Laughter is my Number One Classroom Tool

17 Nov

My level one English students had an open-book quiz the other day, where they were supposed to write 5 things they had learned that week from the article we’d read (and thoroughly dissected) in class. This is more difficult than it might sound for first-level students of a foreign language. I believed my students were capable of it, to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the student, but writing assignments for this level never come out quite like I had imagined, and grading them is always a bigger chore than I’d remembered.

The title of the quiz, written at the top of the page, was “What I Learned”- a fitting title considering they only had to convince me that they’d learned something that week. As I was doing a first glance-through of their answers, I looked at the bottom of the page of one student’s paper. In all caps, this student had written:

NO PUEDO APRENDER ESTA SEMANA SORRY! ES QUE NO VINE DOS DIAS SÉ QUE VOY A REPROBAR ESTE QUIZ!

which translates to: I can’t learn this week sorry! because I missed class for two days I know I’m going to fail this quiz!

I exploded in laughter and went to go show the other teachers. I appreciated his honesty and forthrightness, and his expression of it got points for cuteness, too. It’s these little things that are so important to my day, to my teaching, to my psychic survival in general. A silly note to break up the monotony in trying to assign fair values to someone’s writing made a difference, made me laugh. These past couple of weeks I’ve been focusing on remembering to lighten up and laugh, even when (especially when) I’ve been thinking about running out of the room screaming in frustration because five students didn’t bring their book, two students don’t even have their notebook, and at least 75% of them are asking me what a word means that was vocabulary I “taught” them the day before.

But there’s still plenty to enjoy, and things to laugh about. If you don’t find those moments of laughter you risk converting yourself into one of those grumpy, bitter teachers that nobody likes  and who are not effective teachers because students avoid their classes and have their guard up the whole time, which is not conducive to learning. NOT who I want to be.

And I’ve never been at risk for this before because when I was teaching in the U.S., most of the immigrants and refugees in our adult education classes were trying their damnedest all the time. You expected problems and setbacks and slow progress. You expected someone to show up 30 minutes late, probably because of some problem with their kid or their job, which you can’t really be upset about. There were lots of limitations and problematic aspects, and accomplishments usually happened very slowly (particularly with my beginning level students), but for the most part people were there because they wanted to be there and truly wanted to learn English. That, in turn, helped motivate me more to want to be there and give it my all every day. Plus, my grown-up immigrant students almost never tried to cheat on tests. Totally different universe from now.

With my university students we’ve just implemented a new curriculum, which is focused on reading comprehension and the necessary vocabulary that goes with that, skills they need to be able to read scientific articles related to their majors in English. There’s less time and space for games and speaking practice and the like, and so my teaching style is adapting and changing.

I’m not sure if it’s just the change in curriculum, or personal problems, or what exactly, but suddenly I found myself fighting with students on a daily basis over something or the other. For talking while others are talking, not being prepared for class- all the normal stuff, even if some of it is stuff I think university students should be above and beyond. The problem is that I don’t want to be fighting with them over these things, because it puts me in a bad mood. I want my class to be fun and interesting and comfortable (for them and for me), and I was failing at creating that atmosphere for a good couple of weeks there.

So I had to start letting go of some things, and bringing other things back into my classroom. I had to bring back games, at least occasionally. I had to find a way to show them that I care beyond just scolding them all the time. I had to just tell myself that the next class would be better when I had a horrible hour full of blank stares and mounting confusion despite all my attempts at detailed explanation and modeling.

So sometimes we play jeopardy-style games with comprehension questions, even though most of them are too excited to listen to the reasoning behind the answer when we do it as a game. At least they’re participating. I started being more exaggerated in my scolding, wagging my finger, or feigning shock so intense I could faint at any moment, which at least made whatever I was reminding them about lighter and funnier. I brought back my sunshine and lollipops I’m-so-happy-to-be-here-and-I-know-you-all-are-too attitude when I come into class. When I told them they’d have to miss English class for a couple of days (because I had to go to Oaxaca), I told them, “Now try not to cry. I know everybody’s upset about missing class, but that’s why I came up with some practice for you, so you don’t spend all that extra time moping about English class.” The ones who understand sarcasm are always highly amused by these kinds of statements. It helps.

I started being “meaner” and stricter about some things, kicking people out of class when they’re totally out of line. Like those three girls that insisted their private conversation was more important than the student explaining her answer, despite a couple warnings. Or the students who still didn’t bring their book after days of warnings (and really, guys, you have English every day; just leave your book in your backpack). Or for talking during a test (yeah, yeah, you were talking about lunch, that’s great, bye.) Some of my students have started imitating me when someone comes without their book, telling them “See you tomorrow!” and waving good-bye like I do, which I think is pretty hysterical. This more focused strictness, in turn, lets me have a better attitude with my remaining students, and the next day the student can return to class and I, at least, don’t hold a grudge.   

And I’m reevaluating how I measure success. For example, if a third of my class is missing all week long (a different set of students every day, to boot) because they all have to go renew their health insurance plan this week and they’re waiting in line all day, well, so be it. They know it’s their job to catch up, and they either will or they won’t. Unless they come to my office with questions about what they missed, it is all on them. When they ask me in class the next day something we saw in class the day before, I smile while I tell them to ask their classmates. I cannot be angry or upset about it. I know English is not their top priority, to say the least. I know many of them won’t learn even half of what I’m trying to teach. Thus, the measure of my personal success can’t be all 120ish students getting every point I teach. Can I continue to care about each and every student and their learning? To a greater or lesser degree, yes. But how I feel about my teaching has to be based on how well I think I’ve done my part, keeping in mind that they’ve got a part to fill, too, and some of them won’t fill it for reasons that are not my fault or my problem.   

Really my top two priorities in my classroom are respect and laughter. Yes, critical thinking is high on my list of important things for them to practice in their reading comprehension. I did a big dance of joy when some of my level one students starting arguing the correct answer and asking “Why? Por qué?” just like I do. Of course I have to give them the right tools to accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish. But I think mutual respect and a sense of humor are completely necessary parts of my other goals, because I think they help create a positive learning environment, and effectively prevent me from killing students.

So I take a moment and argue with my level 3 students who are trying to convince me to have the quiz tomorrow instead of today. “That’s what my two year old says every day when it’s time to wash her hair, too. ‘No, tomorrow’- just like you guys.”

I can laugh when one of my male nursing students ignores my question about the reading to tell me earnestly, “Teacher, let me know when your baby’s kicking so I can feel it,” despite the fact that men here normally don’t go near anything related to pregnancy. “Have you ever felt a baby kick before?” I asked him, instead of being offended. “No,” he explained, “that’s why I need to feel it!” I laughed and told him I’d see.

I corrected a student who was talking (in English) about going to buy a “box” of beer (what we would call a case of beer) and somehow got into a conversation about learning obscenities in English (no, sorry guys, I cannot teach this during class time. Just go to the beach and talk to tourists.)

I’m remembering to have fun and enjoy my job. While I don’t have any proof that it’s getting me better results in terms of student learning, it’s sure not hurting them, and it’s doing wonders for me. You can’t underestimate the importance of a little laughter in the classroom, or a personalized note on why you’re failing the quiz. It’s these things that make all the difference in the world. 

4 Responses to “Laughter is my Number One Classroom Tool”

  1. Peg Leeco November 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm #

    this piece reminded me of one of my strictest teachers, I had her right out of college. Then, she taught my son just before retiring. He told me “The best part of Ms Delaney’s class is when she says “forget the book, let’s talk” Which meant the kids and she put their chairs in a circle and just talked. About whatever they needed to talk about. About college fears and worries, drinking on the weekends, whatever, no topic was taboo and it was a cherished time. When you bring in laughter you make everyone feel safe I think…

    • exiletomexico November 18, 2014 at 9:10 am #

      What a kind comment! I’m honored to remind you of a favorite teacher! Hopefully I’m living up to it. But regardless, I think laughter helps us all….. Thank you.

  2. fml221 November 18, 2014 at 4:55 am #

    Loved the post, and am glad you’re developing a teaching style that works for you, channeling your Nonna too, I would say. But the part that really resonated with me is where you say:

    “But how I feel about my teaching has to be based on how well I think I’ve done my part…”

    It makes me think of what I’ve learned about compassion satisfaction and how part of developing that (instead of compassion fatigue) can be about identifying your own values related to the service you offer, like therapy, and then measuring your success n how well you’ve lived those values rather than whether or not your client gets “better.” Eric Gentry, who developed one model for looking at compassion fatigue, suggests that part of maturing as a professional, recognizing that the outcome is about how well you did, not how well they do. So it’s very cool to hear you reach that conclusion yourself.

    And the same is actually true for the rest of life, right?

    • exiletomexico November 18, 2014 at 9:12 am #

      Cool- Eric Gentry, huh? Gonna have to check him out…
      And yes, definitely potential for application beyond teaching!

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