George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Three teenage students in a classroom, standing side by side, are holding another student and giving a thumbs up.

In the age of technology, when students use online databases for home research and when Khan Academy tutorials personalize learning, why does the 21st-century student come to school?

They come to see their friends. They come for the community. They come to be part of a classroom culture that motivates them to stick with the online tutorial and write that last paragraph in an essay.

For my first seven years of teaching, I spent the first week discussing class norms, dutifully posting group expectations on the wall, and asking that students sign an agreement to follow them in an effort to "determine class culture."

Turns out there's a quicker, more fun way to establish a positive atmosphere. With a little reinforcement, this positive culture lasts past the honeymoon of the first two weeks and into the second quarter when the gloves come off.

The secret is improv games. I call them warm-ups and play them once a week at the beginning of class. Many students tell me that warm-ups are the best part of their day. On one feedback form, Lacie wrote:

I love the warm-up games! They woke me up and got me ready to learn in class. Last year, I had a falling out with a girl from another table group, but this year because of the warm-ups, we were able to laugh and move on. We even worked together on our final project.
Four students standing together; two are reading while the other two are trying to distract them by striking funny poses

Day 1 Goals

  1. Getting students laughing with each other
  2. Showing that risk-taking is rewarded and failure is not punished

Eye Scream

Stand in a circle and look down at someone else's shoes. On the count of three, we'll all look up at the person whose shoes we chose. If that person is looking back at you, you both scream or yell out loud. Then heads go down and we play again.

Ten

Stand in a circle and look down at your own shoes. The goal is counting to ten as a group. No one can count two numbers in a row or talk at the same time as another person. If we make a mistake, the group just resets by kicking out one leg into the circle and saying, "Aoooggha!" like the horn of an old-timey truck. Then we start counting from one again. Too easy? Count to 20!

Day 2 Goals

  1. Showing that risk taking is rewarded
  2. Building listening into our class culture through mirroring back what the speaker has said.

Beep

Stand in a circle. I'll pass the beep to the person next to me, who'll pass it to the person next to her, etc. We pass the beep by looking at each other, breathing in together, and saying, "Beep" together as we exhale. It's harder than you think! Closely watch people's body language to read when they're going to say, "Beep." If you miss the joint beep, try again until you get it! Continue passing the beep until it goes around the circle.

One Word

Stand in a circle and think of your favorite word. It could be a small word like rain or a big word like pusillanimous. Think of a gesture to accompany your word. For rain, I let my fingers mimic raindrops. One at a time, we take turns saying our word and gesture to the person next to us, who passes it around the circle, each person mirroring what he or she saw and heard, until your word and gesture come back to you. Then we pass the next person's word.

Four students standing together, one striking a pose with arm raised and the others holding fingers to their lips to shhhh

Three-Sentence Story

Stand in a circle as we take turns making up a three-sentence story. The first person offers a beginning like, "Jack walked into the lunchroom." The second person, after listening, adds a middle sentence like, "His chocolate milk spilled all over the floor and wet his white shirt." The third person adds a conclusion like, "He laughed off this terrible case of the Mondays."

Day 3 Goal

  • Building group dynamics of "yes and," meaning that you can take a risk and your group will support you in it.

Yes, Let's Do It!

Stand behind your chair for shouting out creative ways, popcorn style, to finish this phrase: "We should _______!" For example, "We should all ride a dragon!" or "We should brush our teeth!" or "We should high five our neighbor!" Whatever is said, as a class we respond, "Yes! Let's do it!" Then we act out doing that thing with wild enthusiasm until another "We should _______!" replaces it. I recently had an epic invisible ping pong game with a student, and it was so engrossing that no one shouted any more suggestions. You have to do whatever you shout out, so only suggest fun things.

Tableau

Invite five volunteers to the front of the room. They'll take turns striking any pose, and the other four will assume the same pose. This is mirroring. Once everybody's had a turn, we go through the line again, but this time, instead of mirroring, players try adding onto the human picture that the first person makes. So if student A starts off by sitting cross legged, student B could use his or her body to shade the meditator or lie down as a rug under student A's feet. Everyone adds onto the picture and holds their position. Then someone in the audience will give this human tableau a title like "A day at the ashram" or "Quiet moments" or "Can't stop meditating to blow my nose." Once the picture is titled, the volunteers go back to neutral.

After each game, I generally debrief a little by asking, "How did that feel?" or "How do the skills required in this game apply to our class?"

There are many more games out there. These are a few that my improv friend Michiline McManus taught me -- and they work well. Try them! Remember, if you mess up leading them, it is just excellent modeling for the students to see how you laugh it off and move on.

What warm-ups do you do in your classroom?

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Subash's picture

Wow, great and innovative ideas. All this while I have been using the traditional methods of printing out the classroom rules and enforcing it to the students now and then. however, they are still not bothered. I will definitely try to incorporate these in my class too.

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

Thanks for your comment Lessia. Enjoy Hawaii and let me know how it goes when you try the games!

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

Hi Laura,
Thanks for your comment. I'm so happy to hear you tried them and they worked for you. :)

Laura Davis's picture
Laura Davis
Teacher in Honolulu, HI

Hi Subash,
Thanks for your comment. Let me know how it goes when you try them. The kids tend to have a blast and they work best when I play along with them.

Continental Press's picture

What a refreshing perspective! It can be hard to keep students engaged in today's tech world so these tips are extremely valuable.

Thank you for sharing your experiences in the classroom with us!

(1)
Alexander Deeb's picture
Alexander Deeb
EdTech Entrepreneur

These are some great tips! Some workshops that I've attended used improv to break the ice, and it is always very effective. As is evident from this article and the comments, improv works just as well in the classroom. Students like to take a more interactive approach to any activity, and these activities turn a tired and old exercise into something novel.

Thank you for sharing!

(1)
yoogogirl's picture

Thanks for the great ideas! I'm a fellow Hawaii (at HBA) teacher, Laura. This is perfect for starting the second semester. I've always felt that the emotional side of the students was so crucial for leaning, and the first few minutes of each class set the tone for the day. I'm looking forward to trying these games.

(1)
Paula Dal Ponte's picture
Paula Dal Ponte
Secondary English Instructor from Corydon, Iowa

My students and I really enjoyed these activities! They were just the thing to foster engagement at a time of year that is tough to keep kiddos focused.

Camilo Barría R.'s picture
Camilo Barría R.
History Teacher from Viña del Mar, Chile

Thanks for sharing this openers. I've been very interested lately in the link between humor and education. Everything is so different if we support the creation of a culture of laughter and spontaneity :)

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