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Improving Through Improv

Laughter echoes as students stand in a circle, trying to one-up each other in a “name and movement” game.

Then silence ensues as they thoughtfully “tableau” to form a living picture — of a tape measure.

It’s all part of a typical — or atypical? — day in Ryan Welsh’s English classroom.

“In Dr. Welsh’s class, we almost always use some form of improvisation,” said 10th-grader Jada Jant. “We warm up and get comfortable and ‘in the zone’ at the beginning of every class.”

As a teacher, improvisation gives Welsh the framework for thinking about the way he interacts with students and helps them to interact with each other.

“We use improvisation to warm up for the engaged kinds of collaboration we undertake as a routine part of our classwork,” he said. “Improvisation is the best way to develop rapport and ensemble.”

“‘The ensemble’ is a phrase that Mr. Welsh uses very frequently, meaning our group of independent thinkers who all combine to create the best ideas possible,” said 10th-grader Hannah Garfinkel.

In fact, Hannah thinks the word “class” fails to adequately define them. “I feel that by bonding over games and activities we become less of a class and more of a cohesive group — an ensemble.”

“We all support one another in the learning process,” said Welsh. “That feels good, and I think students enjoy feeling supported by each other.”

“It also happens to be really fun,” he added. “We build energy and focus in ways that end up being pretty hilarious.”

Welsh often starts improvising with his classes at the start of the school year. They may play games and use exercises to help them embody and practice the skills and habits of mind necessary for innovative, communicative creativity.

“These games help us get in the mood for learning,” said 10th-grader Gigi Pendergrass. “We have noticed when we play these games before a discussion, everyone is tuned in and ready to participate.”

Set of Skills

Welsh began improvising as an undergraduate with Duke University Improv, where he made folks laugh while raising money for pediatric cancer research.

“Pretty quickly, I realized the skill set I was developing with this amazing group of creative performers helped me in most every other area of my life,” he recalled.

When Welsh earned his doctorate in curriculum and instruction at UNC-Charlotte, his dissertation was titled “On Improvisation, Learning and Literacy.”

“Afterward, I had this feeling that I had somehow not connected enough of that work with the practical day-to-day efforts of teachers,” he said. “I wanted to do something that offered a practical application of the theory I had been building for the last five years.”

Welsh applied for the Brian Eichenbrenner Master Teacher Award, a permanently endowed fund to help Upper School teachers bring more knowledge to their classrooms to inspire in their students a passion for learning. The grant allowed Welsh to pilot a version of his practical application.

Thus, “Serving the Scene” was born.

Serving the Scene

Welsh’s efforts led to a three-day professional development experience this passed summer designed to help fellow educators form an ensemble of collaboration, creativity and community. By doing so, the teachers would cultivate the skills necessary to build similar ensembles with classes of students, he said.

“When everyone is committed to one another and focused on doing our best on behalf of one another, we can go places and learn things collectively that we would not have the chance to experience individually,” said Welsh.

The participants used design thinking methods to consider and create experiences they need in order to develop rapport and a sense of ensemble with their students.

“We engaged with and practiced the principles of improvisational theater. In particular, we worked on understanding and deploying a ‘yes and’ mindset,” said Welsh.

“The concept of ‘yes and’ is what improv is all about,” said 2nd-grade teacher Ann Hannah. “You affirm what the person said and then add your take to his or her idea.”

It is a concept Emily Carrara finds useful in her roles as both varsity volleyball head coach and 6th-grade Physical Education teacher.

“As a coach, developing leaders is very important. To help my captains and team interact, we ‘yes and’ one another … to help push forward toward our goals,” said Carrara. “I also ‘yes and’ my students — it gives them more confidence … it shows the importance of teamwork and support.”

Such concepts are important, said Gigi. “As we grow up, we are going to need to know how work with other people and be able to solve problems that we face,” she said.

“Dr. Welsh is teaching us things on a small scale that we’re going to see in the real world,” she added. “He’s teaching us people skills that are fundamental and necessary in life.”

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