Bringing Humor Into Writing Workshops

You must know someone who just makes you laugh. Who makes you have to breathe through your nose with chuckles and giggles? When you are around them, they entertain and bring joy to the conversation? We know people whose default is laughter as teachers, coaches, and in social circles. Gary Petersen is a friend, a staff developer with Teachers College, and one of those people who just makes me laugh. The two of us have co-written this post.

Sitting together at a recent Teachers College event, the two of us struck up a conversation about bringing joy into classrooms. We were both instantly interested– Melanie’s word for 2019 is joy, and Gary’s been writing about humor and its importance. The more we talked about humor and laughter and their place in classrooms, especially writing workshops, the more serious our conversation became. (There’s a bit of irony in that last sentence.)

Laughter adds so much to our lives. Research the benefits and you find all sorts of them– engagement, higher levels of learning, greater sense of community, even health benefits… Just for those alone, it’s worth thinking about ways we can infuse humor and laughter into our instruction and the experiences we share with students. Combine that with Gary’s point that humor is magnetic and engaging, and it’s even more important that we not only create it whenever we can, but also that we teach it wherever we can.

We believe that bringing humor and joy to the room is not only, well, fun, but vital. It is an important (technique, method, philosophy, fill in the blank) thing we can do when teaching. It is engaging, both for students and adults, and it keeps motivation high. Humor is also great for teachers and coaches because when we are making people chuckle or laugh, we are getting feedback.  When we engage and laugh together, we are interested in what each other has to say.

So this brings us to three quick and pragmatic ways you might bring AND teach humor during your writing workshop. These three techniques will help writers build their voices, experiment with words, and innovate with humor– no matter what genre, no matter what time of year.

IDEA #1: A Wordmash

Teach students the power of a great WORDMASH. Another fancy word for this is called portmanteau (#googleit).  We are reminded in Steve Bloom’s beautiful book, Elephant, where he writes:

“Elephants hear things that you and I can’t hear…deep rumbling sounds that carry for several miles…It’s like using a telephone – or in this case, an elephone.”  

It is SILLY and made up… yet the reader knows what he means.  We know what an elephone means because of the context of the writing.

To make a word up, you can think of two nouns and play with the parts of the noun (the syllables or sounds) creating a word that makes sense in context.  

Examples of word-mashing can be fun and playful.

“I always get hiccups when I eat pasta quickly…I have pastacupps … or maybe hiccastas!” Anyone else get pastacupps?

To teach this, you might use some common word smashes:

  • Brunch = breakfast and lunch  
  • Chillax – calm down and relax
  • Cosplay – costume and play.  

IDEA #2: -ish, -ly, and -ishly

This next technique is inspired by Peter H. Reynolds’ beautiful and inspirational book, Ish, where the main character figures out, with the help of his little sister, that his paintings are close enough to what he intended.  Approximately. Ish. Ishly.

Inspire writers to add  ISH or LY or ISHLY to words that would not normally describe, and allow them to become modifiers. When kids are explaining something they might add that word, and in context the reader might have a deeper meaning or understanding of the idea. It might collect all the traits of someone, a complex someone, or simplify it to a new descriptor. This is an ‘in the know’ technique.  Meaning you might need to know the reference to understand the meaning. So, this is also kind of literary (or movie) allusion.

Examples of adding -ish and -ly:

  • He moved in a “Vaderly” way. (#starwarsallusion)
  • That was a very Beiberly song.   
  • He lurked Snape-ishly around.  

IDEA #3: The Parenthetical Element or Hashtag

(Wait, it gets better) #Humormatters. Parentheses can be a great way to add humor in writing, and we can relate them to hashtags in today’s culture. Both of these techniques offer writers a way to insert a narrator voice. They can be funny, sarcastic, it can further explain information.  They might be a (whisper on the side) or a symbolic role of the eye, quick explanation of an inside joke. (Get it?)


Our hope is for you to have a  little chuckle, teach a little technique and laugh a little with the kids. Bring lightness, levity, voice and of course joy and humor to your students writing, and maybe your own writing.

If you read Beth Moore’s recent post , you might have started a diet of free writing in your room. These techniques to play with words might be just the boost some creative writer might need to push in their own voice. But don’t think they are just for freewriting. Encourage writers to find their humor, to be clever and bring joy  (humoclajoy) in all genres throughout the year. We’d love to hear how it goes. #humoclajoy

Gary Petersen joins us from Connecticut where he is a Staff Developer for the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and will be returning to the Connecticut education community as an Instructional Specialist at EASTCONN.ORG in June 2019.  He has provided professional development in over 20 towns in Connecticut, 20 States and 2 Countries in literacy instruction and content.  You can always ask him about Jedi his rescue dog, as a perfect icebreaker. He fancies himself to be an entertaining teacher and staff developer. (But his mother says sometimes it falls flat.) Follow him on Twitter @garycally