ETHOS

ETHOS

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Soulless and Didactic Lecture on the Topic of Humor in the Classroom

The only thing I've read lately that sticks in my mind... and it is only sticking now because I am making it stick by remembering it.... is a line from the recently released Autobiography of Mark Twain... and I'll probably misquote it, but it's something to the effect of a man can't hope to be funny if he is afraid of being funny.  I don't know why this struck me as absolutely true, but there it is.  I suppose it has to do with my time in the classroom.  I try to use humor as much as possible.  For one, I don't think I could stand the lugubrious colors, nor the institutional block walls, (or the complete lack of sunlight for that matter), if it weren't for laughter.  I tend to use a poker face when I deliver material.  I suppose this is because I want my students to laugh, but not take my goofy grinning face for an invitation to try sophomoric humor of their own.  I know this rationale may sound cruel if not strange, but if you spend any amount of time in a room full of teenagers, you'll find they take nonverbal cues more to heart than the words coming out of your mouth... and if you can get them to listen to the words coming out of your mouth it is often a miracle to get them to consider the words strung together as a whole rather than as individual specimen flying around the room like so many distracting bees.  So, I reason, if my face looks serious, but if I'm saying funny things or projecting funny images on the board, they will laugh and pay attention... but not get carried away with the hilarity.  If I use humor and laugh and giggle and generally cut up however I've found that students get out of control very quickly because they don't take you or your "lesson" seriously no matter how serious it may actually be.  So... the mixture of humor with a deadpan delivery is effective, but that kind of "cyborgism" takes its toll.  For instance, just the other day someone mentioned something about sin.  So I started talking about how my concept of sin is that it is a sin to experience the world through the senses.  And that if we had "a cosmic proboscis with which to sniff the armpit of God" we might be a whole lot less sinful. I don't think they knew what a proboscis was, yet, when I looked out at one particular difficult-nut-to-crack, I want you to understand that he almost never laughs, but when I looked him directly in the eyes and grinned a goofy grin, this particular stoic burst out laughing.  If the material hadn't been so serious in the first place (that of sin) and the theology kind of heady, I might have gotten some more laughs, I reasoned.  That's not to say their humor can't be sophisticated in its twists of cultural hoodoo and Internet/YouTube sensationalism.  It is as sophisticated as it is superficial at times, and tales involving slapstick violence almost always work.  It is amazing how quickly a teenager will tune out an adult that is attempting to give directions or be didactic, but when an adult starts telling a story that involves blowing something up or roundhouse kicking something in the face... well, that is a different story.  I prefer to make stories up and deliver them in the same deadpan I use for humor.  I can only speculate as to the long term effects this type of storytelling may have on the teenage mind, but it certainly works in a pinch to grab their attention.  I survived an entire year with a particularly energetic eight period though weekly installments of my last job: driving an ice cream truck in the ghetto.  Teenagers love tales of the ghetto.  Of course, I've never driven an ice cream truck, much less one in the ghetto, but these tales had a marginal authenticity due to a few years spent living in an apartment near the lesser appetizing streets of Akron.  Tales centering around Smitty usually work as well.  Smitty was the kid I sat beside in high school art class.  He is interesting to high schoolers because of one particular quality: he was a legitimate, card carrying Neo-Nazi / Skinhead.  After I drop this fact (and in this case, it was a fact... he tried to get me to join the National Alliance on more than one occasion) students are rapt.  I often make stories up entirely out of my head.  A recent tale involved my plan to get back at the baby bunnies who have developed a penchant for the bubble gum growing in my garden.  I chalk my madness up to two causes.  Either  1) I have not had time to write, or  2)  the class makes demands of me I am not capable of satisfying in any other way, save storytelling.  Most of the time, and lately, both causes are true.

My original conceit dealt with something Mark Twain said.  He said that humor is only effective if the humorist is not afraid of being funny.  Or, I suppose, not afraid of being not funny.  This was in relation to a speech he once gave poking fun at Emerson, Whittier and Holmes.  He said the speech didn't work because the crowd went stiff and he began to doubt the humor of his material.  Twenty five years later he decided the speech was hilarious, but that the audience was not able to laugh at the relative mockery of such sacred men.  What I'm getting at is that with high schoolers, one never knows if the joke will go off.  Past success is never an accurate yardstick because individual teenagers are unpredictable by their very nature, and to complicate the situation even more,  individual classes are just as whimsical, and a joke can be spoiled by the rotten atmosphere of any particular moment.  Often a joke needs a butt so to speak, and if a particular teen is not up to being that butt, the humor is spoiled.  So, I suppose what I'm getting at is that the high school teacher who values humor in the classroom is up against astounding variables and that he can never be entirely sure of his ability to make teenagers laugh.  I suppose this is what makes the endeavor worthwhile to begin with, its tentativeness, but one can't have much confidence in oneself in front of one of the most difficult crowds in the history of humanity (the modern American teen) and according to Twain this is a very intimidating obstacle.  I agree, which is why I so love the end of the year.  We are in a place where I have been able to convince them that if I make fun of them it is only because I love them, which is true from my heart.  So the relative hilarity of the end of the school year is one that has me making the jokes, and more often than not, smiles abounding.  I imagine, given the recent political climate, that any non-teachers who may be reading this are wondering why I get paid to tell jokes all day.  If any of you are out there reading this, first of all thanks for sticking with me through all of these words.  And I mean that.  Secondly, I want to make two points as to why humor is invaluable in the classroom: 1)  students learn best when they're having fun, and laughter is symptomatic of fun, and 2) that any issues relating to discipline of classroom management can be instantly dissolved (more often than not) through humor.  So, cheers to all you kiddies and all of you that spend your days amongst those kiddies.  It's an exciting time of year.  Don't forget to laugh.    


    

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