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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
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Carolyn K's picture
Carolyn K
Science Academy teacher

I show Youtube clips that I find humorous and classroom-appropriate. Often these are suggested by students. If kids seem stressed or if the "mood" of a class seems grouchy I'll play a really bad "oldie" song such as a Bobby Vinton song like Blue Velvet- sorry Vinton fans out there.
RE the clips I mentioned above, one of my favorite clips to play for my Biology classes is from a PBS program from at least 10 yes ago involving a male rainforest bird whose mating dance looks amazingly similar to Michael Jackson's moonwalking,especially when accompanied by the song Billie Jean

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

My, gosh ... that's the only way I can teach. With humor. And I recorded it all in my online journal of my first year, at www.adixiediary.com

I've always felt the best teachers, administrators, and parents had a genuine sense of humor. I know that's true!

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

Fantastic Comments!

I want to thank you all for your wonderful comments. Your caveats and examples and tips are truly helpful. Like most other teaching approaches and tools, humor, too, must not be forced or artificial or overused. Yet I think we are now at the point where its role in basic pedagogy is better understood and appreciated. A classroom with levity can be no less serious or purposeful than another classroom, and intensity and pressure are not an inside track to learning and retention for most students in most situations.

Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

Just to add a couple of thoughts Maurice.

No question, humor is a great tool. But I would be careful not to have it come across as "forced humor" (or go across like a lead balloon) particularly by a teacher who is not initially comfortable with using humor. Otherwise the kids who are very perceptive might begin seeing you as the humor - and perhaps weakening your classroom management and control.

My advice. Start off slowly - create a warm and relaxed atmosphere and then increase the humor. If it is a little weak the kids will be more forgiving because they are comfortable and they "like" you.

I have found that humor does help build a great relationship with a class as long as they understand where the line is drawn (as you said in the article, no "put-downs" please). It really does help engagement and motivation. Also a student loyalty develops - and this rubs-off at home (making parent-teacher night easier !). If your lucky, you may receive a few more presents at Christmas - and have more students come and say goodbye to you at the end of Year 12 !

Some classes, however, might be much more difficult to control and so using humor (no matter how good) could result in you being perceived as an easy target. I'll leave it at that.

Ann Bailey, MS, LPC's picture
Ann Bailey, MS, LPC
Oregon School Counselor, Oregon Licensed Professional Counselor

I'm appalled at this comment:
"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."

I can't think of any way this comment enhances, promotes respect or honors the relationships between the schools and community partners (local mental health agencies, child-family therapists, counselors, to name a few).

To imply that private practice therapists don't like the idea of humor in the classroom (where's the citation for this?) because it will mean fewer clients is a ludicrous, unprofessional and egregious assumption! Therapists not only encourage humor, friendship, health and spiritual wellness, they work with classroom teachers and other school staff to develop plans to help children thrive at school, home and in the community. I found this part of the article offensive, unfortunate and completely unnecessary.

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

Anne, I understand your perspective fully. Perhaps his comment is much easier to laugh at when it is delivered in a room full of professional therapists, who typically share in the laughter because they recognize the underlying truth about how humor is being squeezed out of education and parenting because it does not seem productive. But I respectfully suggest you save your appall for what is truly egregious and recognize the humor in the comment. What is truly appalling is what is happening in our schools today, something that remains largely unaffected by the work of individual therapists, however well motivated and however much they employ humor. Preventing children from becoming unwilling casualties of humorless and unforgiving systems is something that should occupy much wider concern than it does. That said, to return to your comment specifically, context matters greatly in the way humor is interpreted. In fact, you have given yet another good reason for others' appropriate points that humor must be used carefully because, in any wide audience, different senses of humor may in fact be operating.

MrKekic's picture
Integrated science Teacher, Ohio

I think using humor can be one of the best tools a teacher can use. Starting a Lesson with a joke related to the topic is something that really captures the students attention. There are a ton of great school appropriate science jokes/memes for teachers to use, and if students find the humor in the joke you know they understand it. One example was when learning about blood types I told the students my typing was AB-normal and wrote it up on the board. After a few weeks of similar science jokes I've had students bringing them to class and sharing them, they even try to stump me every once in a while. I highly suggest using humor in a classroom!

amybrabenec's picture
Kindergarten teacher from Paso Robles, California

Our school teaches the 16 Habits of Mind all year long, giving focus to each at different times. Last week we focused on finding humor. At our shared start as a whole school, our principal started by telling a joke and then introducing the habit. We taught students how humor works in the brain and that it makes you smarter because you think twice. We made a hand motion symbol for finding humor with our thumbs tucked into the palms of our hand (limbic system), wrapped our fingers over the thumbs (cortex), and then smiled. Now when we make those motions we are reminded to find humor. In Kindergarten we read funny books, sang "Down by the Bay", and wrote about silly things. We planted Cheerios that "grew" into donuts on April Fool's Day. We served our principal "brownies" (letter e's cut out of brown paper).

We are a young school in our 2nd year of existence, if we didn't find humor in the hard work it takes to build a team and a school, we would be miserable. Laughter really is the best medicine!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

I think it's so important that we teach our students no matter what age they may be (I teach teachers, for instance) that it's possible to take our work seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. I've started inserting appropriate images and Gifs in my online course responses and in the materials I use during facilitation and I'm amazed at how it helps to build community. When we laugh, we relax and I think there's some measure of connection between a relaxed brain and a brain that can learn. (We all know that a frightened brain CAN'T learn, doesn't it stand to reason that the inverse might be true as well?)

Lessia Bonn's picture
Lessia Bonn
co-founder I am Bullyproof Music

We have a song called "Scary Guy" that teaches kids that bullies are just bores. We have a song called "Whatever" that helps kids feel better, lightens things up. I always lead with humor when counseling kids of all ages because it opens them up to new ways of looking at old problems, whether they be problems in social circles, at home with their families, or with math. It doesn't matter. The minute we take ourselves too seriously, we lose.

I am so happy to discover what you've written. I have a new classroom lesson writing partner. I have been telling her we should really do a lesson on humor-- seeing the bright side. There is so little respect for all that handed out when it's so darn important. This inspires me to get to work on a humor lesson with her and not just blah blah about it. Thank you!

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