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Humor Writing: Getting Students Started in Creating Their Own Laughs
by Carly Nicholson

Using Humor and Its Endless Benefits
Students’ use of humor in the classroom has always been one of the most fascinating aspects of my teaching experiences. Between classes, standing in the halls, I often zoom out and observe the kids’ comic exchanges, and I am always amazed by the complicated ways they make each other laugh and their intricate play with language: spoken language, written language, and body language. Throughout the school day, students construct these systems of humor to move each other to the point of laughter, regardless of the teacher’s involvement. Comedy is an imperative element of their student culture.

It only makes sense that we provide a methodical use of humor in the classroom, a safe space where students can explore their own use of comedy and its effect on others. Using humor in the classroom does not mean the teacher should necessarily take the role of stand-up comic, standing in front of the class and finding ways to make the students laugh. It does mean we as teachers can guide the students through the study of humor, and eventually to the creation of successful humor pieces. These explorations can all take place within a humor writing workshop, a workshop in which students start by defining humor and identifying the nuances of what we find funny. Not only do students establish a language of humor they can use when discussing each other’s comedy writing, but as their teacher, I find these terms and definitions most beneficial when setting up and sustaining our classroom community of mutual respect. While exploring humor through writing, we find ourselves addicted to having a Good Laugh, not just during a creative writing lesson, but at any point in our day.

Humor Writing in an ESL Classroom and Setting Goals
This being my first year in an ESL classroom, I find myself using humor writing to gently push the students into their own experimentations with English, a foreign language to them. I encourage my students to play with these new sounds, these new words, these new syntaxes, and they do. Their play with language happens two ways, both beneficial to their English learning.

My students are all Turkish speakers, so when prompted to create something humorous, their first instinct is always to translate a joke literally from Turkish to English. For example, 6th grader Alinur shared his joke with the class at the beginning of the year:

Alinur: What number is this? [asked, grinning, while holding five fingers to the left of his face and five fingers to the right]

The class: What?

Alinur: Five hundred and five!

The class: [mostly silent with some confused laughter]

Alinur’s joke was a play on the Turkish word yüz, which has two meanings, one being “face” and the other “one hundred.” So, holding five fingers on either side of his face, Alinur was thinking we would guess “five hundred and five.” As always, my students’ disappointment with their classmates’ response to literally translated jokes guides them to the realization of humor’s intricacies and its often untranslatable quality. This realization boosts their motivation to work on their English. I often remind my students that to be humorous in a foreign language is a great sign of fluency in that language. Our class goal is to be funny in English by the end of the year.

The other way my ESL students enjoy playing with the English language is in purposely writing incorrect English. For example, we had a lesson on regular and irregular past tense verbs, and my students used this grammar lesson in their humor pieces, writing in a voice that makes mistakes in English. They had just learned the correct past tense of “to put” is “put,” so it was thrilling for them to write in a voice that says, “I putted the ball away.” I acknowledge and inform the students that this type of comedy is only successful inside our English-learning classroom, but I recognize that by finding humor in English mistakes, my students are reinforcing the grammar lessons they learn.

Read Jason W.’s “A Trip to the Zoo” to see a great play on words’ meanings and words’ sounds.

Humor Writing in a Non-ESL Classroom yet with Similar Goals
My approach to teaching humor writing has not changed much since I shifted from a non-ESL classroom to an ESL classroom this year, simply because I find importance in helping students towards a literacy of English, even if English happens to be their native language. Just as Alinur discovered his joke unsuccessful because the humor failed to translate from Turkish to English, so do many jokes fail to translate within the same language. Often times, jokes have cultural significance, or are too situational to be understood and appreciated by all audiences. Exploring this aspect of comedy helps the students understand humor’s sometime offensiveness, and eventually our classroom goal is to have a sense of tactfulness, or the ability to read an audience.

Mathew S.’s “Mr. Know-it-all” definitely translates to his audience, since many can relate to the shared experience of having classmates just like the one Mathew creates.

Defining Humor
The definite first step in exploring comedy through a humor writing workshop is to spend plenty of time working out definitions of humor with the students. There are two terms whose definitions I bring to the students, and there are three terms whose definitions I ask the students to come up with as a class. I introduce the concept of humor by explaining that there are mainly two reasons why people find things funny. The first is the Incongruity Theory, the idea that many times the unexpected produces laughter.  For a great example of Incongruity Theory, check out Joseph Lu’s “Chopsticks, Harvard, and Chicken Claws.” Joseph plays with his audience’s expectation by dismantling Asian American stereotypes.

The second is the Superiority Theory, or the acknowledgement that many times people laugh because they feel superior to another person or to a situation. For a unique use of Superiority Theory, read Brian T.’s “Embodiment of a Geek.” Brian takes Superiority Theory and turns it upside down. The voice in his piece takes a superior position over his own character, producing a hilarious tone of self-humor, by defining himself as a geek.

We begin working with these categories from the very beginning of the workshop, yet for each class I’ve taught, it takes a different wording or a different explanation of each theory for the students’ understanding of these ideas on humor. For example, for my ESL class this year, we call these theories the Surprise! and the I’m Better than You reasons that people laugh. Also at the beginning of the workshop, I have the students build definitions for Good Laugh, Bad Laugh, and Inappropriate Humor.

Good Laugh/Bad Laugh
Good Laugh/Bad Laugh is a lesson I created while teaching in Young Writers Workshop, a creative writing summer camp in Charlottesville, Virginia. I used the lesson more as the role of residential counselor, an opportunity to explore humor while checking in on the campers’ well-being and also resolving any minor conflicts that tend to sprout any time you get a group of high school students sharing the same living space for a number of weeks. The lesson works well, I’ve found, in the nonresidential classroom environment as well, especially when planning to work with humor writing as a unit. The lesson establishes a language of humor that the students and I reference throughout the year when talking not only about humor writing, but also when describing incidents in the students’ lives outside the classroom.

  1. Without giving any definitions of humor, ask the students to describe in detail two incidents of laughter that either they’ve had or someone around them has had that day [having the students think of recent situations helps the discussion stay detailed and topical]. One incident should be what they would consider a Good Laugh. And the other should be a Bad Laugh.
    • A suggested format:
      Incident of Good Laugh
      Who was involved:
      What made you laugh:
      Why it made you laugh:
      How it made you feel afterwards:
      Incident of Bad Laugh
      Who was involved:
      What made you laugh:
      Why it made you laugh:
      How it made you feel afterwards:
    • Anticipated questions: My students immediately want definitions from me as to what makes a Good Laugh and what makes a Bad Laugh, but I encourage them to try to think of examples on their own, thinking of all the possible ways laughter could be good or bad. Also, it’s important to reiterate that the incident could have been observed by the students, without the students’ own laughing.
  2. While the students are writing down their experiences, start making a chart on the board, with two columns, the first column being “Incongruity Theory” and the second being “Superiority Theory” (or whichever terms suit your classroom). Before the students share their examples, define these two terms and ask for examples.
    • In my ESL class, my students offered the example for Superiority Theory from a movie they’d seen, in which the main character shoots another man and then laughs. I worked with the students then to think of more examples in which superiority humor results not just from physical pain, but from emotional pain.
    • While supervising residential campers over the summer, we used these definitions to discuss times in which other campers laughed at two of our suite mates for “being different.” We discussed how many times people use difference as a reason to produce humor and victimize a person perceived to be different.
    • For another excellent example of Incongruity Theory, read Alexandra Petri’s “Colleges Examining ‘New Criteria’ for Admissions." Alexandra surprises her reader by juxtaposing the formal tone of a newspaper article on college entrances against the ridiculous notion of evaluating a student’s college entrance with their performance in kindergarten.
  3. While working with definitions of humor, this is a great time to open up the definition for Inappropriate Humor. I usually have the students volunteer their ideas on this, and then as a class we decide on a concrete definition of Inappropriate Humor, especially humor inappropriate for the classroom. I discourage the use of inappropriate humor in the students’ writing, but I need this initial classroom definition for reference later on in the workshop.
  4. Next open up the brainstorming and discussion to the students’ prewriting, their descriptions of Good Laugh/Bad Laugh. With each shared experience, have the student try to assign the situation of laughter to either Superiority Theory, Incongruity Theory, or even, if necessary, to Inappropriate Humor, using the chart to keep tally. Also explain that moments of laughter can have multiple forms of humor.

Wrapping it up
Sometimes we as teachers are hesitant to allow discussions of Bad Laughter in our classrooms. In my students’ experience, bad laughter mostly comes from Superiority Theory, or the use of humor to put someone else down. Often times, we record these incidents of laughter in the Inappropriate Humor category. Having this level of analysis and using these definitions has provided a safe environment for a discussion on humor. These topics eventually challenge my students to find more creative ways to use humor in their writing, other than comedy that hurts others. Following this activity, the students’ homework is to collect as much Incongruity Theory humor as they can — from the television, magazines, books, movies, or even just conversations they witness. We continue to analyze the makeup of humor through these examples, and we always make note when we come across any humor inappropriate to the classroom, according to our definition.

Carly Nicholson is in her first year of teaching overseas in Turkey’s Tarsus American College. She received her Masters in English Education from the University of Virginia, and she likes to laugh.