Watch out, Fish!: Using humor in the classroom

Watch out, Fish!: Using humor in the classroom

by Maya Projansky

I believe in humor in classrooms. 

Each September, I find myself having a similar conversation with my class about laughing. Let’s say I trip over a bench in the classroom. If I laugh, people are welcome to join me in laughing at my clumsiness. However, if I don’t laugh, and other people do, then they are laughing at me. We explore the feelings I would have in each of those scenarios as part of the process of creating norms for our community.. The difference  between “laughing with” and “laughing at” someone is important. Our feelings matter in our classroom community. Laughing is wonderful, but the context and intent matter. 

The notion that learning is a social activity, that we learn from the people we are in various “clubs” with, is one that I learned from Frank Smith’s The Book of Learning and Forgetting as part of his definition of the Classic view of learning. He distinguishes learning naturally from the people with whom you keep company from “The Official Theory” which views learning as hard work. If you are able to laugh with someone, you are part of the same club. You are “in” together. You can learn from one another. I would never want a student to feel as if they were outside of our community. To feel separated from the group, pushed away from the hearth. The emotional distance that creates in a child—or anyone—leads to the construction of walls of separation, to bitterness, to resentment, to further isolation from the group. This is not conducive to learning.

Many years ago, early in my career, a father joined our class on every single field trip we took. On a trip to Philipsburg Manor, we were eating lunch next to the mill pond after the programming. The education staff had told the students rules for the picnic area, including not to throw anything into the pond. The class happily ate, sharing food, laughing, as they moved around the gravelled space. I sat with this father chatting on a picnic bench. We were facing the water. It was a cold day in the late fall, and there was ice floating on much of the pond. 

Suddenly, I realized that a couple of children were throwing small rocks and sticks into the pond. Yikes! I quickly walked over to them. The father had followed me over to the kids. He watched as I spoke to the kids about throwing things into a pond despite being told at the outset that they were not allowed to do so. I was quite serious and intense with them, using my recently developed “strict teacher” voice. They looked appropriately chastened. I then joked that if they did it again, I was going to throw them into the pond. “Picture the poor fish that’s swimming along and gets hit on the head by you two!” It was such an absurd idea that the dejected looks left their faces and they laughed. They dropped the stones in their hands and returned to eating their sandwiches at the tables. 

The father turned to me and said, “I notice that every time you discipline a child, you follow it with a joke. Why do you do that? What’s the philosophy behind it?” 

I had never noticed this before. I wasn’t even aware that I did it regularly. “I do? I’ve never noticed that.” 

“I assumed it was something you did on purpose, like that you’d been taught to do it in your teaching training. It’s pretty cool.”

“Huh. I’ll have to think about that. You’re right that I do it, but I’m not really sure why. It just feels right.”

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years. I came to realize that I do it for a good reason. 

Central to my beliefs about teaching is that students are humans and it’s my responsibility to honor and support that in every interaction. Being human is a tricky business. Humans make mistakes; that’s how we learn. Humans also have emotions that are connected in part to our sense of belonging. Belonging is important. In every interaction with my students, I try to hold these two beliefs central to the choices I make about how I respond. Whether we are celebrating a piece of work a student has done, giving suggestions about how to improve something, or redirecting a child who’s throwing rocks into an icy pond, I am conscious of their humanity.

When I make mistakes, I want to be seen as more than just my mistake. I want the mistake to be seen in the context of all that I am as a person. This does not dismiss the mistake—I still need to acknowledge it and take responsibility for it. But I am more than my mistake. Students also want to be seen this way. Humor helps as all remember our fullness as humans, no matter what. 

A 2011 study of the use of humor in educational settings (Banas et al) looked at 40 years of research. They found that, “humor in educational settings serves a variety of positive functions beyond simply making people laugh. Humor builds group [as in class] cohesion. People respond more positively to each other when humor is present. It brings them together. Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism. Research also establishes that humor helps individuals cope with stress. It relaxes them.”

“Humor can facilitate cohesion by softening criticism.” I was not taught this is my teaching education program, but I could have been. Had I known this research that day by the pond, I would have answered that father differently. But the research doesn’t really matter: My heart tells me it’s good to laugh together. It keeps us human. And, it keeps us an “us.”

Works Cited: 

Smith, F. (1998). The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York: Teachers College Press.

Weimer, M. (2013, February 1). Humor in the Classroom: 40 Years of Research. Retrieved from