It's a Tuesday morning in March, and 14-year-old Sloan Williams and two of her friends are cracking each other up over Zoom.
"It's yellow!" Williams blurts out. "Yes, and … we call it a Banana Car Seat!" her friend replies, before the three eighth-graders from Charles W. Henry Middle School in Philadelphia burst into another round of laughter.
It's all part of an exercise the students are doing through the Unscripted Project, a program created by recent Wharton grads Meera Menon and Philip Chen. Goofy as this particular workshop — in which students were tasked with acting out a fake commercial to sell an imaginary product without any script or prep — may sound, it's rooted in the mission of increasing students' communication skills, self-confidence, and team-player mind-sets.
"Improv has been shown to have all kinds of benefits," says Menon. "For any improv game, you can gear it towards whatever skill you want students to practice. What we choose to focus on are mistakes, and reframing people's relationships with failure."
Williams says that the program helped her break out of her comfort zone and empowered her to feel more comfortable speaking up in class. And she's not alone: 88% of the 146 students who participated in the Unscripted Project in the fall semester reported feeling more confident in front of their peers than they did before the program. Pre- and post-program surveys revealed that there was also a 15% decrease in the number of students who screened positive for social anxiety.
"We feel very strongly that theater and improv should be a part of K-12 education because it is such a powerful tool to build interpersonal and social-emotional skills like being confident, understanding different perspectives, adapting to new people and situations, as we had experienced ourselves," Menon says.
The benefits of improv are well-documented enough that Wharton is even beginning to offer improv classes to business executives, grad students and MBA students.
Menon and Chen were awarded $100,000 by the University of Pennsylvania to implement their idea and scale it to reach more than 300 middle and high school students throughout the Philadelphia school district.
While their original intention was to launch in-person, the pandemic forced them, like everyone else, to make the program virtual. Since launching last fall, 359 students will have participated by the end of the school year, with the support of five teaching artists, 10 volunteers, and Menon and Chen; they worked in nine Philly public schools and one charter school, meeting with students anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes via Zoom, one day a week.
Part of the project's success stems from its simplicity: There are no tools or tech required. In fact, one of the only rules in improv is that students are encouraged to make mistakes and be comfortable making them. One of the key tenets of improv is the phrase "Yes, and …" which encourages improv teammates to adapt on the fly.
On top of the data Menon and Chen have documented, they've been encouraged by the anecdotal evidence of the program's benefits. They've watched more introverted students feel more comfortable in group settings. They've seen one student's stutter vanish.
"Anyone," says Menon, "can benefit from the power of improv."
This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.