Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#REVERB12 (Day 5): What was your dream destination in 2012? For me, it was connecting meaningfully with my students...

What was your dream destination in 2012 and why? It can be a town, city, country or region -- real or imaginary -- and doesn't matter if you actually got there or not!

A DREAM DESTINATION for me in 2012 and all of my teaching career has been to connect in a meaningful way with my students, striding past the content and jumping right into relationship of a trusting give-and-take! YES, that is a magnificent DREAM DESTINATION for any teacher, and I arrived there in that juicy connection with my international students this year because of a new course I taught at the Georgia Tech Language Institute--IMPROVISATION!

After taking an improvisation class (improv for short) on-and-off since 2009, my director Karen Tucker, gave me the opportunity to teach improv for the first time in the Spring 2 Session. I had the good fortune to have my improv teacher, Lesly Fredman, help me develop the course, and come to several classes to help launch and instruct these "novel" classes for our English as a Second Language program.

THE FIRST IMPROV ESL CLASS. In the spring of 2012, I arrived at the beginning of my DREAM DESTINATION-- teaching accent enhancement and fluency to internationals at Georgia Tech's Language Institute by doing improvisation. They were an amazing group of students who took to the rules of improv like ducks to water! (photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Improv comes rich with a box of teaching tools and practices for expanding confidence and developing social CONNECTIONS. One of them is that we eliminate the barrier of the desk. To do improv, students must leave their chairs, get on their feet, and interact in close proximity with EVEN the teacher. 

One of the rules of improv is "make your partner look good," and that requires teamwork! Many of the exercises that we ESL improv "actors" do in my class focus on team building--working compassionately together with one another as a group. Whether it be playing "red ball, green ball" or "counting to twenty, or "building a machine," students discover physical and verbal clues to work together. As the teacher, I AM RIGHT THERE WITH THE STUDENTS doing the improv exercises--it has taken more than 20 years to arrive to this DREAM DESTINATION!

To TEACH improv, one must DO improv. And when the teacher DOES what she is TEACHING, the dynamics in the classroom are electric, and the results rewardingly surprising! The TEACHER, ME, LEARNS too! I become a coach, engaged with the team, and the classroom is our field of exploration, connection, and--COMMUNICATION! The target language is being used every day during the entire class period!

And I have discovered in a very short time that improv class gives students more than language skills, it gives them SKILLS FOR LIFEOn the morning of Thanksgiving 2012, this email (the student shall remain anonymous) greeted me: 

"I am X, a student from the Improv class. Wish you a happy Thanksgiving Day! I am writing to express my thankfulness in this special holiday.

I really enjoy the Improv class and I really appreciate your teaching.You have changed my life in this course This is the best class I have ever took. The most important skill in the class is "never be afraid to make mistakes." I used to be a shy boy and are afraid to make mistakes. But then I learned the improv rules and I am more willing to participate in the class activities. That is a big change for me ! I am more risk-taking in communication. I am more confident in communicating with strangers. I hope more and more people can make their life different after taking the improv class. Thank you for teaching us the improv rules. It is not only useful in English, but also helpful in life. Thank you, you are a brilliant teacher!"

WOW! This student email announced that I had truly arrived at my DREAM DESTINATION! Thank you any and every student who takes time to let his or her teacher know they have had an impact!

BUILDING TEAM SPIRIT. A wonderful aspect of the improv classroom is that students must learn to work together in order to "play off" of one another, saying "yes" to their partner, and striving to make their partner look good! I am pictured on the far left in white, and Lesly Fredman, my improv teacher is behind the woman dressed in purple on the left. (photo taken by one of the improv students, who for privacy reasons did not want to be pictured.)
VOWEL MACHINE. An excellent team building exercise! Here the students chose one of the 15 vowel sounds and built a machine which could run efficiently or slow down and collapse! It certainly was noisy! (photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)
ELEVATOR. To develop strategies for interacting with different people, students get lessons in building an array of characters. In this exercise, students get on and off an imaginary elevator. The new character getting on the elevator establishes the scene and all of the other students must follow the behavior. (photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)

HIGH STATUS-LOW STATUS. What does your body language look like when you feel powerful? And the reverse, when you don't? Using high status body language can empower and give you confidence even when you lack it. (photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)
THE PROFESSIONAL LOOK! As a result of using improvisation with these international students enrolled in an intensive English course before beginning their 2-year MBA course at Emory's Goizueta Business School, they willingly respond to a variety of prompts when posing for a class photo! The prompt for this photo was, "Look Professional"!  See the blog entry I wrote about teaching improv to this class in 2012.(photo by Harriet Ruskin)

IMPROV CLASS FALL I 2012. Improv class is fun. And, I have arrived at having fun teaching! Another great destination! This group was my second improv group. Lesly Fredman continued to assist me with some of my classes.(photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)

IMPROV CLASS FALL II 2012. To practice intonation and lengthening the vowel in the stressed words, students are reading Taylor Mali's poem, "I Could Be A Poet."  Afterwards, they were given five random nouns to create their own impromptu poem and demonstrating the language skills! (photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)

IMPROV HOMEWORK. Homework for improv class takes them outside the classroom to practice their improv skills with native speakers and other internationals! They are asked to extend the "scene" or interaction for as long as they can using the rules of improv.  (photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka Hallelujah Truth)
IMPROV WISDOM. To find out more about the rules of improv, check out Patricia Ryan Madson's book, Improv Wisdom. She made a career of teaching college students improv because of the important rules that it teaches for life. Here we were playing low status! (photo taken by one of the improv students, who for privacy reasons did not want to be pictured.)

THANKS TO KAT MCNALLY for HOSTING REVERB12 Hurray for Kat who lives in Melbourne, Australia, and blogs at "I Saw You Dancing." and is hosting Reverb12. Pilgrims, I suggest you go there and sign up to blog with others from around the world!


  1. Great validating comment from your student! You arrived at your dream destination, and continue to move deeper into it.
    Four months in Vermont this summer was my dream destination...away from the heat of GA to the cool nights up north near free-thinking artist friends, relatives,and childhood memories. I lived simply, close to nature, and a more silent landscape. The second dream destination was the hole I dug in Vermont...a deep one about my height as a test of my strength and as a way to think about mortality and transformation. I lined it in stacked marble shards, and made a hand-hewn, hand lashed branch ladder that extended way above the rim. I found that underground place to be a revelation of what lies beneath our feet. I became familiar with soil, stone, roots and small creatures.

  2. Dear See See, I love it that you are doing a micro-reverb in the comment section of my #reverb12! That is so cool! I thought of you when I was reflecting on my travel destination. I know how important it is for you to go north in the summer to your origins, and I also thought of your art work culminating in the hole you have been wanting to dig! Hurray for you!

    Thank you for your affirmations about my deepening travel as a teacher!