Want to lighten your load at school? Improvise


Outside it was a dreary and cloudy Friday morning. But, inside P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil, there were shrieks of laughter coming from the school’s auditorium.

Some of the school’s fourth and fifth graders were on stage playing “Freeze Frame,” part of a comedic skit where they had to strike a pose and hold it — and hold, and hold that pose — until the announcer called out “next slide, please.”

Structured like the television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” — where the actors create characters, songs and short games on the spot — this particular morning’s event was designed to bring levity, releasing possible tension, and providing fun memories among student and teachers.

Walter Frasier, co-founder and show host of the improvisational comedy troupe Eight is Never Enough, invited students throughout the 45-minute session to come on stage and take part. Jacob Chaitkin, one of the fourth-grade participants, mimicked the sounds of a happy cat to a skit performed by the group.

“I just wanted to get the chance to be on stage because I never have been before, and I thought it was really fun to do that,” Chaitkin said. “I have a lot of experience doing improv in my afterschool” program.

Matea Milich, another fourth grader, imitated the sounds of an angry dog barking during a troupe sketch. Milich, who has been performing since pre-school, said those thinking-on-your-feet skills come in handy at school.

“It helps me have more friends and it helps me problem solve with more students by cheering them up,” she said.

“I think it breaks down the intensity that we usually have as their teacher trying to hold a strict environment,” said Maryellen Shepley, the school’s music teacher. “It’s nice to have a light, fun rapport with the kids. So, they feel like you are people, too.”

Shepley appeared on stage with students as well among several members of P.S. 24’s staff who took part in the “Freeze Frame” skit.

Frasier credited creating moments of shared laughter as a way to ease the stress of exams and begin conversations between students, who might not have interacted otherwise.

The school wanted to come up with ways for students to interact in a relaxed atmosphere and to learn about each other and work together, said Steven Schwartz, P.S. 24’s principal. The show required students to listen, be creative, and have fun — but not at anyone else’s expense.

In addition to creating a safe and productive learning environment, adding comedy into the days helps to advance social and emotional skills, Schwartz said.

Eight is Never Enough gave three performances to the different grade levels at the school. Each was geared toward the respective academic years and ages.

Conflict resolution

Beyond improv, P.S. 24 does have a conflict resolution coach to help address concerns among students, reinforcing the message of resolving an issue in positive ways, Schwartz said. Some of her duties include meeting with students or small groups who have a past history of physical aggression, and working with students during the lunch hour where a problem is more likely to surface.

Unresolved tension between students during that period would likely result in the teacher having to address the issue in the classroom, he added, thereby reducing time to learn.

Since the last academic year, incidents of physically aggressive behavior by students decreased from 27 to four at the school. Even minor physical altercations are down to a third of what they were before, Schwartz said.

Funding for the school’s conflict resolution initiatives came from a $16,500 grant through the program Project Building Options and Opportunities for Students, or Project BOOSt, as it is popularly known.

As the improv session ended, Frasier had a homework assignment for his young audience.

“You’ve now seen our comedy show,” he said. “You are now part of our team out there. You are no longer going out in this world waiting for someone to make you smile or laugh. It’s now your job to go out in this world and make the rest of the world smile.”