When I was a kid, school was not a place where we were supposed to be silly or goofy. We were meant to sit at our desks or tables and work quietly. “Save it for recess!” I remember one of my teachers used to say frequently. We kids would obediently stare down at our papers and books, joylessly filling out worksheets or completing whatever assignment had been given to us. Laughter was a sign of being off-task, misbehaving, or worse… it could get you labeled.
Most of us can agree that this is not how we would like students to experience writing workshop. How can we create an environment filled with kids’ laughter, goofiness, and weirdness? How can we create an environment where kids can be funny, without being labeled a class clown or worse?
Read Aloud Funny Books and Tell Funny Stories from Your Own Life
Reading aloud funny books is a surefire way to connect with kids and create an environment of laughter and joy. The tone you set when you read aloud and laugh together helps kids get comfortable with being funny themselves, and helps you set expectations for how kids respond to each other’s funny stories.
Study Jokes Together
Jokes are filled with opportunities for studying language. Sentence structure, vocabulary, word play, figurative language, punctuation–jokes provide the perfect short shared text to study closely.
You might incorporate jokes into your daily shared reading (close reading) or interactive writing routines. One idea is to organize the work according to six main types of jokes that kids can practice telling–and writing.
Six Types of Jokes Kids Can Create from Scratch:
- Knock-Knock Jokes
- Example: Knock, knock..who’s there…Lettuce… Lettuce who?…Let us in! It’s cold out here!
- What’s the difference between X and Y?
- Example: What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish? You can’t tuna fish!
- What does X have in common with Y?
- Example: What does cake have in common with baseball? They both have a batter!
- What do you call a…?
- Example: What do you call an alligator in a vest? An investigator!
- Why did/does/was the…?
- Example: Why was the math book sad? It had too many problems.
- What did the X say to the Y?
- Example: What did the teddy bear say to dessert? No thank you, because she was stuffed.
When you closely read jokes together as a class, you might highlight the question and answer and note the punctuation. You might note which words are synonyms or homophones and discuss how that factors into the humor.
To write a joke using one of the formulas, sometimes it helps to start with a punchline first, and then go backwards–find a word or phrase that means or sounds like a combination of two words and then create the joke. Example: the homophone batter means someone who bats AND the mixture for a cake. Joke: What do cake and baseball have in common?
Another strategy is through trial and error. Say the first part of the joke aloud, and try out combinations of words until you generate an idea for a funny answer to the question. Don’t worry if your kids’ jokes aren’t that funny to you, or are nonsensical at first–the thought process and approximations at humor are a first step.
Host a Joke-Off!
My daughter’s third and fourth grade teacher, Aimee Randall at Jericho Elementary School in Vermont, has a knack for creating a safe and supportive environment in her classroom–and bringing out the funny side of kids. One of the things she did that made a huge impression on my daughter was an occasional “Joke-Off.”
I asked Aimee to describe it in her own words:
“As much as I would love to take credit for all of the fun activities I’ve done over the years, I cannot. I get my best ideas from my kids! Seriously. Listening to and observing them is crucial. Each year your crew changes, so paying close attention to the cohort in front of you is paramount.
For example, one year my class was into jokes. They would sign out joke books from the school library and our class library. Studying and critiquing each joke. The louder they laughed, the better the joke. December came upon us quickly, as it always does, and our classroom family was planning our class celebrations prior to winter break. It seemed fitting to hold a “Joke-Off”.
The kids planned everything. My job? Not to stand in their way! They organized a flow chart naming who would challenge whom, what the classroom set up would be, and how laughter would be key to determine our Joke-Off winner.
I honestly don’t remember who won our Joke-Off, but I do remember the smiles and endless laughter. When given the chance to think outside the box and follow your students and their dreams, do it!”
Callie Goss, at Westford Elementary in Vermont, uses memes with her 5th and 6th graders. Here’s her advice, in her words:
“I found this free resource that shared a google slide template. It includes a small selection of developmentally appropriate images, on which students can add text. A quick glance through the featured memes shows not-a-wide-range of representation–however, I wanted to avoid digital blackface and provide students with a pre-made template, since open-sourced meme makers usually aren’t made for a middle school audience.”
“At morning meeting, I defined “meme” as pairing an image + text to make someone laugh, and told students it usually featured an exaggerated reaction to something. I mentioned that some memes play with boundaries about “what’s appropriate” and “what’s harmful” (some cross those boundaries) but for our morning meeting purposes, our purpose was to make each other laugh while making sure it didn’t do harm to any person or group. I found a few school-related memes (from the perspective of teacher and student), so I thought-aloud about these mentor memes before they got started. “
“Students spent five or so minutes creating and had the opportunity to share with peers when we came back together in the large group. I also explicitly taught how to respond if someone shares a meme you don’t think is funny. Here are a few of my favorites.”
“Just this morning, I used this yes/ no meme as our meeting share. I had the idea when I saw a meme on Twitter as two screenshots from Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry. I knew students could create their own using this “yes/ no” side by side, but decided to go with a similar non-Oprah option instead to again, in my classroom, to avoid digital blackface.” (Click here to read about the Oprah meme, specifically, as a form of digital blackface.)
“Today in front of students, I thought aloud about these two images, noticing how the girl’s expression seems to go from “meh” to “okay!” I thought aloud: to make a meme here, I’ll think of two things that are really closely related but create drastically different reactions. I modeled with “outside recess at 39 degrees” versus “outside recess at 40 degrees.” Why is this funny? (Students: “it shouldn’t matter THAT much, but it does!”) I erased these and tried another one: “a 5 minute phone call” and “20 minutes of texting.” Each student had a fresh blank copy thanks to “make a copy” in google classroom, so they added text next to each image. They created their own and we shared in the large group for anyone who wanted a larger audience. They got it and again, what they crafted was much funnier than I modeled! Here are a few good ones:”
Harness Humor During Writing Workshop
Consider the kind of topics and stories you might typically model during writing workshop, and the kind of books you might read aloud in a unit of study for writing workshop? How many of these could be described as “lovely,” “sweet,” “deep,” “emotional,” or “touching?”
Now how many of the examples you provide are “silly,” “goofy,” “gross,” or “weird?”
Ideally, you might aim to strike a balance, casting a wide net on all kinds of topics, styles, perspectives, and voices.
Along with reading aloud a wide range of mentor texts and studying jokes closely, you can infuse your writing workshop with tips and strategies that harness kids’ desire to write in an entertaining and funny way.
For example, you might teach kids the rule of “zig, zig, zag” in their writing. This means, as a writer, you craft your writing so that first you establish a pattern that the reader comes to expect. Keep the pattern going for a few turns… then surprise the reader with something unexpected. Zig (expected), zig (expected), ZAG (unexpected).
This short video is packed with kid-friendly tips for writing comedy.
If you really want to go deep, a study of comedy can transform how students think about audience. Great comedians are great storytellers. This analyis of comedian Kevin Hart is a fascinating and hilarious dive (for adults) into what makes a funny story–and really, just what makes a GOOD story.
And in this short, kid-friendly clip, Jerry Seinfeld analyzes a joke (about pop tarts) he’s been working on for years and still isn’t finished.
Some storytelling lessons we can learn from great comedians:
Rethinking leads – grabbing people’s attention. Since comedians tell their stories aloud to a live audience, the lead takes on special importance. The lead literally has to get people to pay attention. A few things comedians do:
- Call people by name
- Say “True Story” before you tell your story
- Set “Huge! Huge! Let’ me tell you why it was huge.”
- Tell people you’re on your way out, or it’s your last story
- Ask a question and then wait… give think time
In the middle of a story, it remains crucial to hold on to people’s attention. A few things comedians like Kevin Hart and Jerry Seinfeld are brilliant at:
- Just like in poetry, pay VERY close attention to word choice. Choose the funniest and most entertaining words (i.e. chimps, dirt, stick, pop tart)
- Frequently say, or even shout, “Listen to me!”
- Repeat what you were going to say to buy time before continuing on, to grab their attention
- Get your audience’s attention before you continue
- Don’t let your voice trail off
- Pause the action in the story to say, “Let me explain to you what’s going on…”
- Use lots of expressive gestures, and make eye contact with your audience
- Use expressive voices, really role play the characters
After telling a story, comedians are always looking to improve their material. They will tell the same story again and again to different audiences, looking for what consistently gets the biggest laughs. A few things comedians do to fine tune a story:
- Retell the stories over and over
- Figure out what small thing makes people laugh and do it again and again
- Figure out exactly where you lost people and do it differently next time
Humor Builds Empathy and Connections
It is often said that great comedy requires great empathy. As a joke-teller or storyteller you must be able to anticipate how others will react to your story. You have to adjust your storytelling to your audience for maximum effect. Will they understand? Will they get it? Will they laugh?
Funny kids are looking for an audience who can understand them and can empathize. They are seeking connections, just like any storyteller. Your classroom can be a place where they find those connections, where they find an audience for their humor.
When you bring humor into your classroom, you are inviting kids to laugh and connect with you. Your funny stories, read-alouds, and jokes help kids connect with you.
It is your connections with kids that will sustain you through the hard parts of the school year. The moments of laughter, the silly inside jokes you come up with, the had-to-be-there moments are what keep you and the kids smiling even when things get tough.
Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.