“Humor helps to convert ‘Haha’ into ‘Aha’!”
-Patrick J. Herbert
Humor as a strategy in education can be used in a variety of settings and topics, but it can be especially valuable in the sexuality education classroom. Employing humor can make a ‘touchy’ subject like sexuality (double entendre!) much more approachable (Tauber & Mester, 2007).
Using humor EFFECTIVELY can be a bit tricky, though. Don’t assume that everyone in your audience shares your same sense of humor. Remember, what you find funny, someone else might find offensive, so using humor might be a little unpredictable. It’s also important to keep in mind that you shouldn’t be using humor just to try out that new joke you heard on television (unless the joke is directly related to your material, of course!). Just like other strategies for effective education, humor must have a purpose in the classroom. Tauber and Messer (2007) advise that classroom humor is most powerful when it is non-hostile, constructive, and relates to the objective/s for that class session.
- Providing elements of fun and liveliness
- Helping establish rapport with students
- Acting as an attention-getter
- Providing variety
- Aiding in addressing affective information or issues in a more ‘desirable’ or ‘agreeable’ way
- Offering new perspectives
Try not to over-think humor. Some of the funniest moments in your class can come from something you didn’t put much thought into. For example, I was doing a condom demonstration where I personified the prop I was using, ‘Mr. Woodie.’ Doing that made what can be an awkward conversation more enjoyable and fun for middle school students. The funniest part to the students, though, occurred when I was rolling the condom on. I told the kids, “Mr. Woodie is all about that base,” so they would know the condom needs to be rolled down to the base of the penis (This references the pop song ‘All About That Bass’ by Meghan Trainor). Because this was a song they were familiar with, they thought my play on the lyrics was hilarious. One of the students even chimed in, “All about that base. Then there’s no trouble” (The lyrics are: “all about that bass. No treble.”). My advice is to become aware of media that your audience might be interested in. You will seem more relatable, and you’re more likely to get a laugh than if you reference something that is obscure to them. This can be tricky if you don’t have much time with your audience.
Humor comes in many types and forms. You do not have to be a big jokester or witty, although that probably wouldn’t hinder your humorous abilities! Tauber and Mester (2007) list several categories and types of humor that can be used in the classroom:
– Wit -Cartoons, comics, videos
-Intentionally dramatizing emotion using the entire body and voice
What about sarcasm or tendentious humor?
In my personal life, I tend to be very sarcastic with those I’m close to. They know me, and they know when I’m being sarcastic, so it is easy for them to understand my humor. Using sarcasm in the classroom, though, can be a bit trickier. I have both read and been told to ‘tread lightly’ when using sarcasm with students because it always has a target, and it can often be negative or disparaging. Tauber and Mester (2007) advise against using humor at a student’s expense because it is likely to harm their self-esteem. How can you expect a student to learn or participate if you have ostracized them and/or made them feel unsafe in the classroom?
If you’re using sarcasm to target yourself, that might be effective, as long as you aren’t also damaging your credibility in doing so. I really think that using sarcasm in the classroom is all about how well you KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. If it’s a class with older students that you have an established relationship with, maybe it makes sense to use sarcasm because they might see it as playful rather than disparaging. However, if it’s a new classroom or if the students are very young, it might be wise to try to tone down the sarcasm and bring in some other forms of humor.
What happens when it gets awkward?
What if you tell a joke or plan a humorous activity that you think is going to be a hit, and then you hear crickets? What do you do then? A professor of mine told a class that when this happens, just make fun of yourself. Like I said before, not everyone is going to have the same sense of humor as you, so if they don’t get it, that’s okay. If this a performance-based class, Tauber and Mester (2007) suggest trying the joke again and waving something like a grade book in the air. The more you know your audience, the more likely you will be able to use well-received humor.
What happens when you or someone in the classroom does something funny by accident? This is called spontaneous humor. A teacher might act in a certain way, a comment might be said, or something happens in the classroom that elicits a humorous response, but it wasn’t intended. For example, an anecdote I read once described how each time a teacher said ‘erection’ in her sexuality education classroom, she would point her index finger outward. She did this completely unconsciously, and soon the class was bursting with fits of giggles.
How this humor is handled is important. It can communicate an educator’s comfort level with the topic, and it tells the students that it’s okay to laugh at yourself (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996). Actually, in a class I was co-teaching last week, something I considered quite embarrassing happened. Somehow, the marker I was using got all over my hand, and then got on my face and neck, all unbeknownst to me. Everyone started laughing, and I had no idea why until my co-facilitator mouthed to me that my face was a colorful mess. I overpowered the urge to run out of the room in embarrassment, and took a deep breath and said: “Well I am qualified to teach this material, but clearly, I’m not qualified to properly use markers. Maybe my co-facilitator should take over this task.” They got a good laugh out of it, and so did I. This week, we made a joke about how the class should hide the markers from me, so I don’t have another incident. It was all in good fun; even though when it happened, I felt mortified. So, try not to panic if something like this happens to you. Try to use it to enforce the importance of humor, instead of becoming upset or embarrassed about the situation.
Humor can be used in all sorts of ways in a sexuality education classroom. As you can see above, educators have many different options on the types of humor they can employ. Sometimes your humor will be a hit, and sometimes it might flop. Some forms of humor may also cause offense, so be aware of your audience and the messages you are sending. The more you practice, the better you will get. If you have some other great tools for using humor, or if you have specific examples of successful/unsuccessful attempts at humor in the classroom you want to share, please leave them in the comments below!
Gilbert, G. C., Sawyer, R. S., & McNeill, E. B. (2011). Health education: Creating strategies for school and community health. (3rd Ed.). Boston: Jones & Bartlett.
Hedgepeth, E., & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Tauber, R.T., & Mester, C.S. (2007). Acting lessons for teachers: Using performance skills in the classroom. (2nd Ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.