The teen brain is like a novelty-seeking missile, disengaged one moment, but capable of intense focus and attention when a task becomes rewarding. I believe it was the late Rodney Dangerfield who said, "The audience is like a dog and jokes are like biscuits." In over 20 years of speaking and performing stand-up comedy for students, I've learned that using humor, interactive demonstrations, and even awkward moments are the biscuits that help students sit up and want more.
In the limbic system of the brain, the most important structure for memory (hippocampus) is located near and connected to a structure that helps produce emotions (amygdala). This anatomical relationship ensures that emotionally charged experiences will be remembered better than neutral events. This is the neurological basis for bringing more emotions (hopefully positive ones) to the classroom. In today's world of decreased attention spans and distracting smartphones, students need all the help they can get to increase retention of the important information you're teaching them.
Engaging Teens With Humor
Here are some strategies for bringing humor, novelty, and engagement to classroom activities.
1. A Laugh A Day: You don't have to be a stand-up comedian to bring one more laugh per day to your classroom. The key is starting with something that you think is funny, but that's still relevant to the lesson. It could be a quick one-line joke, a bad pun, a funny video from YouTube, or a short story. If it bombs, poke fun at yourself for the attempt and try something else the next time. The best part is that it will spur your brain to look for humor in everyday life, and you'll start feeling more creative.
2. Use Improv to Spin Classroom Disruptions: Have you ever been in the middle of making an important point and then there's a loud noise and you've lost half the class? It's frustrating. Well, you can't stop the disruptions, but you can use improvisational comedy skills to get a laugh out of them. I love it when some weird noise or bell goes off during my program because it's a real moment that we've all just experienced. Comedy comes from relatable events. The next time this happens, try working a comment about the noise into your point and see if you get a laugh. Express your pain over the interruption, and the audience will relate. Over time, you'll train your mind (and the kids' minds) to be more in the moment, and the endorphins produced by a good laugh will make getting back on track feel less like work.
3. Bring Students Up: Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, showed in a series of studies that teenagers take more risks when they're in the presence of their peers. When their brains were imaged during the risk-taking activities, they showed an increase in blood flow in the pleasure center, a collection of neurons that activates during rewarding activities. In his book Age of Opportunity, Steinberg writes that teens take risks because that's how they learn.
You have a unique opportunity in the classroom. If you use interactive demonstrations that allow students to briefly take over the class, you can leverage this built-in risk-taking mechanism designed to foster learning. These interactives don't have to be funny, but by nature they will create awkward moments, which can be hilarious.
In my assemblies, the goal is to never embarrass the students who volunteer, but rather to amplify what they're saying or doing. That technique of reflective listening, with some embellishment, can produce laughter. In many cases, I'll run into students years after they've seen my program. They've long forgotten my name and face, but once I describe the interactive part of my presentation to them, suddenly it all comes back. It really makes my day when they immediately recite the point I was trying to make. That is emotional learning at work!
4. Take a Comedy Workshop: I love watching and performing stand-up comedy, but using it in front of teenagers is the highest level of difficulty for getting laughs. If they sense that a joke is coming, you're finished. In addition, their age limits their life experience, so not even the best mortgage joke will work on them. In my experience, teenagers respond well to brief anecdotes with jokes that they don't see coming embedded in the story. It also helps when the story is about things they can relate to, like attachment issues (e.g. parents, sibling rivalries) or pop culture. If you're interested, I highly recommend taking a comedy workshop (improv or stand-up) at a local comedy club. There are even courses online, but nothing beats performing for actual humans. Interacting with an audience will build your confidence for delivering a joke, and it can be a healthy outlet for you.
It's Worth the Risk
If you choose to bring comedy into your classroom, you risk being vulnerable in front of your class. I believe it's a risk worth taking, because the payoff will last long after the laughs are gone. Break a leg!