A Man, a Monkey, and a Parrot Walk
into a Montessori Classroom...
by Wendy Tye
First off, before we can discuss humor in the classroom, we need to establish some parameters. By “humor” I am not talking about biting, rude, vicious humor, or humor that puts others down or attempts to allow the instigator a feeling of superiority. I am not referring to sarcasm, which can be hurtful and cruel. I am also not talking about taunting, making fun of others, or even lightly mocking them. Now then, what are we to talk about?
It is actually easier to tell what humor is not than to tell what it is. In most dictionaries humor is roughly defined as both something that evokes laughter as well as a positive state of mind or outlook. One only need think of a time when they thought something was funny and didn’t laugh out loud or were feeling positive and optimistic but not feeling humorous at all to recognize that humor is not easy to pin down. However, we can easily see the positive effects of it in a classroom. Children are happy. They laugh freely. They are capable of handling adversity. They tend toward levity and they see the world in terms of it being an experimental playground where they can test social, academic, and cultural norms and find the edges of what is acceptable generally or what is acceptable in their community. The sense of humor I refer to is about optimism, forgiveness, lighthearted reaction, self-reflection, an ability to find nuanced, varied meanings in an event or phrase, or recognizing many facets of a thing, word, story, or experience. It is about seeing one’s own role in the situation as positive, unique, and potentially worthy of a chuckle.
Humor can be a choice. Regardless of the details of a situation we have a choice about how we respond. A humorous response conveys something important about the players: I see and acknowledge that I am not perfect; I can see that none of us is perfect; I see that this situation is not perfect; we can handle this imperfection; we can acknowledge imperfection, embrace it, and make it a loved, valued part of our experiences with each other.
Being able to choose a response to a difficult situation or occurrence that is positive, resilient, or that acknowledges self-imperfection can only happen in a classroom that feels and is fundamentally and emotionally safe. Without a sense of deep and profound mutual respect between child and adult, humor can quickly and easily become disrespectful, unsafe, and insensitive. Only when each party understands and accepts the strengths and struggles of the other can gentle, humorous experimentation happen in a healthy way. I once told my class a story about how, in fifth grade, I almost won the school spelling bee in front of my peers and parents and all the teachers. I was one word away from certain stardom, confirmation of my intelligence and general feelings of grandeur. I have a very poor memory, but for some reason, to this day I remember the word that I misspelled: valley. I had a piece of paper upon which I wrote the word: vally. Doesn’t look right: valy. Nope: vallee. Definitely not it. So, with no time left I read the one that looked the closest, vally. I had forgotten the “e.” I was crushed as soon as I heard the correct spelling and realized that in front of all those people I had made such a silly mistake. Anyway, since the telling of this story to the children in my class, it is almost inevitable that when I give a spelling lesson I am gently teased about this. I laugh because it’s funny! I appreciate that the children know me well enough to broach this humorously. The children are never mean or condescending because we have taken the time to establish a deeply meaningful, safe relationship within which we can explore each other’s idiosyncrasies and accept them. In fact, beyond accepting them, we might even choose to embrace them and allow them to be the very reasons we respect or love a person. My story and their reactions allow the children to know that although at the time I was sad, disappointed, mortified at standing up there in front of an audience of people and failing, I have survived! In fact, the experience has become something I am able to use in my life and share with them.
“If we are the models of humanity, humor is an important aspect to represent positively and regularly.”
Our humorous responses can help children see the difference between rude, uncaring, harmful humor and intelligent, witty, humble humor. If we are the models of humanity, humor is an important aspect to represent positively and regularly. We can be healthy models of this for children by laughing at ourselves. They can witness our embarrassment or making of mistakes, and they can see how we treat ourselves when found in these circumstances. When we make a mistake are we kind to ourselves? Are we cruel, sarcastic, or condescending to ourselves? Do we treat a mistake as something to hide or brush under the rug? Or, do we treat ourselves with kindness while being able to chuckle at the fact that we just bungled the experiment we did? Do we embrace the mistake or the situation and show a response that is worthy of emulating? Often times a quick joke or a forgiving smile is all it takes to show that mistakes (ours and theirs) are integral, not-that-big-of-a-deal aspects of a normal life.
Humor is how we gauge the edges of boundaries. What can I say in front of my parents? What works with my peers? What topics are off-limits? Age appropriate, edgy humor can help establish the edges of what is okay to joke about and what is not. Children are often exposed to adult humor on television, in movies, and in hearing adult conversations. These sources of humor often fall into the categories of ridiculing, viciousness, or spite. So, it makes sense that in their exploration of it, children can sometimes venture into inappropriate waters. By actively providing or exposing them to appropriate humor, we allow for humor as an outlet while at the same time demonstrating what works and what doesn’t. Humor’s appropriateness is also greatly age dependent. What works for a ten-year-old doesn’t work for a six-year-old who is still so close to seeing the world in a very concrete, literal way. In fact, many of us choose the age level we prefer to work with based on this very recognition.
Sometimes a sense of humor is a promise of endurance: we will get through this, and we will come out the other end. It can also serve as an approach for prioritization: if this is the worst thing that happens today, we can go to sleep knowing that while part of the day was rough, most of it was fine and we had a good day. While what we’re experiencing might not be fun, there is a humorous side to it that can lighten the physical or emotional load. I remember walking, with twenty-seven children, through icy rain, woefully underdressed. As we trudged through the mud and rain, complaints bloomed and started to reproduce. I said to the children, “It is clear what is awful about this situation. Only a keen observer could find what is funny.” Some of the responses: “Our ponchos make us look like ghosts.” “We’re so hungry they might not have enough food for us when we get back to camp.” “We’re like ants being washed out of our hill.” “This might be how it was for early humans.” Some funny, some insightful, all positive and load-lightening! Guided appropriately, children can be led to use humor as a tool for endurance and to find the positive side of a situation.
It is becoming common in our culture to catastrophize events in one’s life. In an age when everything is newsworthy, everything is publicly broadcast on social media (what I had for dinner, where I’ve been for the last hour, what happened at the grocery store), people begin to see previously minor events as larger than life, grand or grandly meaningful, when often times they are not. A sense of humor can put perspective on this. If Erica is grandly upset about having dropped her pencil and it breaking, we can go along with her catastrophizing it or we can help her see other options in response, many of them light-hearted or possibly funny. Humor can serve as an anecdote to this catastrophization. Humor can help children see the relevance of their actions in real time and not focus on the sometimes non-existent larger relevance. We can help them see into the future in a way that supports their current existence and to put into perspective the relevance of their actions.
“A sense of humor helps people learn to be resilient. Having and expressing a sense of humor is constantly acknowledging that we can handle most things.”
Humor can help us expand a child’s perspective to include the potential of a future that we all know exists due to our own years and years of experience. In 365 days, most daily events probably won’t be something we remember. I often ask children, once they’ve been emotionally cared for, how they will retell the story of an event at their dinner table. I also might ask them, “How will you tell this story in a year?” “Do you think you’ll tell your children?” When prompted to think about how they’d tell the story, children often recognize potential levity. It is often very easy to see the humor in the event when seen from a year’s time. More importantly, working to look into the future indicates that there is indeed, a future! Recently, a child forgot to lock the bathroom door at school. Another child unwittingly opened the door but quickly closed it. Now, any of us who have ever used a bathroom have probably dealt with a broken lock or have forgotten to use that lock and so, have had this happen to us and recognize the degree of mortification that one feels. Both of these children were of course embarrassed. After the initial horror was experienced we had a quick discussion centering around the above questions. One child thought this story might be used in her next birthday circle when someone asked about her most embarrassing moment. So, to counterbalance the influx of minor, real-life events that come along with major feelings, we can help children see with a light heart and a kind approach that every event is not worth a tremendous response. We can help children by providing them the option that this event doesn’t have to be catastrophic. It can feel crummy, it can be embarrassing and it can hurt. But it can also (even at the same time!) be something from which we can recover; that we can, at some point, laugh at.
A sense of humor helps people learn to be resilient. Having and expressing a sense of humor is constantly acknowledging that we can handle most things. Maya Angelou, in her poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All,” illustrates this resilience:
I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild
Life doesn’t frighten me at all (13-21)
Through humor we acknowledge that no occurrence is beyond our capability.
There is usually intelligence in quality humor; humor is not simply base laughter. One only need watch Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert to recognize the smart, witty aspects of humor well played. Love can be found in humor as I witnessed at my grandmother’s memorial service. Along with crying, I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as her children and grandchildren recounted stories of a woman who lived her life with a keen sense of humor and an optimistic outlook. Community can be found in humor as we recognize that we’re in it together if we can laugh at something together. Sharing a common emotion or experience or reveling in the fact that we are not sharing in a similar experience can be cathartic and meaningful.
As guides, we must take care to not interpret laughter in our classrooms as lack of seriousness, industry, or lack of caring about the task at hand. It can be difficult to look across the room and see hilarity ensuing at a table with four children. While hilarity can look out of control or distracted, a close listen can often reveal that children are capable of charging on all cylinders, engaged in discussion or debate, optimistic about the potential of their project, confident of their role and their power, and have all this power and good feeling erupt in laughter. They might also simply be being silly. A well-lived life allows for some degree of silliness as does a well-balanced classroom. Children of all ages love silliness. One only need look at some iconic, popular children’s authors and recognize the silliness of their prose or poetry: Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Edward Lear, Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Ogden Nash. How else might we explain the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky?”
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. (1-4)
Or the catchy way limericks tickle a child’s fancy? Directly to you from a lesson on limericks… (Before you read, take a break and think of all the words you can rhyme with Wendy. Once you’ve come up with all three of them, you may read our limerick without judgment!)
There once was a teacher named Wendy
Whose clothes were incredibly trendy.
She shopped and she shopped
Until one day she dropped,
And fell on her purse that’s now bendy.
Not only is this silly, it is also humorous because I am certainly no fashionista and would rather fall on a purse than shop!
Of course, there are times when this hilarity is indicative of lack of industry but certainly not all the time. As is the case with all of our responses in the classroom, we must observe and listen before we take action. We must allow for children’s tendency to find the absurd, the hilarious, the silly, the joy, and the optimism in their work.
Most of all, reveling in a sense of humor, our own or a child’s, is about enjoying ourselves and having fun. Every child wishes to be in a classroom where the adult enjoys being there. While there are many ways to convey this enjoyment, free laughter and a sense of humor can be a key approach.
Regardless of the specific definition each individual comes up with, humor is an essential part of a Montessori elementary classroom. It only takes a quick look at an elementary child or two to see that they respond beautifully to humor in all its positive forms. They also generally exhibit humorous qualities readily. Just take a look out your window onto the playground and see the outbursts of laughter, the nuanced give and take, and the lighthearted, kind teasing that is natural to children.
Incorporating Humor Into Our Classrooms
We Montessorians rightfully give great effort and credence to our prepared environments. We arrange and rearrange our tables, chairs, and trashcans. I won’t even get into the efforts we put into making sure our shelves are just right. We analyze the number of sponges that are necessary for wiping down tables after lunch. We contemplate how we set up tables. Have I allowed for group work? We ensure our art materials are of the highest quality. We also need to ensure that there are opportunities for hilarity and that they are of the highest quality. If one of our tasks is to help a child become a member of his society and to navigate his culture, might we be obligated to help him recognize the difference between humor that causes kind, loving, helplessly wicked laughter versus that which is biting, angry, and cruel? Might we be obligated to help him practice using this tool that can cause great harm as well as cause great thought, love, optimism, and can also regulate reaction? Our classrooms are ripe for opportunities to practice and explore humor.
We must analyze the social and emotional tone of our rooms as often as we analyze the physical set up, which materials are being used, and the systems we’ve put in place. Do we look at whether or not there are opportunities for the children to exercise and practice their general outlook on life? Do the children in our classrooms look happy? Are they smiling? Do they hum as they work? Do they engage in pleasant exchanges? We need to establish a prepared social and emotional environment and humor certainly has a role to play here. So how do we incorporate humor more readily into our classrooms?
We must first consider the personality of the elementary child. He is no longer a primary child, and we need to move away from our ideas about the relationship between the adult and the child as it was in primary. I vividly remember the moment I realized I was destined to be an elementary guide and not a primary guide. Far before my training, I was on the playground with primary aged children and one of them told me that he received a new play truck for his birthday. I, in my profound wisdom (ha!) replied, “Wow! You are a lucky dog!” to which he replied with a quivering lip, “I am NOT a dog.” Of course this was his response to my comment. While he is figuring out the realities of the world, it was not my place to put a linguistic spin on those realities. However, in the elementary, they thrive on these clever, intriguing nuances. Where did that saying come from? Dogs aren’t inherently lucky, so why do we use this phrase? The elementary child is not as literal and he is growing to be less of a black and white thinker. He can recognize nuances of words, of emotions, of facets of a situation. It is imperative to consider a child’s plane of development and corresponding appropriateness of humor. It is also just as wise to pay heed to the wide developmental range within the second plane. What works for most ten-year-olds doesn’t work for a six-year-old who is still so close to seeing the world in a very concrete, literal way. The puns and riddles that I so enjoy sharing in my 9-12 classroom would be meaningless words to most seven-year-olds. And so it is with great thought and analysis as to the current emotional and developmental state of the children in our classrooms that we can plan to incorporate humor on a more regular basis.
“It is imperative to consider a child’s plane of development and corresponding appropriateness of humor. It is also just as wise to pay heed to the wide developmental range within the second plane.”
So, even with humor, we must follow the child. In addition to where a child is in the second plane of development, we must also recognize her psychological characteristics, one of which is at this age a person who is intrigued by extremes. We have all been there and seen the elementary child’s fascination with the largest, smallest, tallest, shortest, fattest, skinniest, smelliest, most disgusting… Children can be incredulous as to the existence of these extremes. Incredulousness is a short guffaw away from hilarious! All these things are ripe with humor. They are insane! They are mind-boggling! They are titillatingly ridiculous from the point of view of our worldly existence. The Guinness Book of World Records is great fodder to tap into this hilarity and awe.
Put a pun on the board everyday. Puns are great because everyone expects a fake chuckle so there is little in the way of risk taking with this type of joke. I often include a pun, joke, or riddle on a white board each morning. Here are a few that have tickled the bones of my upper elementary children:
I’m reading a book about antigravity. It’s impossible to put down.
5,000 hares escaped from the zoo. The police are combing the area.
In the room the curtains were drawn, but the rest of the furniture was real.
These sentences can be used for sentence analysis lessons. What are some options we have for punctuating the first one? Do the parts of speech change when the meaning of the word changes? Using puns not only instigates laughs but it also promotes careful reading, looking at nuances of words, and recognizing multifaceted words. I always learn a lot from whether or not I need to explain the pun to a particular child. Check out punoftheday.com for more punny ideas!
Much humor can be incorporated into the things we already do. We can sing “Dona Nobis Pachem,” or we can sing “Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder.” The first is equally important, but we cannot forget the second. How about “Picnic of the World” by Tom Chapin? Nothing can get children laughing harder than a song that allows them little chance to breathe! Other fun songs that allow children to express their sense of humor include “Boom Chicka Boom,” “Tom the Toad” (sung to the tune of “O Tannenbaum”), “Down by the Bay” (my children absolutely love making up rhyming verses to this), or “One Bottle of Pop.” If we’re singing every day (or darned close to it!), singing is an easy way to incorporate humorous opportunities.
We can place funny books on our shelves. On my language shelf this last year I had the book The Life of Fly by Magnus Muhr. (Don’t go order it. I’d only use it for 9- 12-year-olds and some of it is edgy!) Those who found it laughed, talked about it, and got a new perspective on what a book is and how a story is told. How about Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference! by Lynne Truss? We can tell a story about commas and then practice some of our own, or we can work a funny title into our lesson, or display it on a shelf. In a lesson about writing from a differing point of view, I used the book The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. To an elementary child, is there anything funnier than considering the plight of the beige crayon being upset because someone tore off his wrapper and he’s naked in the bottom of the box? You bet there was all kinds of writing going on in my classroom from differing points of view as well as giggles and chortles from all!
A joke book (or two) is a must on the reference shelf. That book is used as much as the Guinness Book of World Records or the almanac, and rightfully so! We can give lessons on how to share a joke with someone. Being able to deliver a joke, knowing when it will fit into a conversation, and anticipating who might enjoy it are all great practical life social skills. Telling a joke is a charming skill to have. Shouldn’t everyone one have a joke up their sleeve to share with others? Jokes can also be incorporated into cursive practice or sentence analysis. For weeks at a time my class will get into a joke-a day jag. They might make grids and schedules for who will share a joke when, or they might let things roll freely based on who has something to tell. They bring jokes from home, find them in books, and talk to favorite uncles and aunts, grandmas and grandpas about their best-loved jokes. Our classroom is all the much richer with these generational and outside influences let alone the beauty and charm of a child asking a relative to share a joke with them.
We can hang cartoons or comic strips up on the news board. We can give a quick lesson and examine a comic strip to see why it’s funny, or if it’s funny—or why some people might think it’s funny but others may not. Why not share a cartoon panel that is related to a subject we’ve been giving lessons about? Some great resources for this include The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. Gary Larson’s written many Far Side panels that deal with biology, history, evolution, and spelling.
We can play games that allow for laughter. We often play the theatre game Bus Stop. It is, by the way, an excellent way to practice character development for story writing as well. While this game is great for a well-established 9-12 classroom, it is not a great game to start with, nor is it a good one with which to establish safety or parameters. It is a good game to practice these elements once they’ve been previously established through exercises and lessons about empathy and inclusion. It is also wise to have a classroom where regular acknowledgement is made of the fact that we all have struggles, some clearly seen by most and others seen by no one. This recognition allows for everyone’s eyes to be wide open to harm that is caused when making fun of someone. Once a community generally wouldn’t venture into making fun of someone and feels deeply the harm caused when done, this can be a fun game to play.
Each person develops a character in his or her head (an eight-year-old who is afraid of everything, a grandfather on his way to see his grandbaby for the first time, an Olympic skater who just returned from winning 4th place in the Olympics). Two chairs are placed on the stage and two characters are chosen to sit. They interact with each other, working hard to stay in character until the teacher honks the bus horn (“Honk, honk!”). The character on the left moves back to the audience, the second character slides to the seat on the left and another character is chosen from the audience. These two characters now interact and the game continues in this way. You could certainly add an element of guessing who the characters are although we simply enjoy the efforts in the performances.
Another giggle-inducing game is called “What Is It?” Choose an object that is somewhat nondescript such as a wooden dowel. Stand in a circle and start by saying what you think it is: a balancing pole for an acrobatic rat. As you pass it to the person standing next to you ask, “What is it?” The only rule is that it cannot be whatever it actually is. Some recent answers from my classroom: It is an Egyptian scroll glued together with honey; it is a huge match for lighting the fuse on the space shuttle; it is a giant’s finger. You get the point. Once you’ve done this game a few times, the answers become more creative and funnier if you go around the circle more than once. Look up some other laugh inducing theatre games as there are hundreds of them. While the main point of this is not theatre games, I will put in a specific plug for them. They are easy to do, easy to incorporate, often don’t take much time, and the children love them.
At the beginning of the year and then as needed, ask groups of children to create and perform skits about topics that need to be discussed in the room. Maybe people aren’t putting away their chairs in the correct spots, or the trashcans are moved and no one can find them. Maybe people are “vomiting” their materials all over the tables. The children create a skit that grossly amplifies the topic at hand. Their antics are always guaranteed to get a laugh as they grotesquely exaggerate what is going wrong. The audience relates as they laugh. Then the group shows the skit as it should be or with a solution to the problem. It is a rare occurrence that we need to discuss any of these topics as the humor did it for us. The children see the absurdness of the group’s actions and at the same time see how to fix it.
We can also use this approach for some social issues. These skits allow for uncomfortable feelings and issues that we worry about to come to the surface and be dealt with. Being extreme in their responses in these skits, creating laughs from their audience, and traipsing into dubious territory can take a topic that is difficult and uncomfortable to talk about and plop it directly onto the table where we can poke, prod, and examine it. And what elementary child doesn’t like to do just that? One topic I’ve used this approach for is how to graciously accept an invitation to be partners in PE. We do a lot of practice choosing partners outside our comfort zones and, at first, it can be difficult to walk up to someone and ask them to be your partner. The actors come up with all the ways to respond terribly to this request: eye rolling, huge sighs, walking away from the person doing the inviting, finding another partner while ignoring the person who asked … they come up with many terrible potential responses. As they act these terrible responses out in exaggerated fashion, it really highlights the pain, the anxiety, and the hurt that someone might feel if they were responded to in this way.
The skit is then done showing all the gracious ways to accept an invitation to be partners and the impact is tremendous! Children see that they have choice in their responses. They see that they can choose to respond kindly or callously. They also see, through humor, the impact of a nasty response. They see what it looks like when someone does these things. The discussions we have afterward are priceless. How does it feel to be on the receiving end of someone rolling their eyes at you when you’ve asked them to be your partner as Drew did in the skit? Drew, how does it feel to be doing that to someone, even though you knew you were acting? Again, we’re able to ask important questions because we put it all out on the line using humor as a medium for expression of a difficult topic.
A final, easy humorous action to take in the classroom is also great for when clean-up has gone quickly at the end of the day. Make noises. Random, silly noises. The sillier the better. The children repeat them in rhythm, much like the rhythm clapping exercise in our music albums. Once I’ve done a few, someone else volunteers to lead this. They think this is hilarious! What a great release at the end of the day. We leave feeling good about ourselves and the fact that along with working together, we can play, be silly and laugh together, as a family should, as people who care for each other should, as a caring community should.
Incorporating humor into a classroom can be about, or doesn’t have to be about being naturally funny. It can be about allowing opportunities for the children’s own humor to emerge, evolve, or simply for it to be embraced and enjoyed. As Montessorians working with children over a three-year cycle, we have the opportunity to create classrooms that are deeply respectful, where we know the children and they know us. Once this knowledge is established, we can help children develop a strong, stable sense of humor and guide them to use it to find an optimistic place in the world where they can endure, they can laugh, and they can experience and provide levity, see nuances, and acknowledge the transience of tough times. They can learn to see themselves and others as the imperfect, brilliant, loving, mistake-making, human beings that we all are and to find an acceptance of each other with all our quirky qualities.
*In the spirit of a lesson well-given, and in order to leave you with an opportunity for follow up, I’ll ask the question, “Any idea what the oldest known joke is?” You might be surprised by its content and from whence it came!
© AMI/USA 2014