Justin Meyer
Justin Meyer
Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

170105310.jpgJust as with any art, there are rules of the trade if you’re trying to create a classroom that is as entertaining as it is educational. Here are some guidelines I follow to incorporate humor into my classroom.


Keep it clean (and simple).


In this day and age, it can be difficult to find funny material that would also be considered clean. But keep in mind that you don’t have to be a professional comedian -- or even "funny" -- in your everyday life to get a laugh. Sometimes it’s your mere attempt to be funny that is the most entertaining to your students, which is why I always give a disclaimer that my class is where good jokes go to die. That usually gets a laugh and sets the tone for the rest of the class.


Ask yourself if the joke is kid-friendly. 


If the jokes are safe to tell your own kids, nephews, nieces, or grandchildren, then they pass the litmus test and should be fine to tell your students. In short, these types of jokes are usually so "bad" that they’re funny. (Did you hear about the guy that invented Lifesavers? They say he made a mint.)


Make puns fun.


As a chemist, I like to get reactions using puns. I once filled a whiteboard with chemistry puns like, "What do you do with a sick chemist?" and had students answer one before they left class. (The answer is you try to Helium or Curium. If you can’t, you Barium.) I know what you’re saying: "Oh Sulfur Sodium Phosphorus (SNaP)."


Avoid cultural or regional jokes.


In my first week of teaching in South Dakota, I made a joke about the contributions of the French to chemistry. It was innocent and in no way derogatory, but there happened to be one French student in my class who didn’t show up for the rest of the semester. It turned out that the joke wasn’t the reason for his subsequent absence, but that didn’t make me feel any better.


Even when you would consider something to be an innocent subject matter, you may have some unexpected results. For example, I told a "hipster joke" that went something like this: "Why don’t hipsters ever burn their mouths on pizza? They always wait for it to become cool." After my delivery, I had a class full of quizzical students staring at me. One student finally said, "Hipsters don’t like things that are cool."


Well, apparently the joke was on me. It seemed fairly innocent, but perhaps the students in the class who identified as hipsters would now view their teacher in a different light, which defeats the purpose of using humor to get students to relate to you. To avoid this, I keep my jokes simple, using mostly chemistry puns and G-rated gags. Also, I’m not quick enough to handle anything more complicated, and I’d like to keep my job.


There is one exception to the general rule of avoiding cultural or regional jokes: college and professional sports rivalries are fair game. Here’s a good one: "How do you get a [insert rival school here] graduate off your porch? Pay for the pizza." I’m a Denver Broncos fan, so we often have some good classes on Mondays after a Broncos victory. I have to remind myself that Minnesota Vikings fans have to come to class on Mondays too, but it’s fairly safe to say that you aren’t going to offend a Vikings fan. Heck, if their team doesn’t embarrass them, nothing can. Editor's note: At the time of publication, the Vikings sit alone atop the NFC North with a 5-1 record.


Choose your subject matter wisely.


This may depend somewhat on where you teach, but I choose to avoid anything political, religious, and to some extent, current events. These are topics that many students are passionate about, and they can be divisive. Overall, keep your ultimate goal in mind, which is to engage students, not necessarily to get a good laugh. Besides, a joke that is offensive could lead to a student holding a grudge against you -- or worse, it could cost you your job. If you keep engagement as your end goal and jokes as one of many tools in your kit, you’ll connect to your students in a powerful way, entertaining them as they learn.


Image credit: Nicolas Loran/iStockphoto


    Christopher Ruel
Christopher Ruel
Community and Social Marketing, Wiley

Competing priorities at work and home, ubiquitous technology and the daily pressures of college life contribute to the many distraction students face while learning. The infographic below is based on the responses of 34 instructors who were asked to name the most common focus-disrupting activities they see in their classrooms. Data from outside sources corroborate our educator's experiences.

student distractions.jpg

Are your students increasingly distracted? What's driving these distractions? Let us know in the comments below.


    Justin Meyer
Justin Meyer
Senior Lecturer of Chemistry, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

175139066.jpgI like to tell jokes, and I’ve found that humor is an educator’s tool worth sharpening, because an entertaining classroom is a more engaging classroom. Imagine a class where your students can’t wait for the “next episode,” even if it airs at 8:00 a.m. and you’re going to talk about acid-base titrations. We have all experienced the struggle of getting students to come to class and then to keep them awake during it. I’ve fought that battle right beside you, but once I made a conscious effort to incorporate humor into my classroom, I gained a lot of ground and learned just how far a few well-placed jokes can go.


I was born and raised in a small town in South Dakota -- and by "small town," I don’t mean only one Walmart. I am talking about a population of 300 people total. So growing up in a place where you can see the entire town in half the time it takes most people to get a pizza delivered was good fodder for comedy. Plus, I was in the choir and band as a kid, and as my confidence grew, I became somewhat of a performer. Even though talking and performing in front of large groups didn’t scare me, I never considered pursuing comedy. I went to college to become a high school chemistry teacher, which at the time I believed was the farthest thing from being a stand-up comic. I quickly decided that high school wasn’t the right venue for me and became a chemistry teacher at a small STEM university, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (that’s “mines” as in holes in the ground, not military hardware). My days are spent teaching two topics that could arguably be the least humorous: general chemistry and physical chemistry. Physics at least has “the force” on its side, and math has a slice of the Pi (take as much as you want).


As a college-level educator, I was confident that I had a firm grasp on the topics I was to teach the hungry minds seated before me. But I also found out that I had some nervous tics that, um, presented themselves, um, in class, even if I, um, wasn’t aware of them. Some of my students kept count of my “ums,” and I am quite sure my record number of “ums” far exceeds the population of my home town.


Then, I got a few laughs for my impression of Mr. Mackey from South Park, and the light bulb went off. Maybe I could use humor to keep my students engaged? Like a Zi Quan master -- a martial artist trained in Drunken Wushu who uses awkward and silly body movements to keep their opponent on guard -- I realized that humor could be my greatest weapon. I started to make an effort to find ways to lighten the mood of my classroom.


Remembering one of my college professors who started off each class with a joke or a funny email, I decided to do the same. Once I started telling jokes, something interesting began to happen. I often got sidetracked, and odd things would pop into my head that would distract me during class. Yes, I would get distracted in my own class, so I decided to say my “funny” thoughts out loud. I found that making a joke during class kept my students listening as I discussed serious chemistry topics. I’ll admit that my jokes aren’t always funny, but I think that is part of my charm. It makes me the corny professor, similar to the Zi Quan fighter who appears to be drunk but is actually in complete control. My style lets students put down their guards, open up, and, most importantly, learn.


I’ll give you an example of something you could use in your own class. Since I don’t always come up with my own material and often put my own spin on “borrowed” material, this is something I found on social media. I use PowerPoints in most of my classes, and I open the presentation by typing “My Day” on the first slide and highlighting it. Then, I just sit back and watch as my puzzled students try to figure out if I am being serious (there are always one or two who will write “My Day” in their notes and highlight it). It rarely takes long for them to figure out the joke is visual. It’s the highlight of my (and their) day.


Remember, you don’t need to be a comedian -- or even funny -- to introduce a little humor into your classroom. You can do something as simple as showing your students a meme. (Cats! When in doubt, go with cats!) There are also inexpensive mobile apps you can use to make your own. So keep an open mind, and if you decide to follow my lead, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll get a few chuckles -- and the best thing that can happen is you’ll always be remembered as the interesting, yet slightly wacky, professor.


How do you use humor in the classroom? Let us know in the comments below.


Image credit: Hero Images/Getty Images


    Douglas Petrick
Douglas Petrick
Physics Teacher, Pittsburgh, PA

477915133.jpgAs teachers, we have the opportunity to not only learn from history, but to apply what it teaches us to our classroom environment. Taking a cue from social studies, we can encourage students to speak up and actively participate in class, an approach that will undoubtedly transform the room into a more dynamic, collaborative space.


The following tips can help you increase class participation and facilitate student dialogue:


1. We the People: When you speak in class during a lecture, discussion, or activity, refrain from using the terms “you” or “I.”


Instead, start using “we.” This change in pronouns puts everyone (instructors included) on an even playing field. The switch in pronouns also signals a resetting of the power structure to which students are accustomed. "Teacher vs. student" becomes "us vs. the content of the course."


You can incorporate inclusive language by saying something like, “We have an assessment on Friday. Here are the learning targets for us to refer to during the next chapter.” Tone can often be more powerful than content in spoken word.


2. Grouping of the Countries of the World: Changing the desks/seating in your room away from the traditional geometric rows can make an immediate impact.


Clustering desks encourages discussion and collaboration. Utilizing a “workstation” approach to seat placement makes students use each other as resources, calling you over only once they have exhausted their group knowledge. As a result, their questions to you are much better because they’ve spent time together with the material. Plus, it’s easier for you to manage and spend time when visiting clusters of three to four students rather than talking with individual students. If you are concerned that this configuration will invite students to talk to each other when not prompted, remember that you control the groups. Wait about a week or so after the first day of school, and then group students in clusters to get the dynamics right. It’s also a good idea to switch up the groupings once every nine weeks or so to keep things fresh.


3. Political Debates: Time Restraints and Clarification of Questions: Set time restraints on tasks and activities being performed in class. Be specific when giving your students a task to perform in the confines of class.


Students work more efficiently when they know how much time they have to complete a task. Time restraints signify that the teacher knows how much effort needs to be exerted to complete the task. I have found that posing a specific question, instead of just a general task to focus on, provides clarity for the students. This specificity allows the student to zoom in on a specific part of learning—the aspect you, the instructor, deems important.


Example of a general directive: “Spend the last ten minutes of class reflecting on today’s workstation activity in your notebooks.”


Example of a more powerful, specific directive: “For the next three minutes, individually identify one item from today’s activity that you felt was unclear to you. Write this unclear concept down in your notebooks.”


After three minutes have elapsed, you can ask students to spend five minutes discussing with their workstation groups which parts of the activity were unclear. After each student has shared an individual item, the workstation group will use the remaining time to select one specific concept to share with the class. You can then address and clarify these concerns with the class as a whole.


4. Cabinet Roles: Assign each student a specific role during group work activities.


Group work activities are a great way to incorporate content and group work skills that are essential to the workplace. However, most students struggle to assign group work roles on their own. Many times, in groups, the same students will gravitate towards the same roles over the course of the academic year. A better way to ensure that students diversify their roles is to assign them. Assigning the following suggested roles along with clearly defined expectations helps to hold every student accountable during group work:


Scribe: responsible for writing down all the details on a dry-erase board or piece of paper

Timekeeper: makes sure the group stays focused on the task at hand within the time constraints

Librarian: uses class notes, the textbook and the Internet as resources

Diplomat: represents the group and solicits the instructor or other groups when needed


Remind students that no matter their role, they should be an active group member, versed in the decision making and discussions taking place during their activity. Keep an accurate record of the roles assigned within each group. This enables you to shift roles within the groups for the next activity, encouraging each student to expand his or her group learning toolkit throughout the year.


5. Visiting the Heartland: During student-centered activities, move through the room and model the same behavior you want to see in your students.


During group activities, don’t be passive (i.e., sitting at your desk grading papers, detached from the task at hand). Instead, move around the room and be engaged in the work that students are doing. Ask questions that show you value their work. If you model engagement, students will reflect your behavior in their own collaborative group work.


As you and your students practice each of the new teaching and learning methods through varying activities, you will find the routine becomes natural, resulting in a classroom environment that is more intellectually stimulating for everyone involved.


Have you tried something similar, or are you currently doing some of what I have outlined? As always, I welcome the opportunity to hear your story and learn from your experiences. Drop a note in the comments section. I monitor the feedback and respond to all who take the time to write me.


Doug Petrick holds an Architectural Engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from California University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a high school Physics teacher at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug is a regular contributor to a series for educators offering practical advice and instructional strategies.


Image credit: CastaldoStudio/Getty Images


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