10 Reasons Your Students Should Laugh

Joel looks at his toast and says, "It's a good thing it has peanut butter. If it were plain toast, it might fly away."

I look at him, confused, and he laughs. "Because planes fly."  Got it. I don't like puns, but I laugh anyway. We'll work on the ironic, observational humor at another time. The truth is that I'm glad my son can joke around. True, it's first grade humor built on homophones, but I'm convinced that it's a powerful skill.  Moreover, I'm convinced that the best classrooms are the ones where humor is present. It can be subtle. It can look very orderly. It can be sprinkled throughout an intense debate or a deep discussion. However, it needs to be present.

The following are some of what I consider to be the educational benefits of humor:
  1. Critical Thinking: Humor often requires analytical thinking followed by a sophisticated level of synthesis. Even something as lame as my son's pun required him to analyze the language, make sense of it and create something new: a flying piece of toast. 
  2. Social Awareness: Humor is a powerful tool in social change. It strips away the fear of those who are committing injustices. Whether it's Charlie Chaplin mocking Hitler or South Park lambasting Kim Jong Il (oh, he's dead now? I didn't even realize he was Il.) satire can be a powerful method of bringing the absurdity of an idea to life. Last year, I played clips from The Onion. Students read "A Modest Proposal." I wanted them to see how humor can be used to make sense out of the world.
  3. Language Arts: Humor is a chance to play around with words, make sense out of tone and learn the art of timing. Humor can also be a place where students learn to tell stories, make sense out of irony and develop deep satire. 
  4. Empathy: Humor is a chance to display empathy toward others. It's a chance to read the group and venture out into new territory. But it's also a place to stumble into sarcasm and learn to avoid using  laughter to isolate, mock and marginalize others. 
  5. Motivation: For all the talk of tech integration, art integration or music and movement integration, I've never seen anything about the intentional integration of humor. However, I think it's necessary. Why not use puns to teach multiple meanings of words? Why not use satire to reach higher-level thinking on social issues? Last year, students created goofy comic strips to illustrate idioms (a man goes into surgery after saying, "I gave you my heart.") 
  6. Life Skills: Whether it's in a social context or in the workforce, humor can be a powerful method of connecting with others, diffusing tension and providing leadership to a group. 
  7. Creativity: When students develop their own jokes, they learn the craft of spontaneous creativity. I'm not sure if it's something that has to be modeled and observed or something teachers should simply encourage and allow. However, I have noticed that the students with the strongest command of humor are often very creative.
  8. Language Development: I can tell when an ELL student is truly grasping English, because he or she becomes comfortable in telling jokes. Humor combines the colloquial with the academic, infusing idioms with texture and tone. 
  9. Risk-Taking: Every joke is an act of vulnerability. There's a risk involved. I'm never sure if the group will laugh or simply roll their eyes and sigh. 
  10. Classroom Community: There is an intimacy and a happiness that occurs when a group laughs together. It's why we relate to the dysfunctional team members in The Office. They laugh together. 
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John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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