Friday, April 24, 2015

A Case for Using Humor in the Classroom

This is probably the least funny post I've written.

*Cues Alanis Morissette*

(but actually using the word correctly)

If you're interested in statistics, I've conducted 606 walkthroughs in classrooms so far this school year. Somewhere in the ballpark of 100 hours casually walking into a classroom unannounced and taking a gander at what's happening. I'm like the omnipresent Telos of this middle school. Except generally good...and human.

I love this part of my job. I love being able to see what fascinating things teachers are doing and share in the experiences of our students. It makes me better at what I do because it's turned me into a repository for the collective expertise of our teachers, and I have the extraordinary privilege of then sharing that expertise with other teachers. In very professional terms, this is totally my version of nailing it.

There are a handful of strategies I've observed make marked improvement in student's ability to learn and grow. I see them all the time...masterful use of informal formative assessments that completely alter what the teacher was going to do next, and in turn, completely changes the trajectory for a group of struggling kids (in the right direction). An honest, heartfelt conversation with a student that improved their performance, and perhaps more importantly, their day. Feedback given that's so precise, forward looking, and filled with high expectations that you can actually see a student improving, right then and there. Hands on strategies that are not only engaging, but make students' internal thoughts visible. Moving beyond sharing with just the classroom to sharing with the world, and making a positive and relevant impact on that world. This stuff happens. And I get to see it happen. And it makes me really, really happy.

I'm going to make a case for a strategy that we don't spend any time talking about, but after 100 hours in classrooms of all content areas, I feel pretty comfortable attesting to its effectiveness.

You gotta be funny, yo.

I get it. There are a trillion research-based strategies teachers are expected to implement consistently within the realm of a million initiatives meant to support our students. Humor isn't anywhere in there, that I've detected. So I'm just going out on a limb here, but something I've noticed time and time again is that teachers who effectively used humor in their classroom seemed to:
1. Have a much better relationship with their students. They used humor to diffuse what might be a difficult situation, and were more likely to have honest, focused conversations with kids on a regular basis. Not claiming causation on the latter point there, but noticed a strong correlation.
2.  My brain was immediately enticed by what was going on in the classroom when a teacher was funny and appeared to be having fun. My face lit up, my attention was focused, and I wanted to be a part of what was happening. Sometimes I would be...I'd jump in. Kids appeared similarly engaged.
3. Humor somehow made difficult to understand concepts become more manageable. Not long ago, I spent an entire day shadowing a student who struggles in school (academically and behaviorally). This student shared with me that one of his teachers, who regularly uses humor as a part of her everyday, had a way of "just making everything easier to understand. I don't really know how to explain it. I just get what she's saying...she just makes sense. And I like her."
4. Teachers who used humor appeared to trust their students more, and in turn, kids were taking more ownership over their learning more often. I don't have a great way of describing this one. It's something like, my using humor with you shows that I understand that you'll understand. We're equals. I don't need to be dictatorial toward you -- this classroom is ours, not mine.

These are off the cuff observations, truthfully. That said, out of curiosity, I started to do some digging on the topic. There are several studies conducted on the use of humor in the classroom, with some positive correlations to learning.
This one talks about the impact humor has on activating the brain, for example.
This one was surprising -- there is far more research on the use of humor in the classroom than I ever would've imagined, and much of it supports the position that humor does indeed translate to learning (along with improving relationships, motivation, etc.). It does, however, caution that mixed results have come out of many studies, and that teachers need be very aware of the type of humor they're using, or if not comfortable with 'being funny,' then perhaps they shouldn't be using humor at all. In addition, not surprisingly, studies with mixed results suggested that humor needs to be used in tandem with other communication skills in order to achieve positive learning results. Further, the type of humor a teacher uses matters. Again, unsurprisingly, humor that 'picks on' students or is overly sarcastic towards students does not increase learning nor does it do much for teacher/student relationships.

In other words, this meta-analysis got super technical and non-funny about how best to be funny in your classroom.

So before I get too far in all this, let me say, I'm not here to tell you what to do. If you want to be free, be free. And if you want to be funny, be funny. Teachers are effective in a myriad of ways, and despite its relevance at the moment, I can't bring myself to use the phrase 'there's no silver bullet' because education says that all the time whilst simultaneously searching for and promoting all kinds of bullets made of silver.

I guess, in the end, I enjoyed my time immensely in those classrooms. I saw kids enjoying their time too.

If nothing else, make sure the kids know how much you care and appreciate their willingness to be a part of your classroom, and remember that humor has the potential to make both of those jobs easier.

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