I 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.
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