AP Annual Conference 2023

Improve Your Storytelling: Improv Comedy and AP History

As they emerged from a low stance, inches from meeting the floor, the group of teachers counted aloud from 1 to 10. Their bodies and voices rising with every number they counted, finally jumping and shouting when reaching 10.

“Everything we do today will be at a 10,” states Ozzie Quintana, the presenter and acting instructor who incorporates improv to enhance his storytelling when teaching AP® U.S. History and AP European History at Miami Dade County Public Schools. 

In this session, Quintana led attendees in warm-up activities that exercised the importance of listening, focusing, and staying creative—three essential skills for improvisation.

The group formed a circle for their “Pass the Clap” activity in which they synchronized claps with the people next to them. The group coordinated this unison through eye contact and no verbal instruction among themselves. Finally, as a group, they all clapped in unison.

Following “Pass the Clap,” the group played, “GO Focus.” In this activity, individuals in the circle pointed to one another, saying “Go,” instructing them to walk toward their spot and switch with them. Quintana and the group of attendees repeated this process and moved quicker each round until perfecting this sequence.

Next up was “Pass the Phrase and Gesture,” a game where participants copy a phrase and gesture that is passed down from head to toe to the best of their abilities. Quintana emphasized that “mistakes are great, we use them as they make the best opportunities.” Subtle adjustments were made each round as attendees giggled and stuttered in the process. Their mistakes lived on to become a part of the new phrase and gesture to be continuously passed until once again reaching the first person.

These warm-up activities prepared the group to channel their inner thespian as they moved on to include their newfound methods of improv in classroom activities. 

The group was presented with the choice of three World War l artifacts to examine: a dog tag, a historical photograph, or a postcard. After collectively analyzing their choices, the group chose to work with the postcard.

They were then instructed to physicalize a component of the postcard at the count of three. Attendees moved their bodies to form their interpretation of the aspects of the postcard such as the illegible writing, the stamp, and the image on the back of the letter. Keeping their bodies in position, each participant provided a statement to describe the physical aspect of the object, how the object made them feel, and what purpose this object serves in the world around it. Additionally, to better understand the historical artifact, each attendee personified it. By giving the object human emotions, attendees were able to better understand how it feels and functions in the historical setting around the object. To conclude this activity, in unison, the group enthusiastically screamed “I am a postcard,” being mindful that their energy levels must be at a 10.

To wrap up the session, the group took turns in pairs to improvise a scene while each attendee chose a historical figure as their character. During these spontaneously crafted scenes, Quintana would yell out “History?” or “Philosophy?” These questions prompted the teachers to provide the historical context or belief system to explain the choice of their character’s lines and actions. 

The participants were able to utilize comedy and improv to create scenes not only to entertain their audience but also educate viewers as they channeled their historical figure’s psyche. By utilizing these methods of improv in your classroom, students are invited to immerse themselves in acting exercises that switch up the expected class or review session. Combining what they learn with engaging activities while practicing improvisational acting allows them to think both creatively and strategically.