Practice by Any Other Name

There are several ways people learn, but few are both as effective AND reviled as role playing. Sure, you might find one or two people in any classroom willing to act out some improv in front of a group, but volunteers are usually hard to come by. That’s unfortunate because experiencing a scene first-hand lets the learner feel it inside. Her motor skills function and her brain processes subtle aspects of a concept she wouldn’t pick up reading or a listening to a lecture. Even an audience watching a role play learns more because it can identify with the colleagues on stage.

I was thinking about this Friday when I attended a crisis prevention class at the Renton Public Library (WA). The class, which I’ve taught many times myself, was this day led by Mary Ross and Kate Laughlin. Their interactive exercises fostered a lot of participation and follow-up discussion.

(The scenario shown above: Mario answered a cell phone call in the library and proceeded to speak much too loudly. Mary tried to get his attention, but Mario kept spinning away so she wouldn’t bother him. In this photo she had finally made eye contact. His finger phone and their circular dance were fun inventions they discovered together during the exercise. It was a bit of comedy for those of us watching, too!)

In my experience as a library trainer, there are a few strategies that tend to get good role play results whatever the topic might be.

1. Don’t call it a role play! Call it practice (as Ross and Laughlin did) or exercise or interaction, but mention the “role play” term and your students will immediately drop beneath their tables hoping you won’t see them. Fearing that you’ll recruit them, some might become too anxious to learn the lesson.

2. Involve everyone …or as many people as you can. It’s easier to engage everyone in a practice activity if they aren’t the only ones on stage. Have many stages at once, in fact. Break the class into small groups so everyone can participate in relaxed settings with fewer eyes watching them. It reduces the embarrassment factor.

3. Offer a realistic scenario. If you want a group to work through a scene, give them a setting and a situation that they can relate to. They will take more from the lesson and be more cooperative in the exercise if they see it in the context of their experience. That means they’ll connect with the material more deeply.

4. Make it fun. You’re giving them a realistic scenario. Great! Now be a stage director and tell them something juicy to give them motivation. Maybe you want them to show a certain emotion, imitate someone, or get a little melodramatic. A scene is just a scene, but an emotional hint breathes life into it. Most people, once they get into it, actually enjoy exploring a different character for a couple minutes. Sometimes practice can be packaged in the form of a game, too.

5. Keep it simple and short. Set up the scene in a few sentences. Target the lesson being taught and avoid complications. The actors will discover their own nuances and complications. End it before the fun wears off. Hopefully the lesson already started to sink it.

It’s usually good to follow up an exercise with a quick discussion, too. Each actor experienced the scene from a different perspective. Let them share what they saw from those angles.

Do you have other suggestions?

One Response to Practice by Any Other Name

  1. Ellie75 says:

    Role playing is like medicine: we know it’s good for us but it’s yucky to swallow. Your tips are good though. Activities are more palatable when everyone is taking part.

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