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Using Humor in the Classroom

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

“But why do I have to go? School is not fun!” That quote is from a first-grade child, asking his mom why he has to go every single day to this place that he was told was going to be a lot of fun, but has not lived up to the hype. If he could articulate further, he might say, "I am only six. I like to have fun, but school is not fun and from what I can tell, it's going to get worse every year, not better."

This is not an April Fool's Day anecdote; it's all too real. That's why we are always on the lookout for ways fun ways to engage and inspire students . On the other hand, we also know that teachers are not selected or trained to be comedians or entertainers. However, we know that a positive climate for learning, and enjoyment, is correlated with retention of information and putting knowledge to work in everyday situations (including tests).

Confused? Me, too. So I sought out an expert: Ed Dunkelblau, former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning and consultant to schools for both character and social, emotional learning (SEL) approaches, as well as to families coping with the stress of military service. I spoke with him about how to bring humor into classrooms.

I asked Ed how humor can be fit in when teachers have so much to cover in their classes. He said, "In the present environment of high stakes testing, budgetary challenges, increased demands on educators and competition for students attention, everyone in the school benefits when humor is part of the pedagogy. Humor builds a learning relationship through the joyful confluence of head and heart." He points to a growing literature on how humor reduces stress and tension in the classroom, improves retention of information, and promotes creative understanding.

"But most of all, it brings a sense of pleasure and appreciation and creates a common, positive emotional experience that the students share with each other and the teacher."

Humor Strategies to Use

Even if you are what Ed calls "humor challenged," there are things you can do to lighten the load and dissipate the clouds in your classroom. Just remember, above all, that sarcasm has no place in the school. Only "no hurt" humor is acceptable.

  • Laugh at yourself -- when you do something silly or wrong, mention it and laugh at it
  • Add humorous items to tests, homework or class assignments -- even at the University, one of my favorite options when I give multiple choice exams requiring students to identify pairs of psychologists is Calamari and Endive. It always gets smiles, and helps to break exam tension
  • Keep a quotable quotes bulletin board or corner in your room -- look for humor quotes and post them and encourage your students to do the same
  • Keep a cartoon file, and have an area where you can display one or two a day on a rotating basis, with students making the choice
  • Have Joke Friday -- ask students to bring in jokes to share, either to start the day on Friday, to make a transition between lunch and the following class, or at the end of the day (be sure to screen the jokes in advance, of course)
  • Ask students to try to build humor into occasional writing assignments -- that will start a conversation about what it funny, how they know something is funny, why different people find some things funny but some things are funny to almost everyone
  • Have a funny hat day, or mismatched socks day, or some other funny dress-up time
  • Build creative and humorous thinking by showing cartoons and picture without captions and asking students to create them -- individually, in pair-shares, or small groups
  • Ask students to bring in books they think are funny. Ask them to talk about why, and to use examples from the book

Truth be told, however, there is another side to the story. Ed tells of a group of individuals who are not so enamored of bringing humor into classrooms and schools: private practice therapists. "The more laughs our society loses, the more humorless our society becomes, and the more clients our society creates. Laughter is a great antidote to stress. As they say at the AATH, "Those who laugh, last. Those who don't, pay a price." But really, it's the kids who pay the price, and they should not have to.

Let's add some more enjoyment to school. We don't need guffaws -- a smile and a little levity can go a long way. It's time for us educators to take humor more seriously. I am sure Ed will be happy to help you if you ask.

How do you bring humor in to your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.


Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Comments (53)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

MrKekic, love that you used a Young Frankenstein joke. +10 points! :-)

Maurice Elias's picture
Maurice Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Thanks so much Lessia!!! You brought a smile to my face!-- Maurice

Brianne's picture
Preschool Teacher, NC

In studying for a graduate course, we read a book called "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension." There was a section in the book that talked specifically about using a sense of humor in the classroom. It was one of the many characteristics that the authors thought helped shape an effective teacher. It explains that learning should be enjoyable and interesting for the students. What better way to capture their attention and lead them into a lesson than with a joke or a silly song or skit?

Especially in preschool, I find it very helpful to use humor to help the kids feel comfortable with being in a new environment away from home. Many of them are unsure about their surroundings and it is reassuring to them when you lighten the mood in the class and they open up to you.

Maurice Elias's picture
Maurice Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Brianne, thanks so much for sharing this. The reference, for those interested, is On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension
Jeffrey A. Kottler, Stanley J. Zehm, Ellen Kottler
Published by Corwin Press.

Tessa's picture

I think being able to laugh at yourself is a very effective strategy to use with students. I feel it can help students grow and understand they are not alone in making mistakes. We all make mistakes and when we admit to making a mistake in front of our students it helps them learn and grow from their own mistakes. I currently teach reading so when I misread a word in a passage, I always make a point to reread the material instead of continuing so my struggling readers understand everyone makes mistakes. Using this practice has seemed to build confidence in my students.

Adam Swang's picture
Adam Swang
K-5 Art Teacher from Las Vegas, Nevada

Great article Maurice! As an art teacher who sees every class in my school once a week, i love starting the lesson with a fun short video on the topic of study or a character lesson. I find this focuses the kids and prepares them for my lesson after they have transitioned to my classroom.

Thanks again for a great article.

jeoxenford's picture

This is such a great reminder to include humor in our instruction! Students want to have fun, and usually learn so much more when they are having fun. Plus, humor helps keep students' attention. It is important that kids learn that it is ok to take things seriously but have fun at the same time. It is also important for teachers to remember that it is ok to have fun!

Kelly Garcia's picture

Humor is such a powerful tool in the classroom. I love watching my students evolve throughout the school year using the Chemistry Cat memes. At the beginning of the year, the kids don't understand them, but as the year progresses, they start to understand them. Before I know it, they are making up their own clever and often very funny memes, For me, this is a good indicator of their understanding of the content.

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