By Heather Wolpert-Gawron
One might think that the new school year should start off with solemnity. We’ve been told that we ought to start strict and loosen up as classroom management falls into place. But the research for my latest book suggests otherwise.
In 2012, I conducted a simple survey of my students and what engages them as learners. Years later, I expanded that same survey to include nationwide responses from 6th-12th graders from all models of schools (public, private, charter, magnet, homeschooled, etc.), from urban to rural locations, from Maine to California. Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin, AMLE) analyzes the student responses from across the country and breaks them down into nine categories of engagement.
Today, I’m going to dive deeper into one strategy in particular, and zoom in on one aspect of that strategy.
Don’t be scared to show your humanity
Throughout the student engagement survey, students overwhelmingly mentioned that what engaged them the most was when the teacher was also unabashedly engaged, honest with their own foibles, and also able to have a good laugh. In other words, students wanted their teachers to be more, well, human.
Just because the primary role of school is academic doesn’t mean it has to be so serious. And students appreciate when a teacher throws out all aloofness and brings their smiles and enjoyment to the table. They want to see that the teacher has enthusiasm for both their subject and their students.
My survey participants had very specific advice for how to show that enthusiasm. The student engagement results are peppered over and over again with tweens and teens who begged to:
- See their teacher’s own enthusiasm for the subject they were assigned to teach,
- Feel that the teacher really cared for them and their learning,
- Laugh with their teachers about their content,
- Hear personal stories from teachers related to their lessons,
- Learn about times when teachers themselves failed, only to get back up again.
What students were really asking for, though not explicitly stated, was to humanize the authority figure in the room. They wanted to see teachers laugh, open up, share what made them love learning, and share their struggles as they learned.
The power of humor in the classroom
One of the ways that teachers can show their humanity is by bringing humor to the classroom. I’m clearly not talking about jokes with questionable humor or grossness that goes for the cheap laugh. I’m talking about seeing the humor around you, about tapping into levity in the classroom in a way that can make a kid smile during one of the most challenging – and sometimes darkest – times in a person’s life. Being a teenager is hard; making a teenager smile is priceless.
So we don’t want to use humor that falls flat or be offensive, and many teachers spurn using humor because they are fearful it will do just that. But we also know that laughter in the classroom wakes up the brain and can make students excited to be in our classrooms day in and day out. In particular, students seemed to relate to teachers who are also able to laugh at themselves.
I also understand the fear many teachers have that somehow, if we buy into using humor, we’ll need to entertain our students at all times. Some believe that we’ll be contributing to a generation of students who require teachers to do a soft-shoe just to get students to want to learn.
Of course, this isn’t the case. Nevertheless, we aren’t only in the business of understanding our own content; we’re in the business of using strategies that best communicate that content, and our “clients” clearly feel that there needs to be some lightheartedness in the classroom that is appropriate for their grade level. School simply doesn’t need to be so gosh darn serious all the time.
Interestingly, the use of humor to improve engagement can be quantified. According to a 2005 article published in Teaching of Psychology, psychology professors Mark Shatz, PhD and Frank LoSchiavo, PhD found that when college teachers utilized humor directed at themselves to prove a point or shared items like content-related cartoons in their online courses, their students logged in more often. “Professors’ jobs are to educate, not to entertain,” says Shatz. “But if humor can make the learning process more enjoyable, then I think everybody benefits as a result.”
Tapping into humor in the classroom does the following:
- Helps to create comfort
- Fires up the brain
- Brings content to life
In fact, in her research of brain scans, Mary Kay Morrison learned that there was great stimulation and activation going on in multiple locations of the brain when humor was utilized. As she shared in her book, Using Humor to Maximize Learning, “We’re finding humor actually lights up more of the brain than many other functions in a classroom…In other words, if you’re listening just auditorily in a classroom, one small part of the brain lights up, but humor maximizes learning and strengthens memories.”
Close up: Humor and the brain
So let’s examine what exactly gets stimulated as we follow what happens to a tween and teen’s brain when a joke journeys from the ear and into the gray stuff.
OK, so let’s say that the student is sitting in math class, and Mrs. X has just said something uproariously funny (or simply remotely humorous) that was related to her 10th grade curriculum.
The teacher sends it out of her mouth and into the ears of her captive audience. That wee bit of auditory energy enters the brain and, like a pinball machine, the joke lights up multiple regions of the brain from the – PING! – frontal lobe (which processes received information) to the – BING! – supplementary motor area (that helps us learn information) to the – PONG! – areas associated with our motor activities (based on the movements we make when we laugh) to the – ZING! – nucleus accumbens (the regions used to process pleasure).
According to Carl Marci, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the director of social neuroscience in the Psychotherapy Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, “When the punch line hits home, your heart rate rises, you jiggle with mirth, and your brain releases ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and an array of endorphins…. The body sends a signal to the brain that says, ‘Hey, that’s clever, that’s worth it,’ and we laugh.”
The “it” that earns a laugh can therefore be connected to the curriculum content itself.
Laughter. Powerful stuff!
Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and the author of many books, including Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement and ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. She is a staff blogger for Edutopia.org and shares all things middle school at tweenteacher.com. Heather lives with her husband and two boys in Los Angeles where they play Dungeons & Dragons every week, building their cross-over stories and adventures together. Follow Heather on Twitter: @tweenteacher.