Curricular Integration: Essay Writing

Sometimes, I'm in the middle of a lesson and need to adapt my plan to meet the needs of my class on this particular day.  However, sometimes I find the need to adapt an existing activity--or create a new game to support the needs of my curricular or social objectives.  Hooray for improv!  This approach to teaching not only offers a plethora of options for activities to integrate into content areas, but it values risk-taking on the part of the educator as well.  As a professional, you can and should challenge yourself with the unknown.  Make something up.  Try it out.  This is being an improvisational teacher.

A while back, we were in the middle of writing response-to-literature essays.  I did not want to read a bunch of book reports or book reviews.  Rather, I wanted to nudge the class towards substantive analysis with clear support. What I received for Round One was a collection of pretty mediocre essays.  Improv to the rescue!

I couldn't remember an appropriate game to meet my needs.  So...I just made one up.  That's part of the beauty of teaching using improvisational theatre.  The whole process supports me in thinking outside the box to develop the right, game-based approach to meet my needs.  Trust me...this was not an elegant, engaging performance game.  My goals for this piece were simple: Provide a clear thesis statement and illustrate support that's relevant to the thesis.
Here's what I came up with on that morning a couple of months ago:
In groups of three, they all come up with a one-sentence thesis/opinion statement for the topic I've given them ( lunch at school or something).  They stand in a line and say their statement in unison.  Then each player says a statement of support beginning with the word "because".  While each support statement is being said, the rest of the group illustrates that statement with a tableau/frozen pose on different levels.  They end their "scene" (or mini-essay) by repeating the thesis statement in a line.
No, these were not amazing scenes.  Yes, they did get smoother and more interesting to watch the second time around.  And yes, we soon moved on to a new game which illustrated another key point...and was awfully fun to watch.  This is the beauty of the warm-up game--even if it's not all that interesting to watch, it's helpful and then over before you know it.

This is an absurd, super-fun game which I love to play, am delighted to watch up on stage, and is a fantastic way to experiment with being more concise.  Getting to the point is helpful in all writing, but it is essential when composing and revising a thesis statement for an essay.  The students start out with a scene, and then you can move on to applying this skill to their written work.

Here is how the game is played: Split the class into pairs and give them a scenario for a scene.  Tell them their scene will be timed--it has to fit into a two-minute time slot.  After the scenes are over, ask everyone to replay their scenes (simultaneously, as in the first round).  However, this time their scenes will be only one minute long.  Repeat this process, but cut the time in half again: to 30 seconds.  Then cut it to 15 seconds.  Finally, cut them to seven seconds.  They will be absolutely ridiculous at this point...and very fun to watch.

Debrief with the group to find out what they noticed.  Ask how it felt to cut it down.  Ask which scene they felt worked the best.  Then ask them to make the leap to essay/thesis statement writing.  My students felt that the 30-second scenes were the most concise without losing the essential meaning.  We then rewrote their original essay thesis statements, shooting for the "30-second versions".  With this common experience and vocabulary, my entire class was able to understand the value in reducing unnecessary verbiage while retaining the core meaning.  Their resulting writing was far more elegant and interesting to read.