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Acting Lessons for Teachers

Acting Lessons for Teachers

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Published by: cem balcikanli on Sep 27, 2010
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The job of the teacher is to get students laughing, and when their mouths are
open, to give them something on which to chew.

—Elaine Lundberg and Cheryl Thurston

It soon becomes apparent when using humor that there are various kinds or
categories of it. All have potential for livening up a classroom and contributing
to student learning. When humor is used for pedagogical purposes, Neuliep
(1991) places humor into the following categories:

•Joke (a relatively short prose build-up followed by a punch line): Did you hear
the one about the young man who was hired by a supermarket? He arrived the
first day, and the manager greeted him, gave him a broom, and said, “Your first
job will be to sweep off the sidewalk in front of the store.” The young man
replied indignantly, “But, I’m a college graduate!” The manager responded, “I
apologize. Here, let me show you how to do it!”
•Riddle (a puzzling question containing a problem to be solved): I am person-
ally the number 79. They once tried to make me from 29. What am I? (McKay
2000). The answer is gold. Gold occupies the number 79 on the periodic table,
and once upon a time, efforts were undertaken to make gold from copper, num-
ber 29 on the periodic table. For those of you who have a bit of extra time on
your hands, how many ways are there to make change for one dollar? Try it.
There are 293 ways.
•Pun (a play on words that sound the same but have different meanings): When
his father, Claudius, asks Hamlet why he feels so moody, Hamlet responds by
saying he is “too much in the sun.” Remember that this response (Act 1, Scene
2, Line 69) would be delivered orally, so the audience could hear “sun,” or it
could hear “son”—just the pun Shakespeare intended. Here is one for the
younger audience. What is black and white and read all over? Students hearing



this may well assume that the word “read” is actually “red,” especially because
the first two words in the sentence refer to colors. The answer to the riddle is
•Funny story (a series of connecting events or the activities of a single incident
as a tale): “A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum . . . ” We all have
these kinds of stories, don’t we? Just last month, one of the authors was in Aus-
tralia, about to deliver a talk to roughly 200 education majors. As he exited his
car in the university’s parking lot and made his way to the auditorium, he
opened a piece of taffy and popped it into his mouth. Big mistake. Seconds
later he felt something solid mixed in with the taffy—a filling had been pulled
out by the candy. The show had to go on! Needless to say, he did not drink any
of the ice water that was offered.
•Humorous comment (brief humorous statement that does not fit in any other
category): Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was “a tragedy that could have been
averted if Verona had a decent postal system” (Boerman-Cornell 1999, 69).

We think that the categories of humor can be expanded. Here are a few others
along with an example of each.

•Oxymoron (combination of seemingly exact opposite words): business ethics,
military intelligence, genuine imitation, resident alien, working vacation,
peace force, vegetarian meatloaf, pretty ugly, act naturally, rap music, soft rock,
jumbo shrimp, and childproof (no second word is needed here, is it?).
•Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong, it will—and at the worst possible time): You
have finished reading this book and have gathered up the courage to try some
of these ideas for the first time in your first-period classroom. You are not feel-
ing all that confident. As fate would have it, your principal has chosen this
very period to sit in and observe you!
•Parody (a feeble, transparent, ridiculous imitation in voice or body): Saturday
Night Live has been probably the king of parody on television. Think of the
many U.S. Presidents, as well as entertainers and sports figures, who have been
•Limerick (light or humorous verse form):

There once was a principal named Harry,
a wooden paddle he would carry.
Through the halls he would swing it, up and down he would bring it,
and not a lingering student would tarry!

•Deadpan (emotionless immobile face): You might remember Ben Stein, who
has capitalized on his delivery of a deadpan look, whether as Mr. Cantwell, the
biology teacher on The Wonder Years, or on his 1997–2002 television program,
Win Ben Stein’s Money.
•Knock-knock (call and answer form of a joke): Knock-knock. Who’s there?
(You finish it.)
•Irony (incongruity between actual results and expected results): It is ironic
that although we say we value education, we often pay teachers so little that


Acting Lessons for Teachers

many have to leave the profession. Note that this is “funny” only in the sense
that incongruity exists between respect and salary. As coincidence would have
it, a cartoon depicting just this very situation appears in Phi Delta Kappan
(2005, 294). Check it out.
•Slapstick (exaggerated, unexpected movements and gestures): Think of the
Three Stooges, or Chevy Chase and Steve Martin for more contemporary
images, but tone it down a bit!

What is common to all of these categories? No matter the category, once peo-
ple “get it,” humor allows them to experience and appreciate a certain incongru-
ity, absurdity, and ludicrousness about life (Sultanoff 2002). Humor also allows
both the sender and the recipient to share the experience!
You may have noted that we have left sarcasm out as a category of humor.
Although sarcasm can be funny, it also can be dangerous. Webster’s Seventh New
Collegiate Dictionary (1972) defines sarcasm as “to tear flesh, bite the lips in rage,
sneer; a cutting, hostile, or contemptuous remark; the use of caustic or ironic lan-
guage” (764). Shade (1996) adds to this brutal set of definitions the fact that sar-
casm invariably wounds students’ self-esteem. “Sarcasm humiliates, mocks, and
makes fun of its victims . . . often leading to poor attitudes and deep resentments”
(87). Avoid sarcasm at all cost.
By the way, if students don’t bust out laughing at your attempts of humor, keep
at it. You will get better. In turn, encourage your students to create and use
humor. And be sure to respond positively to their attempts—laugh! And, if their
effort at humor is not all that funny, act as if you find it funny; act as if you find
the punch line surprising. With your support, they too will get better at creating
and using humor.

Let students help you deliver humor in the classroom. Try David Letterman’s
approach. Share with them an example, such as where a principal announces his
top ten reasonswhy it is “cool” to be a principal. Some of these reasons may
include “lots of cool keys,” “get to have an hour-and-a-half lunch with 350
friends,” “gets to keep teachers after school,” and “name sometimes appears
prominently in print (graffiti).” We credit Principal Ron Wilson, of Abilene
Middle School in Abilene, Kansas, for these reasons. Now, involve students. Ask
them to help compose their own list of the “top ten reasons”—perhaps for sched-
uling chemistry (think flames, test tubes, and chemicals) or for volunteering to
be in the upcoming Peter Pan play (think tights and swinging on wires suspended
from the ceiling). Try asking them to brainstorm endings to sentences such as “You
know that you are a bit anxious about your upcoming speech when you . . . ,” “You
know you are hooked on Shakespeare when you . . . ,” and “You know you need
to brush up on your Latin when you . . . ”

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