Humor is powerful. It has the power to heal and the power to serve. So why do we restrict it and even prohibit it in the classroom? How can we take cues from the gravity of the past year to unwind and let laughter be the potent tool that it is for student learning?
We are in the midst of serious times in education; times when we are morally compelled to face, solve, and eradicate issues that have festered for far too long—issues such as racist pedagogy, low literacy rates, access to technology, and the inequities of grading, testing, and discipline policies. Therefore, it stands to reason that many stakeholders don’t see the classroom as a place to indulge in humor. Some may even worry that engaging in laughter in the classroom could threaten our goal to ensure free, appropriate education for all students. I, however, believe just the opposite: a classroom is a place where we need laughter.
Lighthearted moments make teaching and learning more freeing and more appropriate for children. After all, humor relieves us of the pressures of life and humanizes us in ways that the system does not.
Laughter’s Learning Power
If we choose to learn laughter together in the classroom, laughter will also learn us. Learn when the silence from engrossed work needs a break. Learn when the heaviness of the topic we are discussing requires us to relax with a well-intentioned joke. Understand when it’s just the right time for our favorite “mood lifter” (formerly known as the class clown) to step into his/her/their role and do what they do best: say or do something, anything that makes us laugh.
In her book, Teaching Critical Thinking, bell hooks asserts that we “need humor as a mediating force.” I concur. We need mirth in our homes, in our friend groups, and in the physical, virtual, and emotional spaces of our learning communities. We need laughter as a mediating force between the old ways of teaching and learning and the new ways of teaching and learning. We need laughter as a mediating force between the “us” and “them” mindsets that tend to permeate social groups and school culture.
Seeing Laughter as a Mindset
So, how do we let more laughter into our classrooms? First, we need to be open-minded about what laughter is, what it can be, and what purpose it can serve the students and us teachers. Too often, we relegate spontaneity and silliness, and to recess or the cafeteria. Instead, let’s recognize how humor can put the joy back in learning and connect children across all kinds of artificial divides. Consider the benefits of moments of laughter…
- For the child who identifies as Black, Brown, Asian, and White to share a laugh with one another
- For a child who is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or other beliefs to share common funnies.
- For children who are considered rich, poor, or somewhere in between to chuckle at the same video.
- For children who are straight-A honor roll students to snicker with children who aren’t or children who have been retained.
- For children who identify with their biological gender to experience laughter with children who identify as gender fluid.
- For children who don’t have apparent challenges to giggle with children who receive special education services.
There is learning happening in each of these moments. Important learning. That laughter transcends societal groupings. It transcends the things that separate us and them from each other: age, grades, color, interests, friend groups, class size, socio-economic status, language(s), abilities, and even rises above the permissions given or taken away from certain groups by those who dare not see some of us as worthy of laughing.
Three Teacher Roles
For the power of laughter to resonate in our classrooms, we teachers need to toggle between three roles: a composer, a magician, and a participant (sounds like the start of a corny joke, right!).
- As the composer, your responsibility is to plan for and create opportunities for laughter. Yes, planned laughter has a purpose. It helps build the culture for students, and you, to safely engage in laughter. It lets students know, indirectly, that laughing is indeed OK in this space. Reading aloud a funny book is one place to start.
- As the magician, your responsibility is to make the invisible visible. You have to be prepared to teach into the laughter that occurs (planned and unplanned) to help students see and think about what laughter is doing at that moment. (Important Note: The teaching can happen in the moment or a follow-up moment, depending on the cause of the laughter and response of the students.)
- As the participant, your responsibility is to give in to those moments when you feel the urge to laugh. And just do it!
If making laughter a regular part of the class is new to you, it’s OK. This is new to many of us, including me. The important thing is to be open to a new way of thinking and being in the classroom. Here’s what the power of orchestrated, spontaneous, visible, and communal laughter can do in the classroom.
|Laughter in the classroom creates opportunities for…
|Laughter helps us learn to…
|● Recognizing boundaries: how to set them, express them, reflect on them, and revise them.
|● Discuss how and why something is offensive or causes someone to react in a certain way.
|● Teaching lessons on empathy, sympathy, and apathy.
|● Welcome culturally relevant and time-sensitive history lessons.
|● Deepening cultural understanding.
|● Respect cultures different from our own.
|● Making new connections.
|● Group students differently.
|● Let go.
|● Expressing emotion: happiness, joy, anxiety, nervousness, discomfort, disappointment, and many other feelings that come out as laughter.
|● See each other as whole people, with feelings that vary in intensity and how they’re expressed.
I’ve come to see laughter as a student on our roster that needs to be more present than absent in the classroom each day.
Honoring the beauty and complexities of humor as a fluid, hidden curriculum that we make visible, can and will encourage children over time to be more present as their whole selves.
With that in mind, let students snicker at the funny things. Laugh at yourself! Laugh with them. Be less tense when they burst into laughter at the mistakes they make or the silliness of the new viral TikTok video you used to teach content.
As you embark on this journey of shifting your perception of laughter in the classroom, remember to not only intentionally plan for laughter in the classroom but invite it in, like a guest that belongs at the planned events and the impromptu barbecues. Remember to welcome laughter with open arms because somewhere life’s trials and tribulations are making it hard for a child, a colleague, or maybe even you to find a reason to smile at all.
So, we smile together in the classroom because we can.
We chuckle in unison in the classroom because we should.
We share laughter to revere life; for every child, every adult, every human being we’ve lost to police brutality, violence, suicide, cancer, illness, Covid-19; for each loved one who no longer has the opportunity to laugh.
And we open our minds, our ears, and our hearts to witness, hear, encourage, and join in on laughter with our students, for our students, and because of our students, as a form of radical education that the world needs.