Making it up as they go along: NEF funds Zoom improv classes for students grades 1-8

  • Laz Scher, 11, sits in a tree in the front yard of her home in Northampton, Monday, June 15, 2020. She is taking a theater improv class on Zoom, along with other elementary school students in Northampton Public Schools. The classes are aimed at breaking away from the daily stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow kids to have fun in a group setting. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rowan and Ruthie Davison, twins and soon-to-be first graders at RK Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, got dressed up as a witch and an old woman before improv class. Since last month, elementary school students in Northampton Public Schools have been taking part in improv classes via Zoom. The classes are aimed at breaking away from the daily stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow kids to have fun in a group setting. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer 
Published: 6/16/2020 12:19:57 PM

Improvising has become something of a new art for a lot of families in quarantine over the past few months. And since last month, elementary school students in Northampton Public Schools have been taking part in theater improvisation classes via Zoom. The classes are aimed at breaking away from the daily stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic to allow kids to have fun in a group setting. 

Alazne “Laz” Scher, an 11-year old student who will be attending sixth grade at JFK Middle School next year, was one of more than 100 students in grades one through five who took part in the first series of classes that kicked off on May 11 over Zoom via grant funding from the Northampton Education Foundation (NEF). 

“I really like how it’s funny, but also fun,” Scher said. “I really like all the games and the teacher.”

Heidi Haas, a clinical social worker specializing in child and family matters, teaches the weekly theater improv class over Zoom, which was offered in-person prior to the onset of the pandemic. 

Haas started her private improv theater classes after co-creating an after-school theater program at Leeds Elementary School in 1996 alongside Northampton playwright Anthony Giardina.

Haas decided to start the classes because improv can bring joy to kids by building up their confidence and social skills, she explained. 

“After a few years, I went out on my own and started teaching privately after school,” Haas said. “It’s magic to watch children use their own imaginations to collaborate and create these really hilarious skits.”

She added that the Zoom classes consist of improv games, one of which involves giving another student an imaginary present. In this scenario, the person receiving the present can let their imagination guide them in the improv game, and other participants can play off of that initial idea. 

“At the end of class we do, ‘Pass the ball,’’’ Scher explained. “You pass the ball, and the person passing it turns it into something. You say what it turns into. It’s not a real ball, you just say who you’re passing it to.” 

Gina-Louise Sciarra, Scher’s mother and the Northampton City Council president, said her daughter has been taking improv classes led by Haas for the past three years.

“It’s been her favorite activity every week for all that time,” Sciarra said. “She just kind of buzzes with excitement when it’s improv day.”

When schools closed, and routines were interrupted, “one of the hardest things for Laz was losing the outlet of improv every week,” Sciarra said. At first, Sciarra wasn’t sure how weekly improv classes would work over Zoom, but returning to improv quickly became the highlight of Laz’s week once again, she said. 

Haas said NEF funded the May improv classes as an initial pilot program, which ended on June 5. A second grant will fund an eight-week improv class series for students grades one through eight starting this week and going through mid-August. Both grants add up to more than $10,000 for both the pilot class series and the summer classes. 

Eight 50-minute weekly classes are led by Haas and four other instructors: Northampton High School alumni who took part in the school’s improv troupe Funktionlust. 

Kate Cardoso, a corporate meeting planner who wrote the grant for the Zoom improv classes, said her children had done in-person improv classes with Haas in the past. 

“My kids had started to do Zoom improv with Heidi very shortly after the quarantine started,” Cardoso said. “It was really great for them. It was just an hour a week where they could be silly and have fun and be creative and get away from the anxieties of life in quarantine.” 

Since the online classes started, Haas said, she has received positive responses from other parents of participating students. “The kind of feedback was, “This was the first time I saw my child smile for the first time in months.’ Another parent said, ‘My child was very reluctant, but once she did it, she was off and was playing the games all day.’” 

Parents and guardians of Northampton Public School students in grades one to eight can contact Kate Cardoso at katecardoso@comcast.net to join the weekly Zoom improv classes. Although classes started this week, signups are still available until Friday. 

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. 


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