You can learn a lot from improvisational theater. How to really listen to your partner. How to be receptive to new ideas. How to focus and work as a group to find a solution.
These are the life skills that actor, comic, producer, and writer Ego Nwodim of “Saturday Night Live” fame learned during her theater days at Baltimore County’s Eastern Technical High School. After receiving a Biology degree from University of Southern California, she joined the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, honing her improv training. In 2018, she became an SNL featured player and now, is a cast member.
On September 15, 2023, she and her brother Dr. Emeka Nwodim, an orthopedic surgeon, launched the first of several events between City Springs and The Center Stage to use improvisational theater and comedy as a tool to teach life skills.
Watch Ego Nwodim’s inspirational remarks to City Springs Peer Mediators.
“Ego talks about how improv changed her life,” says Todd Wade, City Springs full-time Director of Restorative Practices and Ego’s former Spanish teacher at Eastern Tech. They have remained in touch, and this past summer, she reached out about how to get involved with middle school students and using improv as a life skills tool.
After the call, Mr. Wade took his first-ever improv class. “I had never thought of improv as a life-changing event before, but after my class, I got it! It’s about focused, active listening and always thinking about how to set your partner up in a positive manner. That’s what we do in our peer mediation program, which we started at City Springs last January, and in Restorative Practices.”
Prior to the Nwodims’ visit to City Springs, a Baltimore Curriculum Project (BCP) neighborhood conversion charter school, Mr. Wade did improv activities with his staff. Seeing the direct connection with the Restorative Practices program – City Springs pioneered Restorative Practices for BCP in 2007, now used in many Baltimore City schools – he and his colleagues are excited for Ego and Emeka to expand the inaugural visit with future events at the school. “I’m thrilled that our students have the opportunity to learn active listening, positive pushing, and focusing strategies,” he adds.
The Nwodims’ day began at City Springs with a morning presentation to 40 of the school’s new peer mediators, a group of 5th through 8th graders selected and trained by Mr. Wade and his Restorative Practices team to work with peers on problem-solving, conflict resolution, and positive relationships. The Nwodims focused on paths to success and shared their personal success stories. Both shared that their mother, a single parent, viewed medicine as the pathway to success. Ego’s love for acting was already blossoming, though, and partly informed her college choice in Los Angeles. She’s branched out to producing to create greater representation.
Following the City Springs assembly, a group of 15 6th graders boarded vans for The Center Stage for 1.5 hours of improv exercises. Brianna Kauffman, BCP’s Director of Operations, explains that, at first, the students were quiet and shy. “After Ego asked who was ready to get silly with her, the kids began to loosen up,” Ms. Kauffman says. “By the end they were laughing and having a great time.”
Ego leads 6th grade students in an improv exercise.
The improv exercises were specifically designed to help students focus, be active listeners, and take risks and fail successfully. “The games required them to make eye contact, work as a team, and slow down and listen to each other,” Ms. Kauffman adds.
One of the games where the students huddled, eyes closed, and had to count to 20 as a group, with only one person at a time saying a number. If two people spoke at once, the group started back at zero. “They were only able to get to eight,” notes Ms. Kauffman. “Ego then explained to them that sometimes on a team, the best thing you can do is not to say anything and allow your teammate to speak.”
Ms. Kauffman, a former arts educator, was delighted with the connections made for the students about the power of creative expression. “The Nwodims’ visit reminded me of why the arts are such an important vehicle to express yourself and offer so many life skills that really help kids,” she says. “Not all learning is in a book.”
Following the return to City Springs, Ego talked directly with faculty and staff on the benefits of improv and how they can incorporate improv strategies to improve student engagement. This was the first of what will be a series of interactive life skills events for students and staff at City Springs Elementary Middle School throughout the 2023-24 academic year.
Her former teacher was very proud of his former student. “It was an amazing day, and Ego was wonderful and so good with our kids,” Mr. Wade reflects. “The hardest audience in the world are 6th and 7th graders, and she crushed it. It was very beneficial and really motivated me to incorporate a lot more improv activities with my staff and students.”
Watch the WBAL-TV coverage of the visit.
Read more about Restorative Practices and City Springs’ new Peer Mediator program.