ARCHIVE - TEACHING AND ACTING, A TRANSFER FOR THE CLASSROOM AND BEYOND (4-6-15)

“What impact does the practice of acting skills have on non-arts teachers’ instruction?” From January-April of 2014, I conducted a study through the City College of New York’s Educational Theatre Program involving three groups of participants in New York City, including non-arts classroom teachers at two public schools, teaching artists, and professional actors and directors. The research focused on professional development opportunities for participants to experience acting exercises for themselves, and reflect on how or if these skills are transferable to teaching, as opposed to how to teach drama.

Based on previous research, there seems to be a continuing need for elements of acting training in teacher training. A goal of this study, which was accomplished in April 2014, was to develop a professional development session for research participants, which can then be used in other settings. Tom Griggs, Teaching as Acting was a major influence, as well as previous drama based professional development done by Lee, Cawthon, and Dawson. Acting exercises were based on the work of Constantin Stanislavski and Viola Spolin.

“Why now?”

After reading the research compiled in Gifts of the Muse, I was drawn to the idea that learning opportunities in the arts are important for continuing education. I had many questions about how teachers in non-arts classrooms could benefit from learning acting skills, and also how actors in the professional theatre could benefit from learning teaching skills. This transfer is very interesting to me; as a teaching artist working with multiple cultural organizations in NYC, I noticed that the skills I use as an actor and teacher are overlapping. Specific skills in acting such as improvisation, vocal variation, “the Magic If”, and relaxation of the muscles are all skills that I noticed were strongly present in this overlap.

Methodology: Acting Exercises and Professional Developments

During the four month study, I taught the group of five classroom teachers a set of acting exercises to try. They were divided into two groups according to their school. Over the course of three hour long professional developments, we explored each exercise and reflected on how it could be applied to a teaching practice. We first learned and practiced the exercise as a group, and then the teachers tried it out on their own. There were five main areas I focused, drawn from big ideas in the acting profession: the relaxing of muscles, vocal variation, observation, the “Magic If” directly from Stanislavsky, and “Yes..and” in improvisation, which was be identified through the lens of Viola Spolin. Also, as the study progressed, I began to look closely at the idea of presence on stage, which was harder to measure but I felt was important to this study. An interesting thing that happened was that over the course of the research, participants began to identify specific characteristics that could define presence. I wanted the exercises to be short and easy to do so they can be easily incorporated into the day. For specific examples of the activities, see my Mini-Lesson Plan included at the end of this article. In my observations during the professional developments, I looked at how well the teacher followed the instructions of the exercises, how the exercise affected their behavior and movement, and if they had ideas for using the exercise in a classroom setting. I also took notes on posture, energy, focus, facial movements, level of relaxation, understanding of the exercise, and enjoyment of the exercises.

“So, what did you find?”

In interviews, along with the three professional development sessions, non-arts classroom teachers acted as reflective practitioners, discussing with myself and their peers how might these exercises be incorporated into a teaching practice, as well as practicing the exercises on their own time and from their own interpretations.

In my observations of the professional developments and conversations with the teachers, I noticed that, possibly because of their experience at other required workshops at school, the teachers’ expectations were that they were learning techniques to teach drama. I found the most value on impact, through the lens of this study, in group reflections during the professional developments, as well my own observations of the teachers during the group exercises.

The Written Logs that I had the teachers keep showed that Vocal Variation was the most impactful acting skills used in instruction,  receiving a 7 or above in effectiveness on a scale of 1-10. Vocal Variation was used, for example, “during storytime for changing characters”, “different noise levels for different activities” and “count to 1-10 pitch/volume with class”. I noticed that the teachers’ logs indicate the ability to identify changes in their voice to suit a purpose, as well as the use of Vocal Variation to “relax/calm down” students, for classroom management, and to engage them. Reflections on Vocal Variation at the culminating professional development at the City College of New York also supported the teachers’ experiences.   The concept of “Yes, and”, noted in the logs as being used to “extend [students’] ideas during discussions” or “[students] added dialogue”, impacted the teacher’s instruction by giving them another tool to support student brainstorming and writing.

Impacts on the teachers during the professional developments, while participating in the acting exercises showed increased confidence, more willingness to take risks, more collaborating within an ensemble, and increased ability to identify skills they were already using in the classroom. An example of increased confidence can be shown in the “Magic If” exercise when Carolyn, one of the classroom teachers reflects on how she would imagine a moment of confidence in a time of uncertainty. I also noticed during the three professional development sessions, that Carolyn started out in the beginning of each session with a lack of energy and wanting to be the last person to share. By the end of each session, she exhibited more confidence in her ability to perform, possibly because of the increased ensemble work and the level of comfort between myself and the other participants. Risk-taking was a major factor that I looked at as well. In the observation exercise at the final professional development held at the City College of New York, I noticed that all the volunteers in the adjustment/second level portion of the Observation exercise were actors or teaching artists. When I had interviewed actors previously about what made a strong performer, a common answer I got was “Guts” and “Fearlessness”. Actors and teaching artists in this particular group demonstrated more willingness to get up in front of the crowd. As the classroom teachers began to participate in the “Yes, and” Improvisation exercises, I noticed more willingness to take a risk, and put an idea out to the group. The “Yes, and” exercise encourages this by never saying no, so I believe this increased participants comfort level, by knowing that any idea they shared would be embraced.

“What skills transfer between acting and teaching?”

This sub question became more prominent after beginning the study, when participants from each category (Classroom teachers, actors, and teaching artists) brought up engagement and the idea of presence. Both Jessica, an actor, and Sarah, a classroom teacher, mentioned “making them [the audience or students] come to you”, or, “listen to you”.  This led to creating a list of attributes in the professional developments of an “ideal teacher character or personality” and “attributes of confidence”. The idea of an “ideal teacher character/personality” came from Kemal Sinan Ozmen, Acting and Teacher Education: The BEING Model for Identity Development, and his work with teachers in developing a professional identity. Creating this list as a group highlighted personal and shared values, and as a result of the activity, allowed the participants to physicalize each attribute in a tangible way. Classroom teachers were interested and enthusiastic to identifying presence by exploring acting skills, especially in moments that were playful and connected to personal experiences. Already practicing some of these skills, teachers learned terminology applicable to certain classroom practices, e.g. Vocal Variation.  Yet, I noticed during the professional developments that identifying specific characteristics of Vocal Variation, (pitch, volume, and tempo) was difficult at first.  But by developing a range in the voice, teachers were better able to identify what their voices were doing. A distinct difference evolved from the first professional development to the third in the vocal warm-ups. Initially, as a group, we had a hard time distinguishing different levels of pitch, volume, and tempo, specifically in the middle range. By the third session however, we all participated in the vocal exercises with more confidence and accuracy.

I also began to see that this study would have an outcome slightly different than predicted. Instead of focusing on the observed teacher instruction, the study became more about the present moment, the professional developments and how the practice of acting skills affected the participants as people, after which, having experiencing the exercises, participants discussed their potential impact or application. As Gibbs (2007) states, “It is perhaps too simplistic to suggest that deep teaching begins from the inner person. But is it?” (p. 94).  This study builds on Gibbs’s idea by promoting the use of acting skills to encourage self exploration, which allows for more awareness of the “inner person”. Written logs from the teachers also supported awareness and direct application of the acting skills in this study.

Wrapping it Up

I believe one of the primary outcomes of this research is a method for teaching teachers about how to use performing arts in their own means of expression. Identifying similar qualities between acting and teaching, this method, or technique, was devised from interviewing teachers and actors what they think of the similarities, observations of the teachers in professional developments, and exploring actor qualities that overlap with classroom instruction. In this study, both non arts classroom teachers as well as teaching artists were able to add to their tool kit by exploring acting skills. By being exposed to the acting skills of improvisation, vocal variation, relaxation of muscles, and the “Magic If” I found that classroom teachers were able to make connections to varying degrees between their own practices and the artistic process. Classroom teachers also commented during the professional developments on the potential ability of acting exercises to improve their confidence, presence, and flexibility in teaching. I also discovered that actors, who are teaching artists, as well as classroom teachers, use some of these specific acting skills already, calling them by different names, or using them in a different way. Participating in the acting exercises also enhanced self-awareness of the participants and allowed the exploration of personal experiences.


Gibbs, C. (2007). Reflections through invisible glass walls: self study of teacher and artist. Waikato Journal of Education, 13, 91-102. Retrieved October 27, 2013 from the EBSCO Host Database

Griggs, Tom(2001).Teaching as Acting. TeacherEducation Quarterly, v28 n2 p23-37. Retrieved Nov 5, 2013 from the ERIC Database

Lee, B. Cawthon, S. Dawson, K. (2013). Elementary and secondary teacher self-efficacy for teaching and   pedagogical conceptual change in a drama-based professional development program. Teaching and Teacher Education. P. 84

McCarthy, K. Ondaateje, E. Zakaras, L. Brooks, A. Gifts of the Muse, Reframing the Debate about the Benefits of the Arts.

Ozmen, Kemal Sinan (2011). Acting and Teacher Education: The BEING Model for Identity Development, Turkish Online Journal of Qualitative Inquiry v2 n2 p36-49

Spolin, V. (1963). Improvisation for the Theatre. Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Stanislavski, C. (1936). An Actor Prepares. New York, NY: Theatre Arts Books.


Teaching and Acting, a Transfer for the Classroom and Beyond, Mini Lesson Plan

Professional Development Activities:

1) Relaxation, Stanislavsky

  1. Sit in a chair before a class, imagining lifting out from the base of the spine, letting the limbs be heavy and relaxed, breathing deeply.

  2. Name out loud any tension being held.

  3. Deeply breathing, roll down the spine.  Then throughout the class, being aware of any tightening and imagine breathing into that space.

2) Vocal Variation Warm-Up

  1. Volume- Counting 1-20, 1 being the softest ,20 being the loudest

  2. Pitch-Vowels on different pitches A-E-I-O-U, lowest to highest

  3. Tongue Twister/Tempo- The lips the teeth the tip of the tongue, slowly then faster

3) Yes and…

  1. (Building on each others’ ideas with something connected. Accepting the offer.)

  2. Choose a theme/setting for an adventure…treasure hunt? School field trip to a dinosaur museum?

  3. Participants go around the circle and add in an action, saying “Yes, and” then acting it out together.

  4. How could you use “ Yes, and” throughout your day and in a teaching practice?

4) Observation, Creating a Teacher Role

  1. Enter and introduce yourself, tell a funny moment or joke

  2. Participants write down all observations and give to the person at the end.

  3. Read what everyone says to yourself and then choose one characteristic to exaggerate. Enter again and introduce yourself, as well as incorporate that characteristic into the story or joke. (Group rehearsal/share of adding in the characteristic)

  4. All write down characteristics of an “ideal teacher personality” and then make any adjustments you’d like to make from the previous exercise, and add in one from the list.

  5. Did you learn anything new about yourself in this exercise? How could it impact your teaching?

5) Magic If

  1. Tell a moment of confidence from your life to a partner . Remembering any people around you, sounds, smells, details, etc. Everyone sits and writes a short monologue of the moment.

  2. Share monologues.

  3. Now, using Stanislavsky’s idea of the Magic If, What if you won an award, Teacher of the Year, an Oscar, a Tony, etc? Maybe try winning an award in the opposite field to try on a character. How would you feel what would you do? How would your moment of confidence be affirmed by winning this award? What if you had to give a speech accepting the award?

  4. Everyone writes down some ideas. Using the moment of confidence, expand on that. Write a speech accepting the award. Mention the moment of confidence in the speech, or use elements from the speech including feelings, reactions, etc.

  5. Students share their monologues.

  6. How did that feel? Was there anything you feel would be true to the moment if this actually happened? How could you apply this to a teaching practice?


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Elizabeth Simmons received her Master’s Degree in Educational Theatre in 2014 from the City College of New York. *Frances Blumenthal Award Winner for Excellence in Research. She is a current Teaching Artist for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Center for Arts Education, and Young Audiences New York. Elizabeth also serves on the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable Committee. www.elizabethnicolesimmons.com

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