Volume I - 1993

Using Humor in the Classroom
by M. Jerry Weiss

      Dr. M. Jerry Weiss is a Distinguished Professor of Communications at Jersey City State College, has written widely in a number of fields, including education, humor, children's literature, and reading. He has been a visiting professor at universities scattered around the USA, and is a consultant to school systems in six states.

      When students are queried about the characteristics of a teacher they most appreciate, they often reply "a sense of humor" and "the ability to communicate knowledge in an interesting way." Using humor in class can be helpful in preparing students for the formal study of humor as an important genre of literature. Professionals in the fields of medicine, psychiatry and psychology often state that laughter is a safety valve for sanity. It relieves stress and tension and helps people to be mentally healthy. When one laughs, a person uses parts of the human anatomy that are not used in any other physical or mental activity. Laughter has curative qualities that have amazed medical science. (Read Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins.)

      To analyze humor or comedy is futile. This important and special literary genre is "word play." Having fun with language develops critical thinking skills and helps readers and writers to expand their means of communication. So it is helpful to begin with a series of activities that involve students in language usage.

      One activity a teacher can use is "Riddle, Riddle." The teacher copies two or three riddles, each on a separate piece of oaktag. For example, (1) What is smooth, yellow and deadly? (2) How did the computer die? (3) What cat wars a mask, a cape, and weighs 500 pounds?

      Under each riddle place a paper bag. As students enter the room each day, they are encouraged to read each riddle and to write their answers on pieces of papers and to drop them into the appropriate paper bag. Students can answer each riddle as often as they want. They need not put their names on their answers.

      On Friday the teacher empties each bag and types up copies of all of the answers for each riddle. There may be several correct responses. It is important that each answer is a complete response to the riddle; e.g., "smooth," "yellow," "deadly." (A "banana" or a "banana peel" is not a complete answer; the response does not include the element of "deadly.") This activity involves students in noting details. For good sources of riddles, check the numerous volumes of wonderful riddles by Mike Thaler, "The Riddle King." Ann Bishop and Alvin Schwartz have also compiled several books containing riddles.

      Students can be encouraged to bring in riddles, and a teacher can take the best from each student, type these on a ditto stencil, and produce a "Riddle Newsletter." (Make sure the person's name is placed by each entry submitted by him or her.)

      Today there are so many wonderful books to share with students. These might be read aloud by the teacher or by students. By using a variety of books, the reader can focus on word play (Amelia Bedelia books, for example), fractured fairy tales (The True Story of The Three Pigs as Told by A. Wolf by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, or their latest, The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, both available from Viking), cartoon books (Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz), funny stories ( The Teacher from the Black Lagoon by Mike Thaler, available from Scholastic; Eppie M. Says... by Olivier Dunrea, published by Macmillan: Four Dollars and Fifty Cents by Eric A. Kimmel and Glen Rounds, Holiday House); The Feather Merchants & Other Tales of the Fools of Chelm by Steve Sanfield and Mikhail Magaril, Orchard Books; Max in Hollywood, Baby by Maira Kalman, Viking; Robert Quackenbush's Treasury of Humor, Doubleday; Alpha and the Dirty Baby by Brock Cole, Farrar Straus Giroux; The Laugh Book; A New Treasury of Humor for Children, compiled by Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson, with drawings by Marylin Hafner, Doubleday; The Wrong Side of the Bed, by Wallace E. Keller, Children's Universe/Rizzoli; Foolish Rabbits's Big Mistake by Rafe Martin and Ed Young, Putnam; The Cows are Going to Paris by David Kirby and Allen Woodman with illustrations by Chris Demarist, Boyds Mills Press; The Bed Who Ran Away from Home by Dan Greenburg and John Wallner, Harper Collins; Hildegard Sings by Thomas Wharton, Farrar Straus Giroux; Six by Seuss, Random House.)

      Music is another wonderful art form for introducing students to merriment. There are wonderful recordings of such fun songs as "Mairzy Doats," "Kids," "Mama Don't Allow," "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," and "Day-O." The teacher can make song sheets for the class, and reading/singing the lyrics is an integration of music into the language arts class.

      The study of song lyrics is a natural introduction to poetry. In recent years publishers have produced wonderful books of poems. Some good examples for use in a humor-centered program are:

Nonstop Nonsense by Margaret Mahy, Dell Yearling;
Barley Barley by Barrie Wade, Oxford;
The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks by John Ciardi;
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Harper;
Strawberry Poems, edited by Adrian Mitchell, Delacorte;
When I Dance by James Berry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich;
For Laughing Out Loud: Poems to Tickle Your Funnybone, edited by Jack Prelutsky, Knopf;
My Head Is Read and Other Riddle Rhymes, by Myra Cohn Livingston, Holiday House;
Soap Soup and other Verses by Karla Kuskin, Harper Collins;
I Saw Esau, edited by Iona and Peter Opie, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, Candlewick Press;
The Baby Uggs Are Hatching by Jack Prelutsky, Mulberry Books;
If You're Not Here, Please Raise Your Hand: Poems About School by Kalli Dakos, Four Winds Press;
Fresh Brats, by X. J. Kennedy, McElderry Books;
What's On The Menu? Food Poems, edited by Bobbye S. Goldstein, Viking;
Itsy-Bitsy Beasties: Poems from Around the World, edited by Michael Rosen, Carolrhoda;
The Adventures of Isabel, by Ogden Nash, Joy Street/Little, Brown;
If I Were In Charge of The World, by Judith Viorst, Atheneum.

      Now a teacher can have the students write all kinds of funny poems. This is the beginning of the class humor literary magazine. Students who want can illustrate their own and/or classmates' poems. Some students who play musical instruments might set certain original poems to music. Then the teacher can introduce the students to the Broadway hit CATS.

      "Putting on a Show" is a natural way to develop cooperative activities and foster positive self-esteem. Students might choose from structured skits involving funny activities, or doing a Readers' Theatre presentation based on an Amelia Bedelia story. A contest game show might focus on "Concentration" or "Match." Another group might sing songs from Broadway shows, such as "Tomorrow" from Annie, "Getting to Know you" from The King and I, "Put on a Happy Face," from My Fair Lady, "Let Me Entertain You" from Gypsy, and "Ease On Down the Road" from The Wiz.

      Other students might be clowns, jugglers, perform musical numbers, demonstrate pantomime, present a puppet show, or do a make-up demonstration. Some students might do technical work, such as make a backdrop or a set, provide lighting effects, work on costumes, round up helpful props. Several students might design a program and serve as ushers if other classes are invited to see the show.

      Crown off the theatrical presentation with an evening production for parents, other relatives and friends.

      Another approach might be through American folk tales. Steven Kellogg has done several books on American folk heroes, including Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyon, published by Morrow. Gross exaggeration is a major ingredient in such stories. A prize-winning video collection, "The American Folklore Series," is available through BFA/Phoenix productions in New York City. This series consists of ten illustrated, voice-over stories about such popular heroes as Paul Bunyon, John Henry, Glooskap, and Johnny Appleseed, each narrated by a voice so in tune with the region of the country, including one from Canada and one from Mexico.

      Just a couple of stories from Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories will provide many suggestions for storytelling or creative writing. Students can have fun explaining such phenomena as "Why Fire Engines Are Red," or "Why Chickens Have Feathers." Anything goes. Teachers have lots of laughs as students come in with all kinds of absurd answers. These tales can also be added to the humor magazine.

      One week might be devoted to films and television. Students might discuss what their favorite television comedy programs are, including cartoons. Teachers should be prepared for anything, including "Roseanne," "Alf," and even "Saturday Night Live." Movie comedy might focus on Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and Disney animations.

      A final activity might focus on a small-group activity. Each group is to come up with a new comedy feature. One group might develop a new comic strip; another group might come up with a good idea for a new comedy on television; another group might write a funny story or a set of stories. One fifth grade student in Nevada came up with the following story: Some teachers have even had students create new folk heroes and heroines. One teacher even had students select characters from stories and had a contest in which the students voted on the characters to be in the classroom Literary Hall of fame. Such characters included Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington Bear, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Arthur (created by Marc Brown,) The Stupids (created by James Marshall).

Once upon a time, Queen Peach looked into the mirror and asked,
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the most beautiful peach of all? The mirror replied, "Snow Peach."
Queen Peach was so angry, she called, "Green Peach! Green Peach!"
She told Green Peach to take Snow Peach into the woods, kill her, and bring back up her pit to prove she is dead.
Green Peach took Snow Peach into the woods, and she was so pretty, Green Peach said, "Run, Snow Peach, you are so beautiful, and I can't kill you."
Snow Peach ran far away.
She had to get a job.
She became a shoemaker.
That's how we got the first peach cobbler.

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