Keep it simple
When using comedy, keep it simple. One year, a student started a blood feud with me because once, I tried to sit sideways in a desk and didn’t fit. She’s called me fat ever since. It’s funny because I don’t have any more of a weight problem than the average American and because it doesn’t affect the quality of her classwork, which has always been below average regardless of the relationship we’ve developed by building rapport through fat jokes.
The only reason that rapport has been built is because early into our blood feud, we talked, and established a few simple rules: One joke every two days was allowable. No jokes could detract from other students’ education. We could not compare ourselves to any students who have legitimate problems with body weight, and all numbers we use to describe each others’ weight must be so high that no students’ weight was within a hundred pounds. Because we both kept each other accountable to these rules, our blood feud provided comedy for 19 students in fourth period for an entire school year. It's a bit like team building, except the exercises weren't trust falls, they were "Mr. Karpie, Octavia ate an entire cup full of ranch dressing at lunch! You should roast her."
Perhaps an example will help to clarify how this blood feud has developed. One of my favorite strategies for harnessing students’ social energy is using structured weekend story time to develop storytelling skills and learn about my students..
My weekend story began as follows:
“Last weekend, my wife, my father-in-law, and his friends went to a ropes course! It was awesome, but don’t get too excited Octavia, there’s a strict 350lb weight limit on all the challenges…”
Also, weekend story time is decidedly NOT academic. It didn’t ruin class for anyone to fit a quick jab in to keep the feud alive. I’d never work an insult or comedy into something important like directions or feedback. Comedy is a tool of classroom management, but I’ve found it’s best to leave it out of the proper, educational part of lessons. By doing so, it’s easy to channel student comedy into “that’s really funny, but now it’s time to learn” channels that can be revisited on that awkward Tuesday when the internet crashes and it’s the one day you planned to stream an interview through TED.com.
In terms of simplicity, I tend to follow a one-sentence rule. Jokes need to last one sentence or under. Any longer than one sentence and there’s the risk of actual embarrassment. When using simple teacher humor, get in and out and continue class before anyone knows what’s happening. Another favorite “keep it simple” trick of mine is to insert sentences when reading aloud. People have a chance to smile, but the activity is so structured that virtually no real academic time is lost. “...and Atticus, who always upheld the letter and the spirit of the law, unlike Anthony who is texting under his desk, proceeded to question…” Eight words. Comedy achieved. That’s impressive.
Simple humor is the best. It’s quick; students understand it. Using complex, sophisticated humor, even with advanced-level, 17 year old seniors, will not work as well as a nice, well-timed use of a student’s “secret” nickname from last weekend’s pool party. Complex humor says to students “let me prove to you how smart I am, hahaha, you don’t get it, let me explain the joke…” They’ll disengage from the humor, and your classroom. Effectively employing humor at their level, that shows you understand and respect them as human people, will allow students to engage with you, but more importantly, with the content of your class. It took me seven months to effectively use the phrase “high-key extra” in a comically-correct context, but it was worth it. I learned so much about my students through the journey.
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.