Embracing humor in the classroom invites creativity, reduces stress, and enhances retention
– Victor Borge
In my first year of teaching, I taught kindergarten. There are moments from that year that parallel later moments teaching middle school because in both, students are figuring out the spoken and unspoken protocols of school and society. They’d often interpret things mistakenly and literally, channeling Peggy Parish’s famous Amelia Bedelia character. My colleague teacher that first year told me this story, and it reflects many of the gentle, yet humorous, misunderstandings my middle school students in later years expressed:
On the first day of school, the kindergarten teacher said, “If anyone has to go to the bathroom, hold up two fingers.” A little voice from the back of the room asked, “How will that help?”
We can see that uncertain student sitting at a back table asking the question in complete sincerity. The insensitive path, of course, would be to join the student’s classmates who laugh at the clueless inquiry, or even if we don’t join them, to say nothing when they laugh at their classmate. No one wants to be laughed at. It’s never appropriate in any situation in any middle school at any time to laugh at the incompetence or lack of awareness of any student. Yeah, I know this is a large, unequivocal statement, but wow, it’s true. Even if a student laughs along with everyone else in the moment without knowing what is so funny, he is using it to mask humiliation and to prove he belongs.
The misunderstanding is funny, however. One of the elements of humor is the surprise disconnect between something understood or expected, and what actually happens or is said. In a situation like that of the kindergartener, we might smile in acceptance of the misinterpretation, gently clarify the raised fingers as a signal for the need to use the restroom, and move on as if it was completely normal to misinterpret a direction and no big deal to get clarification. We might even express a discreet gratitude to the student a few minutes later for calling our attention to the erroneous assumption of clarity on our part, thereby showing respect for the student’s careful attention.
Humor can be an awkward thing in the classroom, as it is risky: Will what we think is funny be funny to our students? Will our joke “bomb” or hurt feelings? Do students have the life experience to understand the humorous connection we make? Should we mention this funny thing publicly or keep it private between us and the one student? If we are light-hearted or silly in one moment of the lesson, will we come across as not serious enough about learning? If students laugh, will we lose control of the class? Is this humorous moment advancing students’ learning or is it taking time from our studies that we don’t have?
Let’s Give It a Try
It’s worth exploring the possibilities, however. Here’s an attempt at middle school humor I made years ago while teaching life science (You have to say the punchline aloud for it to work): “What did the German cytologist (someone who studies cells) exclaim when he dropped the microscope on his foot? Ack, mitosis broken!” [Amidst your applause, let me remind you that I’m here all week … Tell your family and friends.] Puns, humorous mnemonics, and funny interpretations of words work well in a middle school classroom. They are relatively easy to generate, which is fun for students, and they give students permission to play with language, both of which are positives. I know in our geometry lessons we sometimes go off on a tangent, but we’re coming at it from a different angle, right? It parallels what we do in other subjects. Do you get the point? … Again, I’m here all week.
Middle school students love anything that challenges conventions, too, particularly if it’s humorous. As we teach them the power of conventions, we can ask them to play music with a 4/4 time signature using a weird new syncopation, and demonstrate how it completely changes the piece. We can ask them to not account for proper lab procedures in an experiment, thereby invalidating any results. We can ask them to realize the power of punctuation with these two examples (and to write their own versions!): “Let’s eat, Dad!” vs “Let’s eat Dad,” and the classic,
An English professor wrote the words, “A woman without her man is nothing,” on the blackboard and directed the students to punctuate it correctly. The men wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing,” while the women wrote, “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
Suddenly, here in the middle of this column, I have to ask you, the reader: What does this depict?
Stumped? It’s the middle of nowhere. Hah! I am seriously too funny for this magazine.
Wow, that was a jarring, non-sequitur moment. It was silly and seemingly had nothing to do with this column’s flow; it just appeared. Absurdism and random insertion of something unrelated to the topic—but later found to be related to the topic or somehow insightful—actually play well with middle school students. They hold attention, pulling wandering minds back into focus, and they’re fun. And if we’ve used them before, they create an unspoken anticipation for the surprises to come. Try to find a way to incorporate a non-sequitur, absurdist experience into your lessons once or twice a week. Here are some examples you can use in the middle of your lesson:
- Stop mid-sentence in your explanation of something and declare in a newscaster’s voice, “We now interrupt today’s lesson with this breaking news report: [Insert something about which students need reminding] We now return you to your normal class programming already in progress. [Pick up with the rest of the sentence you interrupted earlier as if nothing happened.]
- Teach while holding an umbrella over your head, as if it were raining only on you. Don’t say anything about it. If a student comments on why you’re holding it indoors and it’s not raining, tell him that in your reality it is raining and that you’d kindly like him to be careful where he walks as he is splashing through puddles right and left. As you walk in the classroom yourself (and be sure to do so), step over and around imaginary rain puddles, and occasionally stick out a hand, palm up, to see if it’s still raining. There’s a child-like playfulness here that catches students unaware and invites imagination. In some cases, it even makes them nostalgic.
- If you’re at the front of the class and have to sneeze, and there’s a whiteboard with important information for students behind you, sneeze as exaggeratedly as you can, leaping backwards simultaneously, landing with your arms sprawled out in different angles against the wall, as if the sneeze was so powerful it blew you back there. From your “splatted” position against the whiteboard or bulletin board, grow curious about where your hands landed or your fingers are pointing. Lean in to those elements, take on the character of a detective and declare to the class, “Hold up now—I wonder if this might be a clue to something important!”
- At the end of homework or assessment questions on content, throw in a question about something completely unrelated, but interesting to answer. For example, after several math problems or social studies reading comprehension questions ask, “If you had a superhero power, what would it be and why?” “For what do you have more use in your life: parallel or perpendicular lines?” “What advice would you give someone just starting middle school?” “Describe a time when you laughed so hard that what you were drinking at the time came out of your nose.”
- When writing sentences or equations on the front screen or whiteboard, insert something bizarrely unrelated to the content, such as a picture of an apple saying, “Howdy!,” a student’s name, or a favorite movie line, in the middle of what you’re writing and smile when someone notices. Later, work whatever you inserted randomly into the lesson into the later content meaningfully.
- If you have the same set of rituals and lesson sequence every day, once or twice during the year, do the rituals and sequence backwards.
- In the middle of a lesson, start dancing in a recognizable dance move to a tune only you can hear in your head. A student whom you recruited prior to the lesson to join you comes up, dances with you for 30 seconds, then he returns to his seat and you continue your lesson as if nothing were awry. Note the increased oxygen in your brain and that of the student’s.
- On the extra credit section of your next test, write the classic prompt, “For extra credit, define the universe. Give three examples.”
Satire and parody are also appealing to middle school students as they begin to perceive the fallibility of adults and institutions yet need a constructive way to make sense of these new perceptions, and not take the disillusionment too seriously. They also like to poke fun at things long thought unassailable, exploring the possibilities of rising cleverness. Here’s one by Marielle Cartier, executive director of Alliance for Canada’s Audio-Visual Heritage from the 1990s, that usually gets them started (Note: To modernize this a bit, change, “CD-ROM,” to, “a folder or two on your smart phone”):
Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device
The “BOOK” is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover! Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere—even sitting in an armchair by the fire—yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disc. Here’s how it works …
Each BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder, which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence. Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs in half. Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now BOOKs with more information simply use more pages. This makes them thicker and harder to carry, and has drawn some criticism from the mobile computing crowd. Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet. The BOOK may be taken up at any time and used by merely opening it. The BOOK never crashes and never needs rebooting, though like other display devices it can become unusable if dropped overboard. The “browse” feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an “index” feature, which pinpoints the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.
An optional “BOOKmark” accessory allows you to open the BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session—even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers.
Conversely, numerous bookmarkers can be used in a single BOOK if the user wants to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK.
The media is ideal for long-term archive use. Several field trials have proven that the media will still be readable in several centuries, and because of its simple user interface it will be compatible with future reading devices.
You can also make personal notes next to BOOK text entries with an optional programming tool, the Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Stylus (Pencils). Portable, durable, and affordable, the BOOK is being hailed as the entertainment wave of the future. The BOOK’s appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform. Look for a flood of new titles soon.
The Instruction Impact of Humor
In his article, “Using Humor in the Classroom” (www.nea.org/tools/52165.htm), NeaToday writer, Robert McNeely, reminds us, “When teachers share a laugh or a smile with students, they help students feel more comfortable and open to learning. Using humor brings enthusiasm, positive feelings, and optimism to the classroom.” He continues with comments from researcher and author of Using Humor to Maximize Learning (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007), Mary Kay Morrison, who says, “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom. In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
Former high school English teacher and graduate of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Mind, Brain, and Teaching, Sarah Henderson adds to this neurological and learning benefit:
Essentially, humor activates our sense of wonder, which is where learning begins … Neuroscience research reveals that humor systematically activates the brain’s dopamine reward system, and cognitive studies show that dopamine is important for both goal-oriented motivation and long-term memory, while educational research indicates that correctly-used humor can be an effective intervention to improve retention in students from kindergarten through college.
And even more interesting for middle and high school teachers, Henderson asks us to,
[C]onsider the research showing that adolescents tend to release more dopamine and have more dopamine receptors than adults. Because of their hyper-responsive dopamine reward system, adolescents may be uniquely primed to react positively to educational humor. Try telling a funny story or allowing your students to come up with humorous examples in their projects or discussions. Teach Like a Pirate [Dave Burgess] has some great ideas for enhancing the humor in a high school classroom. (www.edutopia.org/blog/laughter-learning-humor-boosts-retention-sarah-henderson)
In his article, “Humor: An instructional strategy to rejuvenate mundane teaching,” Professor Ranan Bala (Man in India, 96(5):1271-1276, Serials Publications, June 2016) cites the research declaring humor as a good way to lower stress:
It can help in reducing student anxiety, upholding attention and improve learning outcomes (Gorham & Christophel, 1990; Korobkin, 1998; Wanzer & Frymier, 1999; White, 2001) … Humor can be profitably utilized to communicate inherent classroom rules, building rapport and developing understanding between the instructor and the students (Proctor, 1994).
He also cites research on the connection between humor and student creativity: “A study conducted by Roeckelein (2002) reveals that, ‘Humor facilitates creative process and stimulates children to think out of the box, view things from different and unusual angles and finally come up with new ideas.'” When it comes to higher education, professors of pharmacy at Southern Illinois University, Dr. Therese Poirier and Dr. Mirand Wilhelm agree:
Appropriate use of humor can enhance retention, increase learning, improve problem solving, relieve stress, reduce test anxiety, and increase perceptions of faculty credibility. It also enhances students’ attitudes toward the faculty member and can make the faculty member more likeable. “Use of Humor to Enhance Learning:
Bull’s Eye or Off the Mark,”
American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, March 2014
In a fascinating study on instructional use of humor (Garner, R.L. “Humor in Pedagogy: How Haha Can Lead to Aha!,” College Teaching, 2006), Garner demonstrated the clear improvements to learning that occur with the use of humor. Here is how University of Maryland doctoral candidate, Robert Eagen, describes the Garner experiment in his October 30, 2011, blog, “The Benefits of Humor in the Classroom” (http://edtheory.blogspot.com/2011/10/benefits-of-humor-in-classroom.html):
Garner [explains] … a study he performed looking at the effects of humor in asynchronous distance learning and discusses the merits and hazards of using comedy to teach. The study involved 114 students who watched a series of three forty-minute recorded lectures on research methods and statistics. Both the experimental group and the control group watched the same recorded lectures with one exception. Three humorous stories or metaphors included in each of the lectures in the experimental group were seamlessly edited out of the control group’s lectures. The subjects were asked to rate the presentations after watching each one and again after finishing all three. After finishing all three lectures, the subjects were assessed on their retention of the material presented … Students indicated in the “humor” group that the information was communicated more effectively … Further, the students in the experimental group were significantly more able to recall and retain the knowledge from the lectures.
In his June 2012 article, “Humor is a Test of Character: Why Our Classrooms Need More Joy and Laughter,” Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist, Steven Mazie gathers all the research into coherent focus for us teachers:
The idea is not for teachers to take on the additional burden of being stand-up comics … It is for educators to appreciate that unmitigated solemnity isn’t a prescription for success, and to find some ways to bring humor into their students’ educational experiences.
And for us in middle or high school, in particular, there is instructional “gold” in the use of classroom humor. Mazie writes,
As Wallace et al. relate in a recent study of adolescent development: [T]eachers’ use of humor played a role in how students perceived being known by that teacher. To effectively use humor required shared experience and a certain level of nuanced knowledge of that student’s personal history. In turn, a kind of reciprocity in attention and respect developed between students and their teachers … A classroom culture where laughter thrives can break down social barriers and enable closer relationships among students and between students and their teacher. It is, in Stephen Colbert’s words, a ‘lubricant of social interaction’ that teaches toleration and good citizenship. What you find funny, says Colbert in this uncommonly earnest clip, is a test of your character.” (bigthink.com/praxis/humor-in-the-classroom-no-child-laughed-behind)
We don’t need to be comedians, as Mazie says, but we can be open to humor in our classrooms, embracing it when it happens by accident, orchestrating it when it is sorely needed to liberate, relax, and connect students to content and one another. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” is one of the worst pieces of teaching advice ever uttered. “Smile from day one,” is the stuff of community and effective instruction.
Whether you use it in the classroom as an ice-breaker or in a lesson about checking to make sure your intended audience understands abbreviations and cultural references, or you just want to laugh on your own, here’s one more, tailor-made for young adolescents (It has bathroom humor!) to make you smile.
The story goes that on February 10, 1960, Jack Paar, the then-host of “The Tonight Show,” told a joke based on an innocent mix-up involving the initials, “W.C.” The NBC censors cut it from the broadcast, and as a result, Jack Paar quit as the host of, “The Tonight Show.” See the sidebar for that funny story Jack wanted to tell that has since gone on to become a classic in many middle school classrooms.
|The W.C. Story
An English lady visiting in Switzerland was looking for a room and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend one. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned home to make final preparations to move. When she arrived home, the thought occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” in the place. (A “W.C.” is a “water closet” or a bathroom.) So, she immediately wrote a note to the school master asking if there was a W.C. in the place. The school master was very poor in English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help. Together they tried to find the meaning of the letters, W.C. The only solution they could find was “Wayside Chapel.” The school master then wrote the following letter:
My Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people, and it is open on Sundays and Thursdays only. As there are a great number of people expected during the summer months, I suggest that you come early, although usually there is plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation, especially if you are in the habit of going regularly. It may be of some interest to know that my daughter was married in the W.C., and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush for seats. There were ten people to every seat usually occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expressions on their faces.
You will be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it, while those who can afford to go by car arrive just on time. I would especially recommend your ladyship to go on Thursdays when there is organ accompaniment. The acoustics are excellent, and even the most delicate sounds can be heard everywhere.
The newest addition is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide for plush seats for all, since the people feel it is long needed. My wife is rather delicate so she cannot attend regularly. It is almost a year since she went last, and naturally it pains her very much not to be able to go more often.
I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, where you shall be seen by all. For the children, there is a special day and time so that they do not disturb the elders. Hoping to be of some service to you.
Decades ago, I wrote about how much I loved being a middle school teacher because we are on the front lines of humanity at its most honest, curious self. As our students progress into whomever they will become physically, emotionally, and intellectually, they sometimes process knowledge and respond to life in humorous ways. We extend an empathetic hand and accept them as they are, demonstrating daily our commitment to share the path forward, including how to find the funny and joyous in life. Classrooms devoid of humor and joy confirm insecure students’ worst fears: that they are alone, there is nothing worth knowing, and it doesn’t get better. Learning and connection don’t happen in places like this, and middle schools are fundamentally about both.