Local High School Replaces Free Response Essays with New Improv Writing Curriculum

Written by: Lawrence Lee

As they began, one student turned to the class and said, “Alright, can we get a topic sentence from the audience to start us off?”
Photo by: Connor Gorry

Wooddard Poe High School, a private high school in San Diego County, has just released their revised 2017–2018 English curriculum, which now features a new focus on “improvised writing” in addition to the regular essay-writing taught in most high schools.

Elizabeth Telesco, head of the English department at Wooddard Poe, considers the curriculum change a monumental step towards raising the quality and quantity of writing the students produce.

“Improvisation breaks the shackles of traditional essay forms — creative, persuasive, or otherwise,” said Telesco. “Students are free to stretch their minds and flex their improvised thinking caps, which makes them more comfortable and in their element when they write.”

“See, a stodgy, old-fashioned in-class persuasive essay has anxious students come into class and crank out, excuse my language, ink-and-paper concoctions resembling crap,” Telesco said. “Compare that with an improvised writing exercise, which creates no additional stress on the students! They simply come into class, laughing and smiling, and we provide a prompt. Just like in regular improvisational comedy, students can expect the prompt to be about a few general topic areas, but instead of politics, pop culture, and Antarctic researchers drinking Starbucks, those topics are lightly related to some past literarily significant readings they were assigned previously.”

“Then they let their minds roam wherever they may in order to produce well-crafted and cohesive improvised writing pieces that answer the prompt with freeform, nontrivial arguments without any previous preparation. Doesn’t that sound so much better than normal, boring in-class essays?”

In order to prepare for the upcoming curriculum change, the school is currently running a single beta course that implements those changes in its teaching. The beta course, designated “English 11 Improv” or ENGL 11I, runs mostly parallel to other eleventh-grade English courses, with the addition of improvised writing exercises and the removal of corresponding traditional exercises.

“This is still a perfectly valid course that teaches essential writing skills, despite the curriculum differences,” said David Jackson, a veteran faculty member and the teacher of ENGL 11I. “Improv performers inherently follow guidelines that correspond very well to what makes a strong writing piece. Providing context and history is a fantastic way to flesh out the exposition of an essay or to give depth to a scene. And of course, instead of rejecting or questioning previous points, writers and improvisers should always strive to build upon them, eventually amassing to a glorious, entertaining, false reality created through pure spontaneity. Or, you know, in the improviser’s case, a great performance.”

“If their test scores are at least on par with what we had before, I’d be satisfied,” remarked Telesco. “There are always growing pains, so it would already be pretty impressive if the students performed just as well under the new curriculum right off the bat.”

At press time, Jackson was struggling to reconcile with a massive spike in plagiarism from her students, 15 of whom had ended their most recent improvised essays with “Yes, and…”

MQ Alum, former Web Editor at The MQ

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