Most classrooms are designed the same way as theatres. Typically, there is a performance space separate from the audience space; one for the teacher and the other for the students. Not coincidentally, the larger the lecture hall the more evident the need to put on a rousing performance for those in attendance. Because of the structural (and even social) similarities between the classroom and the theatre, university instructors could bear to learn from the dramaturgical expertise of actors. While straight lecturing is only a single modality of teaching, it is a modality that can greatly benefit from training in oration and stage performance. This was my reasoning, at the very least.
This past week I attended a workshop on Acting Tips for Teachers, led by the exceptional Hala Baki, a Doctoral Scholars fellow in the Department of Theater and Dance at UCSB. The room was cleared of its chairs, we stood (shoes optional) and waved our arms, and we shouted across the room at one another – in other words, the workshop matched perfectly with my imagination of an LA acting class. All jokes aside, these various exercises were devised to train specific aspects of performance for those who ply a trade on a stage: mastery of the body, mastery of breath, and mastery of speech.
In addition to exercises that cultivated these skills, another regular refrain made a lasting impression. In our role as performative lecturers we need to disrupt predictable patterns and break the “fourth wall” in as many ways as possible. We can break them down with our voice, break them down with our body, and break them down with our physical presence. Through employing physical and vocal animation, or even storytelling and suspense, we can stimulate our students instead of lulling them to sleep by the monotony of our voice and flickering of our slides.
Furthermore, woven throughout the workshop were subtle hints reminding us to make the lecture classroom an active learning environment. The structure of the classroom (and its theatre cousin) can overdetermine social interaction, namely, that students should remain quiet and listen like a audience. A good teaching performance should not only grab attention, but encourage “audience participation,” having students engage, think, and communicate. By breaking the fourth wall we are breaking the presumptions of student passivity.
The initial workshop exercises worked on developing our posture and breathing. Using a basic scanning method (based on the Alexander technique), we made sure our standing posture was balanced and erect, thus demanding attention and channeling confidence. And breathing from the diaphragm we ensured we had the respiratory capacity to project our voice. Anxiety, fatigue, and poor habits all work against these foundational components of good lecturing, thus it’s worth checking in with our body and breath periodically.
Next, after vocal warm-ups, we worked on projecting our voice by imagining trying to hit a target in the back of the room. We practiced this by having everyone line up in two parallel rows across the room from each other. We then tried to project our voice across to our partner who attempted to pick it out among all of the other voices. I think the acoustics in the room made this particularly difficult, but I nevertheless liked the idea of “throwing” my voice to a partner like it was a ball. If anything, I thought this was a helpful conceptual cue I could use in a large lecture hall.
We then turned to practicing vocal articulation, running through a range of vowel and consonant exercises. This included practicing voiced and voiceless plosives (p-b, t-d, k-g), ultimately leading to a game of repeating “topeka-bodega” in a variety of iterations. We finished with a round of old-fashioned tongue twisters, involving both Sally’s seashells and Peter’s peppers, among few others.
After our voices were prepared we engaged in several voice modulation exercises. These were particularly insightful because they forced us to consider where we placed the tonal emphasis when we spoke. More specifically, it asked if we could make a question better by modifying our intonation patterns. By switching the emphasis from, “can *anyone* add something to that comment,” to “ can anyone *add* something to that comment,” it moves the focus from trying to find a willing speaker to the operative directive, namely generating news ideas through “addition.” A subtle change surely, but one I believe could have a cumulative subconscious impact on ourselves and our students. If we are always “begging” our students to speak through our intonations, it creates an expectation that they normally do not have to participate.
All of these elements came together when we added motion, both through gesticulation and walking around the classroom. Not only does motion add dynamism and excitement to what we say, it can add important paralinguistic (kinesic) cues which can modify, clarify, or nuance verbal meaning in important ways. Ultimately, by wisely employing vocal and physical animation we can disrupt patterns in our teaching performance and elicit a more engaging classroom setting. In addition, these actions need not be overly dramatic to be successful, as good posture, strong vocal projection, and a wisely placed pause or intonation can create the desired effect.
 To notice the rhythms of our breathing, we placed one hand on our chest and another on our belly and tried to identify which moved more when we breathed. The positioning of the hands added a subtle physical cue to help draw our breath into our diaphragms.