From my earliest years, I’ve always been known as someone who loved comedy. On days when the bookmobile came to our elementary school, I remember gravitating towards joke and riddle books before the more sought after “chapter books” that my peers were reading. In 1966, the year I was in grade two, our family received our first record player for Christmas, along with two LP’s: a Perry Como Christmas album and Bill Cosby’s “Why is There Air?”. The latter was my first experience with stand-up comedy and I remember listening to that album until it wore out. Someone was speaking my language.
By the time I entered grade eight, my love of laughter and comedy was pretty well-established and pretty well-known. In fact, my classmates—and my teacher—were all aware of the fact that, if Hurley really started to laugh, there would be no way that any work was going to get done until I stopped. The fact I could find humour in the smallest details of life actually turned into a strategy that other kids—and my teacher— would use to get out of having to do work. Get him laughing and we might miss Math!
On Sunday nights, I used to sleep with the radio under my pillow so that I could listen to the “Sunday Night Funnies” on a local rock station. An hour of stand-up comedy just before having to return to school on a Monday morning was just what the doctor ordered. To this day, my favourite radio station is a 24/7 comedy station that has started to broadcast locally. In fact, it was during yesterday’s four hour feast of stand-up during a long drive to supervise a teacher candidate that I began to think about the role that the intentional use of comedy could play in the life of our schools. What might happen if both the study and experience of comedy and laughter became part of the culture of our classrooms?
Brain science is now beginning to affirm what the folks at Reader’s Digest have sensed for many years: Laughter is a great form of medicine. We are, for example, learning that laughter can help reduce stress, boost our immune systems and help people connect. Emerging studies looking at brain activity during periods of laughter are indicating that some of the things that we find funny actually cause us to use a large portion of our brain. This could be owing to the fact that jokes, riddles and other forms of comedy are structured so that deeper cognitive connections need to be made in order to find something funny.
Consider your favourite comedy bit. We are drawn into some sort of connection with the scenario being described, it resonates with us, we’re following along and BAM—there’s a comedic turn that totally surprises us and we begin laughing. It’s more complicated than that, I’m sure, but you get the point. Good comedy is well-crafted with much of the same narrative structure as an engaging story. We are hooked by the familiarity and delighted by the twist that comes in the punchline.
Now I’m not suggesting that schools install “Now Appearing” marquees on the front lawn. Nor am I suggesting that we add Comedy to our list of curriculum responsibilities. But I am suggesting that we start to take seriously the importance of laughter and the power of comedy in the lives of our students and our teachers.
On a very basic level, more opportunities to laugh can only help to relieve the stress that often builds up in our learning environments. In my own classroom, I used to put on classic comedy tracks at various points in the day, just to lighten things up a little. I wonder what might happen if we allowed students to listen to appropriate comedy just before provincial assessment periods or final exams.
Many teachers find the use of humour in the presentation of lessons to be a wonderful tool for engagement. Hooking people with a joke or a story is a well-used strategy for public speakers.
Socially, the experience of sharing of a humourous experience together can bind groups together. People that hang out at comedy clubs know this. In fact, there may be some room here for exploring the effect that the intentional use of humour and comedy can affect social tensions that can lead to things like bullying. You may have stories of that student that surprised everyone at the annual talent show by getting up and performing a 5 minute comedy sketch that she had written.
On a deeper level, looking at the structure of comedy—the way that jokes are constructed, the way that comic stories are written—can prove to be a wonderful tool for literacy development. Comedy as text that students learn to read and write could be effective on so many levels.
As you can see, I’m just starting to explore the idea, but I think that it has more legs than we might first imagine. On so many levels, I can see the use of laughter, humour and comedy becoming much more than something that is relegated to the schoolyard.
What is your experience of laughter and comedy in your life as a student, an educator or a parent? Could we be missing an important way to connect with our students and our colleagues? What ideas do you have for integrating comedy and laughter into the life of your school? A comedy festival? A lunch hour comedy club? A comedy writing workshop?
So, these three strings walk into a classroom…