This article is part of our Visions of Good Education series where we spotlight for our readers what good education looks like and the potential for what could be in our schools.
By Rachel Fuhrman
When I first began teaching sixth-grade math at a charter school in Harlem, NY, I was immediately struck by how disillusioned the majority of my students were with not only math class, but school in general. From September, my students seemed exhausted with the monotony of their classes and I was nervous that I might not be able to instill the love of learning that I believe all teachers strive to inspire. Fortunately, I have managed to utilize humor as both an instructional strategy and as a means through which to create a positive classroom culture. I believe that this use of humor has been integral in generating the academic growth and developing the sense of community present in my classroom today. I am confident that other teachers and their classrooms can benefit from the use of humor to support students’ emotional well-being and promote rigor.
Humor to Support Students’ Emotional Well-Being
While I was, I was disheartened to find my students already unenthusiastic for their classes in the first few weeks of school, this sentiment is not unique as many parents recognize how badly their children want to stay out of school as early as first-grade (Elias, 2015). Additionally, many of my students specifically had a distaste for and distrust of mathematics class. Many expressed that they had always struggled with the topic and, therefore, found it a stressful class to sit through. Students that are overwhelmed by stress are unable to attend to the material presented and, therefore, may continue to struggle to gain academic understandings (Wolk, 2008). Humor provides an antidote to this environment of stress and allows students to rediscover their love of learning. In my own experience, humor has been invaluable in showing my students how incredibly engaging math can be and in building their confidence in the content area. Furthermore, humor has helped me create a classroom that my students are eager to be a part of.
In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov praises humor for its ability to create happy and fulfilled students and teachers (2010). Although he admits it can be challenging to explain exactly how to employ humor in the classroom effectively, I believe that there are a few basic action steps teachers can take to begin to introduce humor. One of my students’ favorite things I do in our class is include silly pictures in our daily lesson packets. This is a low-lift way to help students feel at ease as they share a communal moment of joy. A second step I take to promote humor is that I often have my students read out notes or word problems in their best humorous voices. My students truly love this opportunity to be silly and get engaged with the content. I have many students that are very out-going but may not have always felt confident answering mathematical questions. Because they realized that they could have their voices honored through their ability to be silly at the appropriate time, they began to develop the confidence necessary to participate in all parts of class.
When students recognize that math class is not a place for fear or anxiety and is instead a place of joy, they are better able to attend to challenging content and are willing to take the necessary academic risks to achieve growth. Furthermore, by consistently presenting my authentic self to my students, they have learned to trust me and rely on my continued support throughout class. Such trusting relationships are critical to an emotionally healthy classroom as students learn that they are cared for and are able to focus their attention on the content more easily (Phillips, 2015). I have seen my students’ attitudes improve consistently throughout the year and their academic outcomes have closely followed. I am confident that my use of humor to support their emotional well-being has been a factor in these changes.
Humor to Promote Rigor
Arthur Costa outlined 16 Habits of Mind (HOM) that he determined were critical to student success in a 2001 paper. One of those HOM was the ability to find humor and this is the HOM that I have utilized to increase the rigor in my classroom. Costa explained that finding humor allows students to employ “such higher level thinking skills as anticipation, finding novel relationships, visual imagery, and making analogies” in the classroom (2001). Furthermore, the use of humor has been shown to maximize learning and improve memory (McNeely, n.d). Since I began employing humor as an instructional strategy, I have seen my students grow significantly in their problem-solving abilities and retention of information. My introduction of humor into a lesson often takes the form of a comic that I have students analyze in the context of our content for the day. The image below highlights one of such comics that students assessed during our unit on percentages. My students analyzed this comic and then were able to share out their findings and discover that the total should always be 100% as that represents one whole even though I had not explicitly taught this to them. In this particular case, my students were so highly engaged with the comic and excited at the prospect of understanding the joke that they easily discovered the relevant mathematical concept.
Beyond comics, I often introduce humor into a lesson through the scenarios I create for our word problems. The image below highlights one such example in which I wrote a problem that involved me (their 5’4 math teach), our physical education teacher, and our 6’9 dean playing one another in a game of basketball. While the problem ultimately introduced a connection between ratios and percentages, my students greatly enjoyed the idea of the three of us playing against one another. I saw my students eager to solve the problem and begin a class discussion regarding their findings in which I turned out to be the best player. While this problem was only one of many I have utilized to introduce humor, it highlights how simple it can be to do so.
Using humor has allowed me to promote rigor as my students are far less nervous in my classroom and, instead, are eager to solve problems and prepared to potentially make mistakes in the process of learning. This positive climate that humor has allowed me to create is highly correlated with student retention of information and, therefore, ensures that my students are not only solving rigorous problems, but enjoying the process and deeply internalizing what they learn (Elias, 2015).
While it is important to be authentic in the classroom, those teachers that have an affinity for humor should certainly take advantage of the opportunity to utilize this strength for the benefit of their students. My students have developed a love of learning mathematics and I am confident that they will take this passion with them long after they leave my sixth-grade classroom. I am hopeful that my students will find future teachers that promote humor so that they can continue to view classrooms as places not only of hard work but also of joy.
Rachel Fuhrman is currently a sixth-grade math teacher in Harlem, New York. She recently earned her Master of Science in Education Studies from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She is passionate about improving educational equity and strives to serve traditionally underserved communities. Additionally, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Urban Education in the future in order to further identify avenues through which to support all students in achieving at the highest levels.