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Using Humor in the Classroom

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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Young girl laughing in front of computer monitor

“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.

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Maurice J. Elias

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

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

When we are doing word work, sight words, or learning new vocabulary words I often do an Abbot and Costello "Who's on First" sort of routine with the students. Words like who, what, when, where and why are good ones and lend themselves well, but others work well too. This is particularly effective at helping some kids get engaged with a lesson who otherwise might want to tune out. Sometimes I take the words or things we do literally and the kids give me a silly grin or giggle when they figure out what I did. Oh yeah, the last week of school we usually watch the Abbot and Costello routine. Not all kids get the Who's on First humor at this age, but many do and are in stitches with laughter as a result.

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

Expose Kids to Classic Humor!!

John's comment reminded me that many kids today have not grown up with some of the classic humor that many of appreciate. So it's a cultural media gift to to them, as well as a fun time, for them to see Abbott and Costello, I Love Lucy, early Bill Cosby monologues and the Cosby Show, Soupy Sales, Charlie Chaplin, and many others. In fact, I encourage you to add to my list, especially comedians and comic shows and routines from a wide range of ethnic and cultural groups. Many times we only know what is most familiar to our own cultural backgrounds. Let's see if we can help broaden kids' laugh horizons!

Luke Zimmermann's picture

As a teacher of English as a Second Language, I used to collect all the funny mistakes my students made in speaking and writing, and use them as a teaching tool. Of course, you don't name anyone except yourself when you use your own bloopers. What always struck me was that students immediately recognized the errors (and had a good laugh) and then never made the same mistakes again. They often remembered them months later.

When I gave a presentation on this at a large TESOL conference last month, the room was packed to overflowing 10 minutes before I was due to start. "We are just here for the jokes", one teacher said. Teachers are desperate for some humour too.

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

Luke, Can You Share???
Luke, iif there is any way you can share some of this with all of us,
I think it would be wonderful to see. Perhaps there is a link to your presentation or part of it? Or perhaps you can share some examples in a blog post here, or perhaps
you can inquire of Edutopia if they might give you a guest blog post opportunity.

Luke Zimmermann's picture

No problem. Here are a number of examples from the presentation under headings:

Women get marred early.

Wrong word
I learnt to write about 2 chapters and damage it in 1 paragraph.
I learnt how to compare and contrast, problem/solution, causes and effects and graph desecration.
I chose to read short stories because I don't like tall stories.

That's mean.
He's like a woman.
Outside world - in a shoe store:
Buy one, get one free.

We cooked lunch and ate each other.
Pork flu.
A little bit huge.
AIDS is now very popular in South-East Asia.

And a more creative re-wording:
There is now a better opportunity to get AIDS in South-East Asia.
Similarly: The most famous disease in the UAE is Diabetes.

If you are interested in more, I have been collecting these for many years and put them all in a book "Laugh about English with Luke" which is available on my website.

Elizabeth Stewart's picture
Elizabeth Stewart
First Grade Teacher

Great article! I love to laugh with my students! I also love to see their reaction when I am disrupted by laughter during a lesson. They have a look of astonishment as if they are thinking "Wow, she can be silly like us!" I can remember doing my best in school with teachers who used humor in lessons. And I still think of those teachers today. Of course they are the ones who inspired me to become a teacher!

Michelle Grezner's picture

During testing week I have the kids tell knock knock jokes. It really gets them relaxed and smiling before all the testing starts each day.

Troy Gustafson's picture

I teach US and World history and I like to use Far side cartoons in my slide shows. I would die without humor in my classroom!

Richard Black's picture

I wear a different tie every day of the year. They are all hanging along a wall in my classroom and a kid chooses my tie each morning. Once this became a thing, I was given ties by people everywhere. Fun times.

LizT8's picture

As a way to get my students' attention and set the tone for the day, I post a "Joke of the Day" on my board each morning. When the bell rings I stand by my podium and say, "Everyone, look to the west." Even though they're in 8th grade and know the drill, they'll wait until I direct them, and if I forget or we're interrupted they freak. Some of our best have been the following:
Q: Why does everyone get mad at the nosy pepper?
A: Because he gets jalapeno business.
Q: What did Jay-Z call his girlfriend before they got married?
A: Feyonce
Q: What is brown and rhymes with snoop?
A: Dr. Dre
Q: Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or is it just a really cool opotamus? RIP Mitch Hedburg


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