Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools students

Yes, and...

Improv training proves its chops as a multi-tool for teachers and learners

By Mark Guarino

A reserved, soft-spoken ninth-grader at Chicago’s Taft High School, Maggie Kopiec often struggled with class presentations. But during her Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools (CPS) improv training, Kopiec learned a useful secret: the little things matter. She began standing up straight, taking deep breaths, and trying to sound confident—even when she wasn’t.

“Those skills didn’t just help me in school,” says Kopiec, now a Taft senior who no longer hesitates to speak up in class and in front of large crowds.

“Things like giving a firm handshake and taking a few seconds to answer questions calmly and confidently helped me make a good impression and get a summer job.”

Improvisation, once primarily comedic entertainment, is increasingly used in educational settings as a tool to promote creativity, foster quick thinking, and build leadership skills.

But at Northwestern Academy for CPS—Northwestern University’s college- readiness program for under­represented and talented Chicago high schoolers—improv does even more: the techniques are part of a comprehensive and coordinated three-year program for teenagers that focuses on self-awareness, self- advocacy, and the transition to college and the workplace.

“Improv is a tool that enables you to be open. To be inquisitive. To be comfortable with ambiguity and not having the whole answer right away, but eventually being able to make brave choices,” says Megan Redfearn (MSLOC12), director of faculty services and doctoral student affairs at the School of Education and Social Policy and a champion of improv culture at the school. “SESP grad students grapple with questions that are big, dynamic, and lack straightforward answers. Apply­ing the improv principle of listening and responding—what’s known as “yes, and” —they often come up with solutions that connect ideas across disciplines.”

Redfearn, an improv instructor, performer, and consultant, speaks from experience. She studied how improv training can improve workplace leadership when she received her master’s degree in learning and organizational change. Having started doing improv by night years earlier while teaching fifth-graders by day, she now performs with the longstanding improv ensemble Virgin Daiquiri at iO Chicago. In 2015 she designed a four-week intensive improv course for North­western Academy for CPS that culminated in a final show.

The course was so successful that North­western Academy for CPS adviser Ian Williams expanded it, giving it a multi- year framework and tying specific goals to a student’s year in school. Rather than preparing students for a final stage performance, the classes now focus on building confidence, practicing interview and presentation skills, and navigating new or challenging environments such as college.

Under Williams’s direction, each summer the academy welcomes a cohort of rising CPS sophomores who work on their ability to assess their own presence— their voice, posture, natural energy, and more—whenever they’re in front of others.

The summer before their junior year, those same students learn how to use eye contact, listening skills, and body language in situations such as being cold-called by professors or fielding unexpected questions during interviews or presentations. They practice physical and vocal exercises and conduct mock job interviews.

“We prep them for things that I’m surprised we don’t talk about more as adults,” says Williams, who, like Redfearn, is a veteran improv performer. “We tell students about the need to research companies and dress well, but we never discuss the energy you bring into the room and how you can directly affect that by doing exercises—like tongue-twisters—before the interview.”

In the final summer before college, students explore managing microaggressions to resolve disagreements with roommates or others on campus. They also learn how to be self-advocates in various situations, such as asking professors or tutors for help, splitting a meal check in a large group, or correcting a mispronounced name.

All the skills are taught in groups through improv exercises ranging from observing and mimicking scene partners to “yes, and”—the technique of agreeing with and then building on what the person before you just said.

Williams says the safe space of group improv allows Northwestern Academy students to make mistakes and learn from them in real time without embarrassment. Once they pick up a few simple tools for responding nimbly to others’ words and actions, they can sense any lingering awkwardness give way to self-confidence.

“If you accidentally say something rude in improv, your partner knows you didn’t mean it,” Williams says. “It’s a free zone where you can learn and practice social engagement skills before testing them in the real world, where there’s usually no safety net and no chance of do-overs.”

In many ways, Williams was the ideal person to design and expand the academy’s improv program. He recalls being a kid who was terrified to talk in public “without a script.” Now an alumnus of Second City Training Center’s Conserva­tory and a seasoned actor who performs with the Blue Angels improv group in Chicago, Williams says that one of improv’s greatest gifts to him was “the ability to slow down for myself.

“I learned to take the three seconds if I need to take a breath before I talk. Three seconds is not the three minutes it feels like,” he says.

US business schools—including North­western’s Kellogg School of Management—began adopting improv training methods about 20 years ago, once university leaders “got past the comedy” and could see that improv training can build highly transferable communication and relationship skills, says Bob Kulhan, founder of Business Improv, which provides communication skills training for executive leaders.

While improv skills are useful at the C-suite level, Williams adapted the Northwestern Academy improv program to reach teenagers and equip future leaders with the skills while they’re still young.

“Why wouldn’t you provide improv training earlier and therefore influence how organizations are developed from the start?” Williams asks. “Working on young persons’ social skills now will shape how they get to places of power years down the road.”

For Maggie Kopiec, the mock interview was her favorite Northwestern Academy experience: “I remember being nervous at first, but eventually I felt comfortable with myself and confident in my answers. Practicing an interview helped me use the skills I learned in improv class. More importantly, though, I learned how to use them to open up opportunities for myself in the future.”

Improv Training at SESP: A Natural Fit

While business schools took the lead in offering improv classes in academia, SESP has been using improvisation training in contexts ranging from teacher coaching and college-readiness programs to icebreaker exercises with doctoral students and in master’s-level courses.

The Master’s Program in Learning and Organizational Change launched a course codesigned by Jennifer Green, artistic director of Evanston’s Piven Theater Workshop, and Kimberly Scott, MSLOC program director. Called Foundations, the course uses improv games and rules to teach students about presence, active listening, and comfort with ambiguity. Since the course debuted in 2006, Green has returned to North­western each fall to show MSLOC students how to “yes, and” and to “be in the moment”—practices that can turn an uncertain situation into a chance for innovation.

Megan Redfearn (MSLOC12), director of SESP faculty services and doctoral student affairs, and Michelle Albaugh, MSLOC instructor and assistant director of coaching, codesigned the course Coaching Relationship Essentials as part of the Executive Learning and Organiza­tional Change coaching certificate curriculum. The course leverages overlap in improv techniques and coaching practice. Students first learn about a skill such as listening, experience it in a new way through improv, and then practice it in a real coaching situation. The instructional model helps students see new ways to coach others beyond traditional managing and mentoring activities.