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How Humor Can Transform Your Classroom
June 15, 2014 - 9:08pm

Old black and white photo of elderly woman with "smile" written stamped across itNatascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.

At the beginning of my second quarter teaching, I had a major cold sore outbreak that could only be tolerated under thick layers of desensitizing, gross-looking ointment. Within an hour of arriving at the university that day, four people had kindly alerted me to the fact that I had “something” on my lip (big news). It was rather frustrating and embarrassing, so when I entered my classroom that morning, I raised my hand and proclaimed in an exasperated voice: “In case anyone feels the urge to alert me to the fact that I have something on my face – trust me, I know.” And I smiled. The entire class cracked up laughing.

Self-deprecating humor can be incredibly powerful. It’s one of the reasons everyone adores Jennifer Lawrence. The ability to make fun of yourself is a way to open up to the audience and let them into your space and a world that you control. The key is to make fun of yourself, rather than your students, as it makes you seem more human and gets people on your side.

Although I’d discovered the power of self-deprecation by accident, it made its mark on me and on my teaching. My students’ laughter that day instantly relaxed me and changed my attitude as an instructor over the weeks to come. I started being my (overly, some people claim) blunt self, and I discovered that some of the best comedy stems from blatant honesty. Stories of embarrassment and frustration had them holding their bellies while laughing. Gradually, I felt confident enough to start joking about their excuses and failure to deliver. Often a simple “seriously?” or “dude” would have them kicking and jumping and it would, surprisingly, turn out to be just as effective as a stern remark or criticism, if not more.

Of course, there’s a thin line here. One should never ever use humor at the expense of a student’s self-esteem. Joking with students is one thing - putting them down another. Humor is also no substitute for substance: just because you are telling jokes, does not mean you are teaching effectively.

Yet for me, humor has been one of the ways in which I’ve turned disengaged groups of college students into my dream class. Beyond simply making people laugh, it has the rare ability to soften hardened hearts, open shuttered minds, and bring students close to one another. It has been the key that allows me to reach out to the “difficult”, the unmotivated,  and the unhappy.

Whether your humor comes natural or not, below are some humor strategies you can use in your own classroom:

  • Laugh at yourself: You don't have to have a background in comedy--some of the funniest and most inoffensive remarks are self-deprecating, and they have the added benefit of showing the students that you are human. It’s also worth it in the interest of drawing shyer students out of their shells.
  • Use humor in homework, test, and quiz questions: I currently teach German, which includes a lot of boring drilling and sentence construction exercises. It’s a serious time investment but students really appreciate anything remotely funny that stretches the “this is a red apple” idea. In the case of exams/ quizzes it will also help lift the veil of test-anxiety.
  • Don’t be afraid to be gross: Tell them about that time your period stained through your white skirt on a would-have-been-perfect date or when you presented at a conference with snot hanging out of your nose. It’s a sure way to get their attention. More importantly, get the juices flowing by encourage them to share their own stories of embarrassment.
  • Be miserable together: No matter what course you’re teaching, there’s always gonna be that day or week filled with material that, well, kinda sucks. Flashing your basic anger at the system will always get smiles. Sometimes I make a simple comment about the insane (really) amount of grammar we have to cover in a chapter and their laughter lightens the room. What’s important is that they know I’m on their side.
  • Spice it up with funny clips, pics etc.: Even if you don’t feel funny at all, you can accrue the benefits of humor in class by using the humor of others (youtube videos, pictures and comics etc.) to make a point. A significant part of my job is teaching vocabulary, and I’ve made a habit out of introducing and reviewing it using funny pictures.
  • Be you: My humor is blunt, raw, and sarcastic. Not everyone can handle my directness, and I often say things that could be taken the wrong way. Yet in my classroom this rawness has done wonders for building trust and rapport with my students.

So what if you’re not comfortable using humor as an instructional tool? Although humor is a great way to tell a story, increase student engagement, and foster a sense of community, there are many other ways to spice up your class routine, with music, field trips, and social media feeds being some of them. You don’t have to be a class clown and you certainly don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. The most important thing, really, is to be true to who you are and where you’re coming from.

Are you using humor in your own classroom? If not, what other strategies do you use to make the classroom more interesting? Share your tips in the comments below!

Image by Flickr user Alan Cleaver used under creative commons licensing.

 

 

 

 

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