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Educational advancement fund spotlight: “Improv for language learning and promoting intellectual risk-taking.”

Posted by on Thursday, September 30, 2021 in Commentary, Grants, News.

Divya Chaudhry, senior lecturer in Asian Studies recently told us about her grant from the Educational Advancement Fund, which is title, “Improv for language learning and promoting intellectual risk-taking.”

Can you tell us about your project and what inspired you to do it?

I seek to study the impact of improvisational theater (henceforth improv) on language learning, intellectual risk taking, and overall learner well-being. This semester I am teaching elementary and advanced Hindi-Urdu courses, so my students in these courses would be the ones participating in these improv workshops. These workshops will be conducted by a New Delhi-based theater group, Kaivalya Plays, virtually over Zoom.

The origins of this idea lie in my personal experience with improv. I discovered improv at the very beginning of the pandemic in 2020. For me, like many others, beginnings of the pandemic were ridden with uncertainty- no one knew how long it was going to last or how it was going to impact and possibly change our lives. It was at this time that I found Kaivalya Plays’ improv workshops online. The first one I participated in was called Improv for Mental Health. It was conducted over Zoom, and had people participate from all over the world, doing improv in English. I attended a few of these sessions and I loved them. What I loved the most about these sessions were the opportunities for light heartedness, community building, and acceptance of uncertainty in times that couldn’t be more uncertain.

Also, as a teacher, I have realized that as I go about my life, my teacher brain is always on- always looking out for things that can be applicable to the courses I teach.  So, every time I would play an improv game, my brain would go, “Oh, this could also work well in my language class!”  During this time, I was also preparing for the fall semester and reading more about trauma-informed pedagogy because I realized, like many other teachers did, that we were not going to go back to the same classrooms that we were teaching pre-pandemic.  Our students were facing the effects of COVID-19 and were confronted with the political and socioeconomic crises of 2020. They were going to have very different experiences coming into the classroom compared to students in previous years. Trauma -informed pedagogy underscores the negative impact of trauma in one’s ability to learn. Therefore, I was looking for ways to counter some of those negative impacts and build community during those times of social isolation, foster joy and creativity in learning, and enable my students to connect their learning in the classroom to the world outside.  Improv seemed to check all those boxes for me.

Additionally, for less- commonly taught languages such as Hindi-Urdu, there are very limited study abroad programs. Funding cuts and now COVID-19- related travel restrictions further exacerbated the difficulty of creating productive community engagement opportunities. At this time, improv provided an opportunity to re-imagine what community engagement could look like for a language program.

Supported by a Vanderbilt Strong grant in fall 2020, I piloted the implementation of improv in my advanced Hindi-Urdu class in fall 2020 and invited Kaivalya Plays’ artists to conduct virtual workshops with my HNUR 3301 students. The workshops were a huge success. Students appreciated being able to play in and with the language, be spontaneous and creative in it, and interact with other native speakers of Hindi-Urdu who were not their instructors. They also liked being exposed to the target culture in new ways, one they hadn’t experienced before.

Encouraged by the success of the pilot workshops, I was tempted to do more. I wondered if we could pull off improv with learners of Hindi-Urdu at the elementary level. So, I invited Kaivalya Plays team again to conduct workshops with my students in their second semester of Hindi-Urdu study, in HNUR 1102. One should note that these students, at that point, had had only one semester of instruction in Hindi-Urdu. I was honestly not prepared for what happened next. Students were not only using language without hesitation, but what really surprised me was how students spoke about the impact of improv on their lives outside of class. In the reflection exercises built in as part of the workshops, many students chose to talk about how improv allowed them the space to make mistakes without fear and to not be afraid of failure- both observations lie at the heart of improv. In fact, one of the students, in his final reflection, wrote about the confidence he gained from participating in the workshops and how he was able to apply it to his job interviews. He had said (and I am paraphrasing) that in the past, he would be really disappointed when a job interview would go wrong, but now he could go with more optimism and not be heartbroken if one interview didn’t go well. Fear of failure did not prevent him from trying anymore, which I think is very interesting. Failure is scary for everybody, so to accept failure and accept uncertainty, I think, is a gift, especially in the times that we live in.

These teaching experiences made me want to investigate the impact of improv on learners more systematically. With the Educational Advancement Fund grant, I am bringing back the New Delhi-based theatre artists to conduct multiple workshops in my elementary and advanced Hindi-Urdu courses over the course of a year. I have also expanded my focus and now I am curious to study the impact of improv not only on language learning and development, but also intellectual risk taking and overall learner well-being.

What recommendations do you have for others who would like to apply for one of these internal teaching grants?

I think these internal teaching grants offer instructors an opportunity to try something new that they think would be meaningful for their learners. It has been my experience that many times instructors read about novel approaches and want to test them but may not have the resources to test them and/or not know how to obtain those resources. These internal teaching grants enable one to say, “Let’s try this out.” If one is on the fence about applying to these opportunities, I think my advice really is to Nike it- just do it!

One practical recommendation for the Educational Advancement Fund grants is to plan because the EAF grants require a letter of support from your department Chair or your Dean. You may want to inform them about and solicit their feedback on what it is that you are planning to do with the grant and your larger vision behind it. You may want to give them plenty of time to write that letter of support for you.

In a few sentences could you describe your teaching philosophy and how it relates to this project?

Learners are really at the heart of my teaching philosophy. When it comes to selecting course content, designing learning activities, planning assessments, I begin with a lot of self-reflection. I ask myself questions such as: “What are the needs of my learners? Why are they taking these courses? Why should they care to study Hindi or Urdu when they could do so many other things at Vanderbilt? What are their motivations? How do they learn best?”  The impact of this exercise could be seen in the recent inclusion of social justice topics in my language courses. I am embarrassed to say that until as recently as five years ago, my language courses lacked conversation on social justice issues. These conversations would come up spontaneously, not intentionally or systematically, and mostly as auxiliary discussions. Now I design my course curriculum with social justice at the very center and address topics that are relevant to their lives. For instance, even in an elementary language course, we grapple with questions of identity, whether it is tied to (mis)pronunciation of South Asian names or gender binary.

Similarly, when I made the decision to incorporate improv in learners’ language learning experience, it was a proactive attempt to respond to their needs at that particular time of their lives, one where they were faced with continuing their education amidst possibly the biggest sociopolitical, economic, and health crises of their lives. Centered on what would be most useful for them in that moment, the curricular change sought to provide learners more and newer opportunities for being creative, present, and collaborative.

Finally, I seek to help my learners develop autonomy so that when they go out of the classroom, they have developed skills that allow them to view their life experiences with a new lens. For example, there is no way one can learn all the different ways to express themselves in a target language. When they encounter new linguistic data, my hope is that instead of being intimidated by it, they approach it with curiosity and use the analytical and critical skills they have learned in their studies to make sense of it.






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