Jen Oleniczak brings improv into the classroom

Jen Oleniczak wants teachers to get out of their heads.

As founder of The Engaging Educator, a New York-based company that offers professional development classes, she regularly leads workshops in improv and movement that help professionals gain confidence and be better listeners.

Improv for professionals is nothing new — “In teambuilding, they’re playing improv games,” says Oleniczak — but her focus on the arts and in the classroom is fledging territory.

“When I started the company, I realized there was a gap in that kind of training, especially with teachers,” says Oleniczak, a comedian and educator who founded The Engaging Educator two years ago this week and has given a TEDx talk on the topic and will be presenting at South by Southwest’s Education Expo next year. “You learn the material, the pedagogy, the how to, but that flexibility training isn’t necessarily built into anyone’s curriculum.”

Through classes at places like Brooklyn Brainery and Shetler Studios, as well as workshops at museums and universities, Oleniczak works with teachers of all grade levels and areas. She also goes into schools and works with students.

“I like to say that improv is a drug that doesn’t make your teeth fall out — you don’t want to stop doing it,” says Oleniczak. “It’s so fun and so silly. It forces you to get out of your head.”

During a typical class, students might participate in an improv game like Zip, Zap, Zop, a lightning-speed communication exercise wherein people gesture to one another and, one by one, they say the words “zip,” zap” or “zop” on repeat until someone inevitably messes up.

“You’re creating this vulnerability and being self-aware and really listening to other people,” says Oleniczak. “That doesn’t always happen in everyday life.”

Improv skills can help professionals across fields, but Oleniczak sees it especially helpful for teachers as a way to take risks.

“A lot of my work really revolves around the idea that failure is bad,” says Oleniczak. “With teaching, we don’t take risks — we’re teaching to the test — but you have to have some flexibility. If you’re constantly trying not to fail, we never actually succeed.”

For more info and a schedule of upcoming classes, visit theengagingeducator.com.

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