Introduction to using comedy in the classroom:
How then, do you balance the necessity of comedy in your classroom with the necessity of hard work and respect in your classroom? As with all other classroom management tools, how to use comedy is widely varied depending on the teacher and the students (often on a student-by-student basis.) I once threatened to feed a student to a living dragon if he didn’t stop pestering the girl behind him. He thought it was a hilarious joke and stopped by after school to discuss the wide variety of dragon mythology in movies and videogames -- much to my chagrin, he doesn’t read books. I’m not saying that threatening students with carnivorous lizards is the correct way to use comedy. I am saying that comedy is a highly nuanced classroom skill that requires great finesse to wield properly. To clarify, let’s look at an anecdote that happened in my classroom that really left an impression on me in terms of how research-based strategies fit into a classroom, and how comedy needs to be used to balance a classroom management policy.
"Yor a Stanky Sack-a-Taterzz - Anecdote
Jason looked over to Joshua and whispered about New Football Game 2.14 x 2008 that was just released on Thursday. As an attentive teacher, Mr. Management walked over to use the research-based proximity approach of classroom management, which simply says that moving closer to a student will make them stop behaving badly. HA! As Mr. Management sat down in the desk next to Jason, Jason looked over at Joshua and said, in an exaggeratedly loud, strangely cowboy-themed whisper, “Josh-you-uhhhh?”
“Yass Jay-suuuun, wutts put a gnat in yore bedroll?” Joshua responded in character as John Wayne.
“Wale Josh-you-uhhhh, did mayhaps you notice the distinct stank of a sack of rancid taters approach hereabouts of late?” Jason responded in increasing volume, ensuring that he built an audience of the entire class, including Hard Working Hannah “with an H” from the back corner. (There are, of course, two Hannahs in class, one with, and one without an “h” at the end.)
“Now that yew menshun it Jay-suuuun, Ah reckon Ah do smell sumthin’. But it ain’t just a sack-a-rancid taters. Them taters is mouldy!” Joshua cupped his hand over his mouth to pretend his whisper was intended to go unnoticed.
“Yessir Josh-you-uhhhh that must be the truth of it. Just then, someone musta dropped a sack-a-rancid, mouldy taters right on that there desk yonder.” Jason could barely suppress his laughter as he pointed to the desk at which Mr. Management has recently parked his behind.
At this point, Mr. Management broke into repressed laughter and the class followed in genuine mirth. The hilarity lasted about a minute, during which time Mr. Management complimented the boys’ spaghetti western accents. Everyone was working again within three minutes.
While I don’t remember the exact words the students used, I distinctly remember that the culminating joke was centered on my being a sack of smelly potatoes. This is a hilarious notion given my average level of hygiene and grooming. (Admittedly, sometimes my beard gets a bit mountain manly in the bleak midwinter.) This anecdote has several integral components to how comedy can be used to manage a classroom.
1) Students are funny. Too many teachers, especially clever teachers, expect the students to defer to teacher comedy, which probably centers around word-play, puns, sarcasm, and blah, blah, blah. Student comedy is often much better, and it will usually involve funny-sounding voices, strange noises, and the adverse smells which link to various bodily functions. It creates a sad imbalance when a clever teacher makes a clever joke, and then yells at her students for not paying close enough attention to understand it. That clever teacher is usually the same teacher that will scream about the repeated fart noises that erupt from the back of the classroom every time she bends down to pick up a paper out of the printer. When people bend down and a fart noise erupts, it’s funny, and it’s ok to admit it.
2) The event had a distinct start (created by the teacher’s research-based application of proximity) and a distinct end (the culmination of the western-style conversation.) My rule of thumb is that one minute is an acceptable amount of time for a joke to develop, and one more minute must be forfeit to the impending laughter. Try to cut off a great joke in the middle, and you come off looking like a screaming hater of fun. Try to get kids back on task while they’re laughing and having fun and you come off looking like a screaming hater of fun. Allow two minutes of fun, and, hold onto your hats, maybe have a little fun enjoying your students’ humor yourself, and then refocus the class to look like the cool teacher. Other non-research-based side effects of fun include less hair loss, less cortisol production and therefore a slimmer waistline, and less likelihood to count down the days to the end of your career. If the event or the laughter seems likely to drag beyond a minute, find a suitable place to end it, and realize that it will still take students some time to refocus onto the learning task. Remember, you teach students, not dependent variables.
3) The comedy was victimless. I do not smell like a sack of musty potatoes, and therefore, I did not care that I was compared to one. Similarly, in a real life classroom with real life students who have actual friends and siblings, you might have two twins who regularly talk about how the other twin is uglier than the other twin who is uglier than the other twin… This is funny and victimless, and so can abide by the two minute rule. The minute a joke becomes hurtful, it is over. If students make fun of other students for smelling badly, and there are actual bad smells involved, the joke is over immediately. If students make fun of someone for having a problem with weight, and there is a real problem with weight, the joke is immediately over. You get the point. Clever sarcasm is funny -- it’s obviously not ok to make fun of the kid with digestive problems because he passes so much gas.
4) While I was not nearly suave enough at the time to pull this off, it happened during my second, or maybe my third year of teaching, this anecdote shares a story that is ripe with teachable moments. As an English teacher, I could have discussed dialect, or the development of the anti-hero through Clint Eastwood. A social studies teacher could talk about westward expansion and manifest destiny. A science teacher could link how smells develop when potatoes are exposed to moisture. I didn’t do any of these things.
I simply sat and laughed with my hilarious students for about a minute. What more can any person ask of any job they’re paid to work?
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.