Improv and Project-Based Learning: The Background

I love using games to build concepts and an understanding of the principles of improv in the classroom.  The applications are vast and impressive...and my experience has only scratched the surface of their possibilities.  Whether used as stand-alone activities or as a part of a workshop, I will always integrate improv games into my teaching.

However, I've been eager to explore a different approach to the use of improvisational theater in the classroom as well: project-based learning through a collaboratively-created context.  In her seminal book on improv, Improvisation for the Theater, Viola Spolin recommends using actual props, costumes and a specific stage space for young children.  Although many 5-8 year-olds naturally play using space object (mime) props,  costumes, and settings, the abstract nature of these representations is difficult for some in any situation; they are challenging for many when presented in a structured classroom activity.

Jeff Cresswell's book, Creating Worlds, Constructing Meaning: The Scottish Storyline Method, describes both the philosophy and methodology of this PBL approach to learning.  He provides detailed descriptions of Storyline units, including his reflections about the process and the students' broad and deep learning.  My team of K/1 colleagues is currently embarking upon a Storyline of "an ideal classroom / ideal school" in which each of our five classes discusses and then creates a frieze of our dream classroom, and then our students develop characters to interact within this space.  I'll be discussing our experiences with this process on this blog in the coming weeks.

Lastly, my work with Storyline is guided by Dorothy Heathcote and her Mantle of the Expert approach to education.  For the next week, I'll be posting quotations and my thoughts related to Heathcote and Bolton's Drama for Learning.  Here is Gavin Bolton's summary of Heathcote's principles upon which her work is based:
"- If you are in teacher education, you must continue to work directly with that you are constantly practicing what you are asking others to do and evolving theoretical principles from that practice.
- Drama is about making significant meaning.
- Drama operates best when a whole class together shares that meaning making.
- The teacher's responsibility is to empower and the most useful way of doing this is for the teacher to play a facilitating role (i.e., the teacher operates from within the dramatic art, not outside it).  The regular teacher/student relationship is laid aside for that of colleague/artist."

These principles are being played out in my classroom in a number of ways.  This morning, my students began developing their characters for our Dream Classroom Storyline.  For some of them, the concept of creating a character who was not borrowed from a movie or book--and who was not directly modeled after a fellow classmate--was a brand-new task, something they had previously never considered doing.  They each began by choosing a skin color for their character, followed by painting a person stencil on card stock.  (They did this to represent themselves at the beginning of the year, as well.)  Next week, they'll finish designing this person and add a craft stick onto the back to make it into a puppet to use in classroom dramatizations throughout our Storyline experience.  At another center, they completed a cloze paragraph describing this character...and what others should know about her/him.

These characters will develop and evolve as we move forward through this work.  I cannot wait to see how they influence my students' storytelling and problem-solving: in puppet shows, in oral storytelling, in writing, in visual art and design, in skits... The possibilities for our group of kindergarteners and first-graders are nothing short of magical.


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