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John Hellner: Humour is a survival kit

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Humour is a survival kit

John Hellner

Teaching and learning can often be a tedious and gruelling business. Having a sense of humour can be the difference between just surviving and surviving with style. Humour is a subset, a by-product of your positive attitude.

Here’s what works:

Zany activities create humour and forge a playful atmosphere. Write creative notes for being absent, tardy or not having homework done; paint the classroom windows with a depiction of something your class is studying; perform a concert with invented musical instruments; play ’20 questions’; make up sounds for different punctuation symbols and read a passage as students make the sounds for the symbol.

Spontaneous, ‘off the cuff’ verbal exchanges are arguably the best form of humour in a group situation. Plan to be spontaneous. If you can fake spontaneity, you can fake anything. Have a few stand by, tried and tested, one liners and word plays ready for responses to situations. Allow exaggeration, tall tales, flights of fantasy, and silly words into your straight talk. Encourage student comment. Listen carefully to the responses, listening for the unusual, the interesting and the bizarre. Ask probing questions that travel up sidetracks and examine their remarks closely. Then drop the one liner, exaggerate, and fantasise. Watch what happens.

Another form of spontaneity is reacting to those daily incidents that interrupt the ordinary flow of events...disruptions, upsets, frustration, and annoyances. Use your one liners for the recurring situations: ‘It’s only a movie;’ ‘the difference between this place and the Titanic is that the Titanic had a band;’ ‘If you think that’s hard, try dribbling a football.’ Hum the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme.

Completely opposite spontaneous humour is the corny joke...now and again.

Sometimes the recovery is funnier than the joke itself. (‘It worked alright in rehearsal,’ with a perplexed expression). The ideal time is when the joke or anecdote is related to subject matter. Build up a list in the margin of your lesson plans, linking joke to material.

Patient: ‘Doc, I’ve got a problem. I can’t remember anything.’

Doc: ‘How long have you had the problem?’

Patient: ‘What problem?’

Corny jokes can also be used to relieve tension, to lighten the mood, to gain attention, or, at the end of a long monologue.

Props, decorations, posters, desk signs, lapel badges make for a playful environment. Play is childish, fun and silly. It’s also how we learn best.

It’s good learning theory. When a class is bogged down, tired, asleep; when kids are bored, losing the plot, angry or worried, that’s when seeing something funny can turn it around. Humour can change moods.

Imagine a teacher wearing roller blades, blowing soap bubbles, or wearing a funny hat. Have an ugly tie day. Blow up dolls, Halloween masks, naming your duster, having an invisible friend named ‘what,’ bunny ears, lava lamps, popcorn, will knock their socks off.

A sign on the fish tank reading, ‘stay in school;’ happy and sad face signs for each desk; wall posters like, ‘There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life’ (Frank Zappa), or, ‘Proofread carefully to see if you any words out;’ give anyone a boost on a tough day.

‘Word play’ is the most common form of classroom humour. Quick, easy, used in conversational context, apparently spontaneous, it involves nothing more than the manipulation of words. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ (Lewis Carroll)

Language based humour uses such devices as puns, homonyms, homophones, oxymoron, malapropisms, mis-pronunciations, spoonerisms, Tom Swifties, and synonyms. This form of humour artfully employs verbal tactics like tongue twisters, euphemisms, cliches, intentional slips of the tongue, stating the obvious, irony, literal interpretations, ‘sniglets,’ slang and exaggeration.

Check what’s on the Internet. Altogether, we can weave a vast and picturesque verbal tapestry.

Warning: Gender, racial, ethnic, put down humour, over the top sarcasm, ridicule, pathetic striving to be funny when you’re not, too much humour, will work against you as much as good humour works for you. I’m going to wear my rabbit ears to the local jazz festival this Easter weekend. As a humourologist, it is part of my action research. No one who is around me will get hot or cross or ruin the fun (Easter pun?). A person can’t smile and be mad at the same time.

John Hellner is an experienced classroom teacher and deputy principal, now involved in teacher education at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic.