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Sunday, November 10, 2019

5 Improvisational Mindfulness Activities for Academic Classes

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Guest post by Ira Rabois

One way to increase student engagement and decrease anxiety in the classroom is to combine mindfulness and improvisational theatre exercises to teach subject matter. Improvisation develops a sense of trust in self and others, as well as whole-body thinking and awareness. It is also fun. 

Improvisational mindfulness activities can be used in most academic subjects. Personally, I have used them in English, Social Studies and Social Science classes. My colleagues have used them to teach foreign languages. They can also be used by teacher trainers to show how to present material in a lively way, relate compassionately with students, and face challenging situations with empathy and clarity.

In English classes, improvisation can be used to examine a character in a novel, develop a plot for a short story, or explore the meaning of an essay. In history or social studies classes, it can be used to develop empathy and in-depth understanding of an event in history or explore the meaning of concepts like freedom, compassion, nationalism or the need for equal rights for all. 

In any class, improvisation can be used to encourage class participation or to assess student understanding. For example, in a class on psychological literature, I asked students to take turns playing the main 3 characters in the novel Ordinary People in an imagined family therapy session. The school counselor played the therapist, and I observed the session and took notes on how the students’ words and gestures showed how well they understood and embodied their characters.

A Few Games and Exercises 

The following activities can help your students become more aware of: 
  • their physical sensations, 
  • how they interact with others, and
  • how they're connected to other people through sharing the same types of emotions and reactions.

Before you introduce any of these activities to your students, practice the technique yourself several times and imagine how each of your students will respond. You may need to modify in order to better suit your students and your context.

1. Mirroring

Mirroring can be a wonderful way for students to develop a subliminal understanding of and ability to harmonize with others as well as a way to pick up on body messaging. (See my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking, page 63.)
a. If you have space or can move tables out of the way, ask students to stand up and pick a partner (or you can assign partners). 
b. Have the pairs stand with feet shoulder width apart, facing each other, hands up and open, slightly in front, with hands facing those of their partner.  
c. Imagine that the surface of the mirror is halfway between you. Pick one of you to be the leader, the other mirrors. Move slowly, without breaking eye contact or breaking the mirror. An example of breaking the mirror would be if the leader’s right hand goes outward, toward her partner and past the partner’s left hand. 
d. After a few minutes, have them switch who leads. After a minute or two, before they tire, switch again⎼ and then again. After switching two or three times, of shorter and shorter intervals, tell them to move with no leader. 
e. After a minute or so with no leader, ask them to stop and close their eyes. Lead them in a body scan or an exercise in mindfulness of feeling and sensation. 
f. Have them thank and share their reactions with their partner. 
g. Ask the whole class how difficult it was to follow their partner without losing eye contact and if they were able to move freely without a leader.  Discuss the importance of being able to move with awareness in tune with others.

2. Living Pictures

Option 1: Act out a photograph or painting

Show the class an image of a group of people in a social situation or during a historical event. They could be discussing, arguing, celebrating, or having some other type of interaction. Then ask the class to intuit what is going on and why. 

  • You can ask student volunteers to take the body posture and position of the people in the photo and try to feel what the posture and position might be communicating.
  • Ask: Who are the people? What is their relationship? What are they saying to each other? What might they be feeling?

Option 2: Create a living portrait

Alternatively, you can have your students create a scene from history or literature.

  • In an English class, pick 2 or 3 main characters from a scene in a novel. 
  • In a social studies class, you might use actual historical figures.
  • Ask for volunteers to “play” the character.  Assume the body posture and gestures of the fictional character and thus re-create in the classroom a representation of the scene you are studying. 
  • You could have one or two volunteers sculpt the characters, if your students are comfortable with this. Otherwise, the characters can move themselves into position, guided by suggestions from the rest of the class.

3. Embodied Words
a. Pick three student volunteers and give each a piece of paper with a contrasting word printed on it like Yes, No, Maybe. (Or you could use vocabulary words they've been studying.) You could actually have students act out the word (see part b and part c) or just answer the questions (skipping to part d). 
b. Once they’ve read and digested the word, ask them to walk around in the front of the room, just feeling the word, letting the word meaning develop inside. 
c. Have them say the word as they walk, exploring the word’s meaning.  
d. Ask: What might a person who often says this word be like? What would he or she look like or how would he/she walk and gesture? How might she/he be feeling? 
e. Interact. One at a time, say the word to the other actors. Explore how the words motivate you to relate. Show it. Then engage in a conversation using only the one word.

4. Word concepts

With older students (secondary school, university, or adult learners), you can do the above with more complex concepts, ones that relate yet possibly contrast, like freedom, law, and responsibility. Or pick a concept like nationalism and ask the class to list words that the concept brings to mind.
  • In order to aid memory and allow students to relax if the discussion has brought up strong feelings, have them close their eyes and focus on their breath.
  • Once they have quieted, ask them to focus on their shoulders and notice how their shoulders expand as they breathe in, settle down, relax, and let go as they breathe out.

5. Breathing exercise
a. Introduce the exercise by asking students if they want to learn a way to clear away hurtful feelings, strengthen the clarity of their mind and the power of their breathing. If the response is positive, talk about the health benefits and psychological benefits of breathing more deeply. You could even have them do research on the topic.  
b. Have them put their hands on their belly and practice breathing in deeply enough to move their hands. Ask them to breath in to the count of 2, breath out to the count of 4. 
c. Ask them: could you breathe out even more slowly?  
d. Ask: Can you hear the exhalation, or the natural sound you make when you relax and the air passes from the belly, to the chest, vocal cords, and out? Make the sound like ohmmmmm or aummmm. 
e. Now let’s do it together. Stand up and form a circle. (Depending on your students' comfort level, they can hold hands.) Breathe in—then breathe out, at your own pace and for as long as it is comfortable, letting the natural sound of ohmmmm or of the air passing out be heard. Say Om 3 times.
f. At the end, stand still, in silence, listening to the last students' finish and the quiet that settles on the group.

I used this breathing exercise for several years at the beginning of the period in drama classes, and one time in an English class after we received news that a student from the class was injured in an auto accident. You might use it after a difficult incident in order to reconnect, or to start classes in a way that develops group harmony, strengthens the breath and clears the mind.  

Improvisation, especially combined with mindfulness, can help turn a classroom into a supportive, empathic environment where students are more engaged, thoughtful and joyful. In times of great anxiety and stress, such practices are greatly needed and appreciated by both students and teachers.

If you’re looking for more information about improvisational techniques, I recommend the following books: 

About the Author

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner.  While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching

Related Posts: 

Emotion Improv: an Exercise for Developing Mindfulness of Feelings

Exploring Our Humanity Through Mindfulness: What Our Bodies Can Teach Us

Trying on Different Shapes: Mindfulness of Mood and Posture

Using Mindfulness and Empathic Imagination in Teaching Myths