humor · writing workshop

A Mini-Unit on Joke-Telling

It is often said that great comedy requires great empathy. A good joke-teller anticipates how others will react. They adjust each joke to the audience for maximum effect. Will they understand? Will they get it? Will they laugh?

Funny kids are looking for an audience who will understand and empathize with them. 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.

Consider the topics and stories you might typically model during writing workshop, and the kind of books you typically read aloud. 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?”

Sometimes we don’t tell ourselves the truth. Here’s a tool for an accountable reflection on your teaching.

Ideally, you might aim to strike a balance, casting a wide, inclusive, net on all kinds of topics, styles, perspectives, and voices. It’s our job to connect with as many students as we can, and multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression, are important for effective teaching (UDL)

It’s important to read aloud a wide range of mentor texts and model a wide range of topics, moods, and tones –it’s also important to teach into student interests. You can infuse your writing workshop with tips and strategies that harness kids’ desire to write in an entertaining and funny way.

A mini-unit on joke-telling and humor is well suited to a number of learning targets (i.e. goals). You might gear your instruction toward:

  • Writing for an audience
  • Language, sentence structure, conventions
  • Writing with elaboration and detail
  • Word choice
  • Engagement & stamina

Short jokes lend themselves well to teaching language, sentence structures, and conventions. To begin a unit with these instructional goals, you might study joke-telling structures. You don’t have to invent these. You can help kids name them by telling some jokes, reading from a joke book, or by watching and analyzing jokes as a group. With notebooks in hand, ask kids to name each type of joke, and then compile a list afterward.

Some structures your students might notice, or you might highlight for them, as you watch the video (pausing along the way):

  • A lot of jokes ask a question, with a funny answer
  • “What did one say to the other…”
  • “How many ___ does ____ have?”
  • Knock-knock jokes
  • The answers sometimes sound like a surprise
  • All of these jokes use puns!

When you teach this, you’re teaching language, sentence structure, and conventions all in one.

After studying how jokes go, give kids some time to write their own joke books. Many kids will easily understand the patterns, or structures of these jokes and will create their own similar, silly jokes in the same style. Others might recount jokes they already know. And just like any type of writing, some will find this work challenging, or even uninteresting–so it’s important to provide choices for everyone.

Just because the unit of study is a fun and silly genre like joke writing, that does not mean it will be for everybody. And, just like in other units of study, students will need options for other ways to meet the same instructional goals and priorities.

Too often we are so rigid about the genre of a unit, the bigger purpose or instructional goals (learning targets) are lost.

Telling jokes is an engaging way to meet the priority of mastering language, sentence structure, and conventions— but it’s not the only way. In your conferring and small group work, you can target your instruction toward other ways of meeting the same goals of language, sentence structure, and conventions. Here are a few examples:

Writing poetry with a focus on:

  • language (precise words for feelings, actions, descriptions)
  • sentence structures (patterns, repetition, simple and complex sentences)
  • conventions (line breaks, capitalization, bold, punctuation)

Making observations, maybe looking out the window, or looking at objects from nature, then writing (or drawing) observations with a focus on:

  • language (descriptive language – colors, textures…)
  • sentence structures (possibly a list, or full sentences, or a diagram with labels…)
  • conventions (capitalization, bold words, bulleted lists, numbered lists…)

If simple joke-telling doesn’t grab the interest of all your students, you can continue on to study ways to tell funny stories. The instructional goals here might shift to development and elaboration.

I’ve shared this short video in previous blog posts, and I’m sharing it again now – it’s packed with kid-friendly tips for writing comedy.

A study of comedy can transform how students think about their audience. Great comedians are great storytellers.

Some comedy lessons we can learn from great comedians:

Generating ideas– comedians are just like any other writers. They are constantly watching and listening for stories. Some keep a notebook in their pocket to jot ideas down so they won’t forget them, and others spend a little time each day before they write listing ideas before they forget them. They talk to other people a lot, telling them their ideas for stories, and pick the funniest ones to write down.

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, or talk directly to the audience “Hello fellow classmates!”
  • Say “This is a true story!” to set up some anticipation before you tell a funny story
  • Use avivid or strong words along with repetition to set up your story. “It was huge! Huge! Let me tell you why it was huge.”
  • Start out serious, and then have a twist
  • 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)
  • Say, or even shout, “Listen to this!” or “You won’t believe what happened!”
  • Repeat what you were going to say to buy time before continuing on, to grab their attention. “So I was walking home… I was just strolling along… minding my own business… not doing anything at all…” Stretch it out.
  • 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 practice it again and again
  • Figure out exactly where you lost people and do it differently next time

This mini-unit provides important opportunities for social connection. You have the chance to connect with your students as you learn alongside them and write your own short jokes and funny stories to share and model.

Here’s a draft of my own funny story I’m working on. It’s a true story I’ve been playing around with.

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.

4 thoughts on “A Mini-Unit on Joke-Telling

  1. I’m guilty of using lots of quiet picture books to teach writing. Therefore, I quoted you in the podcast Melanie and I recorded on joy, play, and humor this morning. You’ve inspired me to add more humorous books to my mentor text collection!


  2. Beth,
    This was such a treat. I needed it for this cold morning. I’m not very good at humor. It is so helpful to think there are some structures that can help with humor writing. This would be a great mini-unit for after the winter break.


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