“Don’t laugh with them till Christmas.” I distinctly remember my seventh-grade teacher reciting these words of wisdom near the end of the school year. She was reflecting on her first year of teaching, and pondering things she would do differently. She said her master teacher told her this, told her that if she allowed her students to laugh before Christmas break she would lose control of the classroom. Well, sometimes she did. Most often, however, she did not. She was a good teacher; I would say she’s the teacher I most try to emulate. I remember her because she was funny. It was never at any else’s expense, she was frequently the subject of our laughter. We laughed a lot in that class, we laughed because she set a tone of safety and acceptance which allowed it.
Should all teachers include humor in their interactions with students? Well, teachers have to operate within the parameters of their own personalities and comfort; they cannot project comfort with humor if it’s not natural for them. If so, teaching using humor can be rewarding—and highly effective. First, teachers need to remember the importance of meeting students’ physiological, safety, and emotional needs before expecting them to learn (Maslow 1943). Second, teachers should act with an understanding of the mechanics of learning. Within the brain, the hippocampus and amygdala work together to connect memories and emotions, facilitating information storage. When classroom or teacher/student emotions are negative, information storage is blocked because stress responses block the efficient teamwork of these two structures.
The concepts described above are well addressed through Capturing Kids’ Hearts (CKH), our district-wide system of positive behavior. By observing CKH practices, we ensure students’ physiological and emotional needs. We directly ask students about their needs, and in time, students come to believe that they can express just about any need. We build social contracts, so that students know that they will be emotional and socially safe. But does emotional safety always have to be serious, thoughtful, solemn? I say “Why so serious—let’s have some fun”!
This year, as each class began working on our social contract, I ensured that words like funny and humorous appeared. I teach, directly, how to use humor metacognitively—humorous connections to new content are just as effective as their more staid and academic cousins. We laugh, we learn. The animation inserted here illustrates a quick review of the literary terms of plot: exposition, setting, protagonist/antagonist, internal/external conflict, direct/indirect characterization, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. These terms were initially taught in isolation, then applied to a literary text, then reviewed—not necessarily in isolation, but without the added load of decoding and interpreting difficult text (that’s an ongoing, cross-curricular endeavor).
Here’s the review lesson:
- Hand out a copy of a plot diagram. I like the one below:
- Next, open the following video on your Smart board or display with your computer/projector. Students can also view this independently and stop the action and fill in the diagram as they go along.
- Enjoy the video—it’s hilarious! Let students imitate the cat’s meows. Better yet, you imitate the cat’s meows. Laugh hysterically at the climax, relate to your cat. Enjoy students laughing hysterically and relating to their cats. Through the laughter (not after making it stop), lead students in completing the plot diagram graphic organizer. Students will now have positive associations with these terms and they will be readily retrievable in the future.
My final thought on this subject is how it relates to our CKH launches. Sometimes our students are struggling in life and aren’t really interested in someone trying to make them laugh. Teachers should know their students (CA teaching standard 1), so you should know whether or not the time is right for a belly laugh. Don’t try to falsely infuse humor when it isn’t the time or place. On those days, however, where you feel a chuckle is what’s needed, CKH launches can be inspiring and guiding, but they can also be fun. I find the ones that are funny bring a closer bond.
I’d like to thank Jinnae Stuckey for inspiring this topic. The first meeting of her acting/theatre production group was held one afternoon in the amphitheater. Frequent, uninhibited laughter emanated from that room; it squeezed through the cracks of the enclosure and wafted throughout the entire building. I remember smiling frequently and feeling my own mood lift at the sound of directed, engaged and emotionally safe teenage laughter. I can think of no better sound—well, except maybe Mr. Bressler’s meows.