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Virginia Journal of Education

On Stage


A Virginia Tech program helps some elementary students 'improv' an important message.

by Kimberly Sink
The mission of the Center for Creative Technologies in the Arts (CCTA), located at Virginia Tech, is to excite and inspire students through new experiences in the arts. I saw this mission accomplished in a wonderful way with my students last year at Pulaski Elementary School.

CCTA had given grants to six professors, who designed innovative classroom projects and then asked teachers to write lesson plans for those projects. I was selected by Pulaski County Schools to work on one of these projects, along with 11 other educators working in other public school systems. I was immediately drawn to one project in particular, called Improv Affect© and created by Michael Anthony Williams, who is a visiting instructor of theater at Virginia Tech. He has spent the majority of his career as a professional actor, and his presentation captivated my heart and opened my eyes to the numerous ways Improv Affect© could be implemented with young people.

In Improv Affect©, students go through a series of workshops where improvisation games are played, helping them build trust with one another and discuss emotions they may be facing. During the workshops, someone takes accurate notes of what the students are saying. Those notes are later used to compose a theatrical performance using the students’ words within the script, designed with a theme in mind that will become a message, speaking to and reaching out to other youth.

The topic we chose was bullying, and we selected 19 students, a combination of third, fourth and fifth graders, to participate. They ranged in academic abilities and were typically ones who were either rarely in the spotlight, or frequently received attention for having less-than-desirable behavior.

Williams designed 12 workshops that allowed the students to meet once a week during our afterschool program. Along with three of his Virginia Tech students, Williams led the workshops, teaching our students the Improv Affect© process and giving them the skills and confidence to implement it in other settings.
We decided not to introduce the topic of bullying until the fourth workshop, hoping that the group would raise the issue organically, through the improvisation games. Sure enough, by the time the third workshop had been completed, students had mentioned bullying several times. Apparently, that was a main concern of theirs. From then on, Williams designed the improvisation games around helping students vocalize and understand what a bully is, explain any bullying situations they might have been involved in, and discuss strategies that would prevent them from becoming a victim. Each workshop was followed up with a journaling activity in which students had a chance to process their reflections about the week’s workshop.

Each week, students couldn’t wait for the workshops to start. If one of the Improv students saw me in the hallway, the first question was, “What are we going to do in Improv this week?” Their faces were shining with delight. Local media visited a few of the workshops to capture the magic that was happening for those students.
Once the students had been introduced to all the elements of bullying through the workshops, Williams crafted the script for their theatrical début from the notes taken during the improvisation sessions. When the day had arrived for the students to receive their script, they could hardly contain their excitement. The look on their faces was priceless as each was presented their very own script with their name listed as one of the characters and their words written in the script. It was a proud moment for everyone.

But passing out the script was just the beginning. Williams brought in professional musicians to help the students write and sing their own song about bullies, which was titled “Ain’t Gonna Be Bullied No More.” Students also created a t-shirt design, which was used for all of their performances.
The students came to realize that they were a team of performers that was going to spread a very powerful message about bullying. They were called the Pulaski Elementary School Company and their original production was called “Bully Free Zone.” They practiced twice a week until they had their lines memorized and knew exactly what to do.

Opening night was a huge success, with an audience packed with the students’ families, friends, and teachers, along with officials from the school division, CCTA and Virginia Tech.

The Pulaski Elementary School Company didn’t stop there, instead taking their “Bully Free Zone” message on the road. I had arranged opportunities for students to travel to three other elementary schools in Pulaski County to perform.

The last school on the tour circuit was our own, which made many of the students in the group extremely nervous. They knew they were going to be performing in front of some of the students who had bullied them. However, they didn’t let their nerves interfere with their message. That performance was one of the best yet, and they walked off stage to standing ovations.

I’ve seen many programs implemented in my educational career, but I’ve never seen one that lends itself to influence as many students in a powerful way as the Improv Affect©. It builds understanding and compassion; gives self-esteem, confidence and reassurance; and it shows students that what they have to say matters to others. It broadens their public speaking, diction and team-building skills in a subtle way, so subtle that students barely noticed that the repetition that goes with learning lines of a script, playing improvisation games, and performing live theatre addresses these much-needed education components.
After the last performance, one of the actors who had been notorious for being shy entered his classroom, “No additional applause is necessary, really.” For once this child had been given an opportunity to shine.

I am thankful for the opportunity that was granted to me through CCTA, Michael Anthony Williams and Pulaski County Schools. Together, we made a great team and impacted some young lives.

Sink, a member of the Pulaski County Education Association, is a school improvement coach at Pulaski Elementary School.

To Learn More
The Center for Creative Technologies in the Arts (CCTA) helps develop instructional methods that promote creative and critical thinking skills through the integration of the arts and technology. To find out how CCTA can help your students, call the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech at (540) 231-0856.



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