One way to increase student engagement and decrease anxiety in the classroom is to combine mindfulness and improvisation 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 teachers trainers to show how to present material in a lively way, relate compassionately with students, and face challenging situations with empathy and clarity.
For example, 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, it 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 character.
A Few Games and Exercises: 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.
- 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.)
- If you have space or can move tables out of the way, ask students to stand up and pick a partner or assign partners.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 .
- Have them thank and share their reactions with their partner.
- 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.
- Exploring images: Show the class a photograph of a group of people in a social situation (or in a social studies class, a historical event) who are discussing, arguing, celebrating, or having some other type of interaction. Then ask the class to intuit what is going on and why. …
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