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  • Lisa Harris

How It Began

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Teaching is a stressful job. A few years ago, I realized I needed an outlet for my stress, so I started taking improvisation classes at Bob Carter’s Actor’s Workshop. I didn’t really have any interest in performing, but I was familiar with improvisation games. When I watched actors play these games on stage, they looked fun- and I needed some fun. The very first class I took, I laughed hysterically almost continuously. My instructor, Kathleen Kenny, kept repeating the same things, “you are enough,” and, “whatever you’re doing is the right thing,” and, “it doesn’t matter, it’s just a game.” I looked forward to those Tuesday nights like a little kid looks forward to their birthday. No matter how busy I was, Tuesday night improv class was sacred. In a very real way, it was like therapy: a way to deal with the pressures of life.

Almost immediately, I realized that the games we played in improv class would be fun for my 5- year old kindergarteners, too. I always played a little game in between the read aloud and small group instruction. Instead of the boring, same every time, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” I started playing Zip, Zap, Zop. Each time we played, the game changed. Each time, the kids got better. Each time was fun, because each time was different. And they started focusing on who’s turn it was – really looking at each other and following the fast pace.

The kids loved Zip, Zap, Zop. Then I taught them Walk, Stop, Jump, Clap. This got them moving around even more. It also made the English language learners focus on the action word. When I switched it around, and the kids had to do the opposite action (walk when I say stop, stop when I say walk) the hilarity was contagious.

Since that time, I have added new games to what I teach my class. Usually I pick a game based on the social skills I see my students need. For example, I had a group of kids a few years ago who complained about EVERYTHING. It’s boring. It’s too hard. I don’t like it. Blah blah blah. So, I taught them the game I Love. The rules are simple. Stand in a circle and say things you love. Listen to each other and be inspired by what you hear others say. The only hard and fast rule is that each statement begins with the words, “I love....” Absolutely no negative commenting on what someone else loves. Of course, as Kathleen Kenny says, even when that happened, it just didn’t matter, it’s only a game.

For years, playing improv games with my class was just something I did. I didn’t think about other classes or other children at all.

Then the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School happened. The survivors took to the streets and the airwaves and insisted that we do something to stop the madness. I took to the streets and the airwaves with them. I texted and called and emailed my senators and representatives. None of my actions felt as if I was making a difference. The laws stayed the same. Reaching out to my elected officials wasn’t enough for me. I had to do something else. I just didn’t know what it would be. I sat in my living room with friends trying to figure it out. I knew that students and teachers alike were cracking under the stressors coming not only from the pressures of standardized testing and, for older students, college applications, but from the fear and anger that comes with the knowledge that what happened in Parkland could happen to any of us, in any of our schools. In all of this madness, I knew that students and teachers needed to be given space to heal from the stress and come together in a moment of joy. I just didn’t know how to do it.

I figured it out on a Thursday in March, 2018. My second grade class had to move down the hall to another classroom. The 3rd graders next door to our room were taking the Florida State Assessments and we might make too much noise. We had been in the temporary class all week. It was awful. Our entire routine was disrupted for a week. For whatever reason (I have put them out of my mind), that Thursday was one annoyance after another. Kids were misbehaving, no work was getting done, I was at my wits’ end. Then Pierre raised his hand.

“We haven’t played a game, today, Mrs. Harris.”

“You’re right. We haven’t. Everybody, put your pencils down and meet me on the carpet for a game.”

And that was it. The tension in the room dissolved. Not entirely, but enough to get through the remainder of the day on a positive note. Pierre knew that playing a game would make the room feel at least a little better, he knew that he and his classmates needed to just play, to have a moment of joy. So as the tension released from mine and my student’s shoulders, I realized that if my games could help my students deal with pressure, learn some very needed social skills, and bring them (and me) a moment of joy, maybe they could help other students, and other teachers, too. I started to think how all of the students I’d played these games with could have benefitted if their subsequent teachers played them, too. I imagined the joy in a school filled with teachers and students easing daily tension with a quick game of Props or Mirror or any of the other games we play in improvisation class.

With a little encouragement from friends and family, a principal who put her faith in my idea, and a generous grant from Education First and The NoVo Foundation, i2iEDU was born.

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