If your school has bullying issues, who do you call?
Would you believe…ImprovBoston?
Surprisingly, for more than a decade, the legendary Cambridge-based nonprofit comedy theater has been educating school districts throughout New England about how to reduce or eliminate bullying, in and out of the classroom. The team takes the principles of improv: trust, support, working together, and uses them to teach students how to create a positive community – a place they are excited to go to every day.
The originator of the program is Deana Criess, who was teaching improvisational comedy by night while raising small children and teaching preschool by day.
“I was seeing a lot of things as a classroom teacher that were concerning,” she says. “I realized that the behavior that we know as bullying starts very early. It’s not necessarily even intentional at that age, but my kids and others were experiencing pretty severe bullying.
“Even in kindergarten, it’s petty stuff—bullying by exclusion. As in, ‘You don’t have the right shoes, so you can’t hang out with us.’”
Criess wondered whether the same improvisational comedy skills she was teaching adults at night might affect the way kids viewed bullying.
“I tried it out at the school where I taught,” she recalls, “and at my kids’ schools. We were getting great results, and ImprovBoston was awesome enough to say, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s run with it.’”
A case in point: the Nantucket school district, which saw an influx of immigrant families, whose children were getting bullied in schools.
An administrator in the Nantucket public schools had seen an article about ImprovBoston’s efforts to tackle bullying with comedy and brought the group in.
“That first year,” Criess says, “we worked with every class in the elementary school over the course of three days. Then we did shows for the school and for anyone on the island.
“It went so well in that first year that they actually wrote us into their budget and curriculum to come every year since. We’ve now been there nine years.”
On Nantucket, or anywhere else where ImprovBoston’s anti-bullying group goes, improvisational comedy games identify bullying behaviors and help kids change their ways.
One of the games ImprovBoston performers play is called “Take That Back,” which gets the kids howling with laughter. Performers ring a bell to ‘take back’ the last thing they said or did, and replace it with increasingly absurd responses.
“The ultimate message is that when you say hurtful things,” Criess says, “you can’t take them back, and words cause pain. We can’t ring a magic bell, but we can say we are sorry. First we get the kids laughing, and then we are able to make serious points.
After they get the kids on their side, the team transitions to the reason they are there.
“People ask us all time after our shows, “says Criess, “‘How do you do it? How do you know what you are going to say and when, or whose turn it is to talk?’ The answer is we don’t. We have no idea what’s going to happen. What we do know is that we are going to work together as a team. We are going to support each other, no matter what. We are going to celebrate each other’s ideas. It is how we create comedy, and we know that if you take those same ideas and apply them every day, you truly support each other, and this thing we call ‘bullying’ won’t have a shot in your school.
“On Nantucket, we see the same kids year after year, and the school tells us that there have been amazing changes in terms of the way they relate to each other.”
Media coverage of ImprovBoston’s anti-bullying efforts in schools has increased the reach of the program, as does cold-calling.
“Typically, when we call schools out of the blue to offer our services,” Criess says, “they say, ‘Who is this? Where are you calling from?’
“Once we explain who we are and that we’ve had success in other school districts, they open up to the idea that improv can help solve this problem.”
The performers ask students questions like, “What does bullying mean to you?”
“Their answers help inform what the next 40 minutes will look like,” Criess says. “We want to reflect what they see. Our job isn’t to preach to them about the dangers of bullying; our job is to recognize what they’re experiencing in their own words, and then help them tackle their problems using solutions they come up with.”
The performers ask how many kids have experienced bullying, how many have seen bullying, and then, very delicately, “This is a harder question, but how many of you feel like maybe you’ve made a mistake and you have been the person who bullied someone else?”
Criess says that the language changes depending on the grade, but when the kids raise their hands, “We praise them for their bravery. No matter how many kids we have in front of us, whether it’s 30 or 500, with those three questions, we typically get 99% of the kids raising their hands.”
ImprovBoston won’t wipe out bullying, of course, but by finding ways to reach kids, ImprovBoston is certainly improving kids’ lives, one classroom at a time.