort before asking "Did anyone hear that very angry dolphin?" it is one of those powerful Disney How-Did-They-Do-That? moments. That is very cool but not the reason I keep going back. I've seen the show as many times as I have because it is never the same show. It is improv-based using audience interaction to make for a new, and frequently hilarious, experience every time.

There's something very cool about being part of a show that will never be repeated. Disney used to have an improv team known as D.U.H. - the Department of Untapped Hilarity that performed a few times a day on the stage in the Hollywood Backlot. I would frequently come to the park after lunch and sit down for the 1 PM DUH show and literally no do anything else until 5 PM after their last show. I had a great time being part of the show offering my ideas that they performers then improvised off of. I, being a perfect middle schooler, tried to throw them off with the most random ideas I could - bochi ball for a sport, cardboard box for a hat, etc. They always rolled with it and made it fun. The shows were incredibly funny but the uniqueness of each the emphasis on audience participation made it endlessly repeatable.

As someone who puts on the same show at least four times a day I see the importance of making sure they last one if just as engaging as the first. Can we use improv to enhance the experiences for all our classes? I think we can!

One of my favorite little activities is part of each of our Unit Walkthrus. These are simple introduction activities where students look at graphics relating to the upcoming unit and answer basic comprehension questions about them. The idea is to begin to create a visual schema for the students. They aren't particularly fun and by the end of the day I'm not very interested in participating along with the students. So, I added a part with improvised interactions. The first question always asks the students to describe an image in great detail. I started doing this early in my career when I found out that many of our EL kids were not moving forward on their EL levels because they struggled with descriptions. On the old CELDT they were shown a picture and told to describe it. They could, and usually did, get the description right but didn't write enough to show their overall level had improved.

The improv part comes when I have them read their descriptions back to me. I take their descriptions and draw them exactly as they read them. If they leave out a piece of the description I just interpret it as I see fit. This leads to awesome drawings like:

Amazing right?

Some of their details that led to this monstrosity were:

"She has a bun but like in the back of her head."

"She has layers of clothes on."

"There's like a pattern on her dress."

"She has a double, no wait triple, chin."

"She has a crown that's like 3 upside-down ice cream cones."

"Her nose is huge."

"She has two strings of hair that come down past her shoulders."

"She has really big eyebrows way up on her forehead."

It is always hilarious to see the kids hesitant to share their details at first and then progressively become more interested as they are sure their detail will somehow make the drawing right. I also love hearing the groans at this point in the year when students give a really vague detail. The kids know that I'm going to make is something absurd to fill in the gaps. They've gotten much better at their descriptions throughout the year as a result. Every period comes out differently. I take pictures and share with the other periods as they always want to know what they missed. That's the power of providing a unique show!

Activities like this can get boring very fast. Describing a picture isn't exactly the most stimulating experience. However, by using the elements of improv and playing off the audience it becomes something my kids look forward to all year long and so do I.

Improv also can play a less formal role in our classrooms. Being willing, and able, to roll with a random question that comes up in class, or my favorite, jumping into a student's conversation in the halls, can result in some uniquely funny experiences.

How else can we use improv to keep our classroom fresh throughout the day? I'd love to hear more ideas!

In case you're curious, here's the image they were describing.