Humor in the Classroom
One of the worst pieces of advice I was given as a new teacher, oh so many years ago, was to not let students see you smile until the second month. Unfortunately, my personality doesn’t quite work with that hard-and-fast rule at all. It takes a certain kind of person to show no sense of humor effectively to a bunch of kids without seeming, well, humorless. I understood the sentiment–to prevent kids from taking advantage of you required the stern visage of a Moai statue:
“I think he’s finally cracking. Quick, tell another joke”
In my experience, classrooms are far more fluid than this kind of thinking would allow. The way the room runs should reflect the personality of the teacher as much as the students. For me, that involves allowing for the offhand joke or remark that can help break up the doldrums of the school day. Children are often well versed in sarcasm, repartee, puns and plays on words. Understanding this, as well as allowing for it, can make lots of kids feel more comfortable and at home at school. But there’s a line that I had to draw to keep them from horsing around.
“Hay! Stay focused, Cameron. What? Were you born in a barn or something?”
Mathematics: funnier than you think
I’ve been teaching Math for almost two decades now, and while people wouldn’t usually equate light-heartedness with calculations and equations, I found plenty of places where my desire to not take serious learning so seriously came in handy. I remember ruining music for all of my classes by explaining that every song they have ever enjoyed incorporated fractions (intervals, time signatures, whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes, etc.). I taught a lesson on angles of incidence and proportion by having them calculate King Kong’s height and Mothra’s wingspan with a few diagrams of them destroying skyscrapers.
I even cribbed from Bill Cosby when explaining why a minimum-wage job makes it hard to cover the bills if you drop out of school:
My students responded favorably to this method. I was giving a lesson on the order of operations (Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication & Division, Addition & Subtraction) using the mnemonic device, PEMDAS (Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally). As I explained it to the room while writing it on the board, one of my students hollered out “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sucia!” The whole room cracked up. For those not familiar, “sucia” means “dirty” in Spanish. Please Excuse My Dear Dirty Aunt. As the entire class was made up of Spanish speakers, this did two things: it broke up the arguably dry lesson with a clever bit of bilingual humor, and it also gave everyone in the room a mnemonic device they’d never forget. Every last one of my students used this offhand joke as their way to recall the order of operations.
Long story long, this approach works for some and not for others, but it would be disingenuous for me to deny my desire to crack wise. Kids can tell if you’re trying to be funny and failing just as much as they can tell if you’re putting on a stoic expression when you’d really like to be yourself. As a semi-retired class clown, using humor as currency was a double-edged sword. I wanted them to feel comfortable with following their humorous inspirations, but I didn’t want to open my class up to constant interruptions from the peanut gallery with failed attempts at funny stuff. Kids will always try funny stuff:
This isn’t staged. Douglas came in wearing these yesterday.
So, where are you going with this?
We’ve been developing our first curriculum zine on SITE the past few weeks, which involves the creation of infographics for teachers by teachers. I had suggested that as an exercise, we could ask teachers to create some signage for their rooms that covers classroom courtesy, and the rules they use in their day to day. As I pondered what contribution I could start with, I came back again and again to my hard-and-fast rule that allowed me to use humor as a teaching tool and keep my lessons to regressing into a constant stream of heckles:
It just about covers it. Once again, this isn’t something that works for everyone, but for the right teacher, maybe this will work well for you. We’d love to hear what odd rules and regulations, or digressions into humor you’ve had in your class. Feel free to post them here.
In the end, there are no definitive classroom rules that work for everyone, and even as someone who considers himself as the height of humor, I’m not immune to bombing myself:
Special thanks goes to the Demos and Giebel families for allowing me to photograph their sons for this article. Always get permission, folks. Nupur Maheshwar took the “Horsing Around” photo of Cameron and I.