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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Laughter in the Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 18, 2019 11 min read
Cheerful high school student enjoying a group project
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened in your classroom?

Most of us have no shortage of sad or tragic moments that occur in our classrooms, and most classrooms are also often filled up with laughter.

I invited some educators to share their favorite funny moments.

Mary K. Tedrow, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Kelly Wickham Hurst, and Richard Byrne share their memories. I’ve also included comments from readers.

First, I’ll briefly share three of my own from just the past two years:

Students had just discovered my book-writing “sideline.” One student came up to me before class began and, in all seriousness, told me, “Mr. Ferlazzo, we have underestimated you!”

Another day, my very talented student-teacher was in charge of the class, and I was observing from my desk. She kneeled down to work with a student sitting near me, doing a great job of guiding him through challenges he was having completing an essay. After the student-teacher moved on, the student she had been helping turned to me with a smile and said, “Mr. Ferlazzo, that was good teaching. Learn from it.”

My last story relates to the anonymous evaluations I have students write about the class and me at the end of each semester. I tell students that I will publish the results—warts and all—on my blog in an effort to help them take it seriously, and always follow through. Last year, The Washington Post picked up my report summarizing what students wrote. Here was their headline:

NEWS BREAK (not breaking news): Teacher asks students to grade him. One wrote: ‘I give Mr. Ferlazzo an A at being annoying.’

Response From Mary K. Tedrow

Mary K. Tedrow taught in the high school English classroom beginning in 1978, ending her career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in Winchester, Va., in 2016. She is currently the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester. She is an adjunct at Lord Fairfax Community College and Johns Hopkins University and is the author of Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across Content Areas:

Laughter in the classroom is an important part of building a strong community of learners. If the laughter is at no one’s expense, we bond over a shared experience—our own cache of insider jokes. I personally thrive on the memories of many humorous incidents in the classroom.

One year, after feeling frustrated by the dreary march of tragedies in senior English, I researched and developed a unit on comedy. My objective wasn’t entirely for fun. The Advanced Placement students were not recognizing humor in their reading. Apparently, their expectation is that nothing could possibly be funny in school, so over-the-top satirical humor by The Onion and the famed A Modest Proposal on practice reads were being entirely missed by these serious readers.

The follow-up to the one-day comedy lesson was the Irony Project. Students had to find something humorous to share and then analyze the “joke” and explain to us what made it funny according to the criteria given in the lesson. Each student was assigned a day, and we began every class for a few weeks with a laugh. The students complained, though, that analyzing a joke takes all the fun out of it; however, an over-reliance on hyperbole became our marker that, “Hey, maybe something funny is going on here. ...”

But I remember a day when we were all delighted and amused together. The 9th grade class had just finished reading Oedipus Rex. This Greek tragedy conforms to the ancient Greek expectation that no violence can be performed on stage. No blood must be spilled, not even an animal’s. The dramtists felt the audience must not witness a blow to any other person. Such actions were described but not performed.

Today, we clearly have little squeamishness about this convention.

After the reading, students were placed in small groups and had to identify an action that was described in the play but not performed. Their goal was to develop a performance of this unscripted action—a great opportunity to assess their understanding of plot, character, and dramatic scripting while working on collaborative writing and performance.

One group took on the moment when Oedipus, the king of Thebes, came to the realization that he had violated many norms. He had unwittingly married his own mother and sired four children with her. They are both his children and his siblings. His mother/wife, Jocasta, had already come to this realization and had run into the palace and hanged herself in shame. In the scene the students chose to perform, Oedipus runs in and discovers her body. He cuts her down and, in punishment for his own shame, he takes out her earrings and blinds himself with them by gauging out his eyes.

The students prepared well. They asked permission to use ketchup packets from the lunchroom as a prop to simulate the blood. As the student Oedipus grabbed the earrings and thrust them into his eyes, a student standing behind him smashed the ketchup packet. The timing was impeccable. From where the students and I sat, we could see blood/ketchup spurt several feet from the eyes at the exact moment of the action.

For a moment, we sat astounded, and then the class burst into admirable laughter. It was great comic relief from the disaster unfolding before us—another lesson built from the community of the theater.


Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Jeryl-Ann Asaro loves her job as an 8th grade English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book, Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels--elementary, middle, high school, and postgraduate, but she has found that teaching adolescent-aged students is her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year-olds is her favorite place to be—crazy, but true:

I am going to make a big, public confession; I am a SNORTER! When I unexpectedly laugh, I breathe differently, and an ugly snort follows. There’s a new word for this phenomenon. Snaughling: “Laughing so hard that you snort, then continuing to laugh because you snorted, and then snorting because you kept laughing” —a vicious cycle that describes me.

I didn’t start teaching English until I was in my midforties, so I was a novice while clearly looking like a seasoned veteran. After teaching five years, I was pleased to have my first honor’s group. I had always been a bit uptight with my classes, but with this group, we surprisingly developed a bantering style, which added much laughter and joy to the classroom experience.

We were having a keyed-up, serious discussion about the novel, Hatchet, which is a story about a teenager who has to survive in the woods. The conversation was skipping from actual survival skills to jumping into survival mode.

One amusing 13-year-old boy literally leapt out of his seat and imitated a growling bear. He was hilarious with perfect timing, and once the shock passed, the class burst out laughing. Initially, in my still “novice” style, I totally panicked because I had lost control, but as I came to terms with what had happened, my relief turned into unexpected laughter.

Soon, the dreaded snort filled the room. The more I laughed, the more I snorted. In my fit of nervous laughter, I snorted six times in a row, very loudly and very ugly!

The class was stunned by the sound, and their laughter, soon turned to silence and stares, and walls were filled with only the sounds of snorts! Eventually, they laughed with me, but not before I was mortified! In our relatively small school, the word had spread about my snorts. I became the teacher with the crazy laugh.

At first, I was totally embarrassed, but I have learned to embrace my flaws. To this day, some 13 years later, every class that enters the room now keeps a yearlong snort count on the board, and it is a competition between class periods to see who can make me snort the most. I, proudly, have a sign hung in the room, given to me by one “winning” class a few years back. It reads, “If you are not going to snort, why bother even laughing.”

That young boy is now 26, and not surprisingly, has dabbled in acting while working in television production. He still keeps in touch with me, and to this day, we giggle about that moment! He can make anyone laugh!

In the end, it made me realize that to create a classroom environment where students feel safe, sometimes the teacher has to be a bit “human,” too. What was once such a self-conscious moment has turned into a way to draw my students to me. It truly changed my teaching style.


Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She’s a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill:

A student told me he had a tic from Tourette’s Syndrome and couldn’t stop saying bad words. I had just seen some episode of ER where they presented that so I was sure that’s where he picked it up. I called in the school nurse and psychologist to a meeting with his parents, where I said we need an education plan for him. They were floored he tried that on me, but we did have a good laugh over it. It got out to his friends when he was busted, and they’d say, “Watch your mouth, Terrance!” to try to get him in trouble later. He was a good sport, but I busted a gut over it.

Response From Richard Byrne

Richard Byrne is a former high school social studies teacher best known for developing the award-winning blog Free Technology for Teachers. He has been invited to speak at events on six continents and would gladly go to Antarctica. Richard’s work is focused on sharing free resources that educators can use to enhance their students’ learning experiences:

This is an incident that wasn’t funny in the momen, but is funny now (this student in this story is now in his 30s). In my first year of teaching, I had a student bring a Lipton iced tea bottle filled with urine to class. He tried to persuade one of his classmates that it was iced tea and that he should drink it. That’s a scenario they never covered in any of my teacher-prep courses. I called the assistant principal and simply said, “Pat, student X has a bottle of pee that he’s trying to get student Y to drink. I think this is a matter for you to handle.” I still laugh when I tell that story. I recently ran into Pat, and he had a good chuckle about it, too.

Responses From Readers:

Melanie Link Taylor:

Well, this is a little offbeat, but once a student swiped another’s cellphone. The student with the missing phone went to the admin office, called his cell, and it rang in the classroom in the thief’s pocket!

Thanks to Mary, Jeri, Kelly, and Richard, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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