Monday, August 01, 2011

It's Okay to Laugh Here

by John T. Spencer

I have a student who wrote a creative masterpiece as an alternate ending to a story about a woman in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In the end, she is caught and faces life in prison because she accidentally wears a pair of white socks (they were forbidden). As they take her away, she cries out, "Cursed white socks! They let me down again. But I would rather die than be loyal to the Yankees."

I chose to affirm it by laughing and writing a note reading, "nice satirical look at the situation." Yes, I want him to take injustice seriously. Other teachers would have lectured the student on the need to "take the assignment seriously."  However, I know that humor can be a powerful force on demonstrating the absurdity of those who are in power. By mentioning the ridiculous rule about white socks, he not only makes a baseball reference but also shows that the Taliban is entirely illogical.  As a result, he begins writing deep satire about standardized tests, immigration, war and balanced budgets.

It starts an entire unit called Satire for Social Change.

“I think I’m thinking more about issues in the world by writing satire,” he explains.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“It’s like Jon Stewart, right. He is able to take the world more seriously be laughing at the insanity of other journalists,” he responds.

“I think people miss out on how much goes into writing satire,” I tell him. “Stewart and Colbert are often more honest with their audiences than mainstream media.”

“Humor gives us the opportunity to say what no one is saying,” he adds.

I think there are a few more academic benefits to humor that are often unnoticed:

  • Humor provides a chance to be creative. When a child can truly create something humorous, synthesis is occurring. Look back at the baseball joke. It proves that he knows a Taliban rule, the ridiculous nature of it, the future history of what happens and the notion of Yankee being a term applied to the United States. 
  • Humor is a skill students will use in life. I can't think of a profession (perhaps a mortician, though I can see a place for dark humor there, too) where humor is not an asset.
  • Humor is a deeply human endeavor. I need students to feel safe and humor adds a safe, human aspect to an often intense level of thinking I ask of my students. It's not so much "comic relief" (because humor is not in any way a relief from thinking) as it is a reminder of the human side.
  • Humor is a relational skill. If I want to have holistic learners, I need my students to see the value in relationships. Humor is a necessary part of relating to one another.
  • Humor requires deep thought. I can argue that teachers are not overpaid. Or, I could write a satirical piece as a teacher who works 9-3, visits Bali, has a polo-playing zebra and owns a yacht (as The Nerdy Teacher did).
  • Humor helps us with empathy. A class that uses humor learns about crossing lines, hurting others and apologizing for careless language. Students learn to anticipate how others will feel rather than blindly hacking away with arguments.
  • Humor allows us to be vulnerable. To me, that’s critical. There is a risk in every joke. The silence can be deafening. It’s risky.

I use humor often in the classroom. Oddly enough, it wasn't until I was able to laugh that students took me seriously. When I pretended prototypical "mean teacher," students despised me. However, when I lightened up, used some self-deprecating humor and introduced a little irony, I earned the respect of students. I opened the door for deeper humor on a regular basis. Students need humor if the classroom community is ever going to be creative, empathetic, thought-provoking and fully human.

I recognize that we need to teach students about respect in their humor.  I try and push kids away from sexual innuendo, "yo mama" jokes and pooping references and toward a deeper sense of irony.  However, I've also recognized that humor I might not appreciate (physical humor, puns) can play a critical role in the class growing closer.

Case in point: Many of my students, being English Language Learners, struggle with idioms. I realized that one afternoon when I made a kid cry after writing a positive note about how he goes the extra mile. “I already run enough in PE. Why me?”

So, early on in the year, I teach my students about the difference between literal and figurative language using a comic strip from The Oatmeal. From there, students begin brainstorming idioms and illustrating figurative versus literal. Here are a few samples:

“Dude, would you quit dropping to the ground?”
“I’m falling for him.”

“I’m still struggling to see why you are asking for a heart transplant?”
“I told him I would literally give him my heart.”

“Would you stop that?”
“Your sign says it up there. It’s KFC. I have every right to lick your fingers.”

“Well folks, it looks like the games over. The Packers had a literally explosive offense today and that seems to be the real issue.”

The humor in this exercise helped bond our class together. We grew closer as a community from the shared laughter. Yet, it also forced students to be creative and to think at a higher level. Humor is difficult to pull off. It’s why I had students write their own satire after watching clips from The Onion News Network. They ranged from silly (a riot at Macy’s after school announced it was a Free Dress Day and everyone showed up to get their free dresses) to cutting (a satirical piece about the standardized test that gets people to Heaven).

I used to see humor as comic relief. It was that “extra” that some teachers were able to use. I’ve learned that it’s a vital part of classroom leadership. Something magical happens when a group feels safe enough to laugh together.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero and he's working onSustainable Start, a book for new teachers. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. Great post and so true! I think if more teachers would realize the place of humor in the classroom, we'd be able to reach a whole lot more learners. Thanks for sharing!

  2. you're right, John. Humor may actually be vital to a happy and healthy life. The article at the following link talks about how to foster humor in young children.

  3. You helped me a lot indeed and reading this your article I have found much new and useful information about this subject. Keep updating your blog with valuable information…

  4. Remember the old days when young teachers were told not to smile until Christmas? I know I got myself out what could have been a very volatile situation when I was student teacher by using humor. I learned a valuable lesson so, I have always used humor in my classroom. To me, the use of humor shows students that they are in a safe environment. Why do we need to be so serious to learn? A safe environment = learning.

  5. I agree! I also tried to be that "mean" teacher, but I found that I just couldn't walk that walk. Using humor is much more my style, and I have found it benefecial to the student just as you say. Love this post!

  6. Great post and oh-so-helpful in articulating why and how humor is helpful. One thing I learned to avoid however, is sarcasm. It works for my personal humor but as a professional in the classroom, students are quick to let me know it is not appreciated.

  7. This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of providing a quality resource for free. It’s the old what goes around comes around routine.


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