Stand-Up Education: What's So Funny?

September 7, 2016 Douglas Petrick

180843224.jpgBoth educators and comedians are natural performers by trade, charged with capturing the attention of their respective audiences. The comedian is expected to make us laugh. And many times they speak uncomfortable truths that, when included in a comedic performance, help us understand the world around us.

Along the same lines, teachers are increasingly expected to provide, rightly or wrongly, what’s called edutainment, the perfect blend of education and entertainment. Educators can instill knowledge, while infusing their lessons with humor and candor, by merely following some guidelines and basic rules from the comedic pros.

Handle the Hecklers

Every comedian, even the most successful, will encounter hecklers in the crowd during a performance. Hecklers may talk over the jokes, shout out punchlines, text, or even take a phone call during a performance. Hecklers typically build momentum as a comedian’s performance progresses. Sound familiar? Rest assured that there are ways to handle the class heckler.

Engage with your heckler. If you notice the heckler using his smartphone during a lecture, ask him to help you with a demonstration. Allowing your heckler to get out of his seat physically will often help him reframe his energy or frustration. This plan will work better than just telling him to put the phone away.

Keep your cool, and invite everyone to participate. Don’t take the heckler’s actions personally. Instead, use this as an opportunity to re-center the entire class. You can have students work together to solve problems during your lecture while your heckler takes class notes as you manage the lesson.

Break up your lesson into manageable chunks. Shifting gears is a great way to re-engage students. Perhaps forty minutes of straight lecture isn’t the best fit for a Monday class. Instead, try ten minutes of mostly, ten minutes of student-centered activities, five minutes of reflection, ten more minutes of lecture, and then end with five minutes of student presentations. Involving the students in the lesson and keeping everyone engaged will help to diffuse potential hecklers.

Use a “Set List” to Guide Your Performance

Entertainers use a Set List to serve as a guide during their performances to keep the show moving. Similarly, educators are best served by having a lesson plan to follow during each class.

Consider the lesson plan your guide. Just as an experienced performer uses a Set List as a safety net in case she gets too far off track and relies on the pace and energy of the audience to tweak her act as she goes, a good teacher knows her lesson plan isn’t set in stone. Use your lesson plan as a guidepost, adjusting and modifying it according to the ebb and flow of the class.

Deliver your lesson with conviction. Any crowd will feed off of your energy and reciprocate what you give out. When you deliver your lesson with confidence, you are essentially selling yourself, and the content you sneak in is just part of the total package.

Steal Like a True Artist

Composer Igor Stravinsky is quoted as saying, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” And it has often been said that there are no original ideas. If you have seen or heard an interesting demonstration, exercise, activity, anecdote, or assignment, then by all means consider using it.

Analyze the allure of an act you admire. Get to the essence of what attracted you to someone else’s idea or approach. Then make sure you thoroughly understand the academic concepts at work, and make it your own.

Indulge in the art of storytelling. What would be more interesting to a student: a definition of instantaneous speed or a brief cautionary tale about getting a speeding ticket on the highway infused with the concept of instantaneous speed? You can add mystique to your anecdote by naming the speeder as “a friend of mine who shall remain nameless.” This will keep your students guessing if this “friend” is really you, and chances are, they’ll continue talking about your story—and the physics concept—outside of class.

If You Have a Good Bit, Tweak It, Work It, and Let It Evolve

Plenty of inspirational songs, jokes, scripts, and performances were all the result of an ongoing iterative process that was open to change. This process is typically ripe with reflection, feedback, and time. You too can use the revision process to influence your teaching.

Get into their heads, and keep the flow. Most people process information in digestible chunks. Think about how to best bunch together different parts of your act to intensify the flow. Strategizing how to organize and present the common themes and highlights of your lesson breaks up the monotony and makes it easier for your students to process the information.

Take in constructive criticism. Run your new material by a colleague, friend, or loved one—and the further removed from your class this person is, the better. Feedback will give you a different take on what you’re presenting and will allow you make a more confident decision about what stays and what goes.

Be Unexpected in Your Reference and Humor

Arm yourself with witty repartee, lines from films, and quotes from Juvenal, Shakespeare, Twain, Bierce, Mencken, Wilde, and Dorothy Parker, to name just a few. Allow your humor to do double-duty by being funny and educational, exposing your students to some of the greatest humor and satire ever put to paper.

Use timely cultural references. Find out what your students are reading in their other courses (perhaps a novel from English class), and refer to the book or a passage in your lesson. For example, you can select a phrase from the current World Languages Unit and incorporate it into a science practice problem in science. This cross-disciplinary approach gives your students a more holistic view of the world they live in.

Try out a corny joke or pun. If you bomb, you can always use the words of Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, “No? Nothing? Not even a titter? Tough [class]..." Then move on unfazed, keeping your cool. During my Newton’s Laws lecture, I always say, “Action-reaction forces come in pears…not apples, not bananas.” Every time I say that phrase, my students groan and shake their heads in dismay, but I guarantee they’ll always remember that forces do indeed come in pairs.

Work the Crowd, Move Around Your Stage

If you want to have a dynamic, interactive class, model the behavior you want to see in your students. The best entertainers are masters of the stage, and their nonverbal cues are just as powerful as their verbal cues.

Move around the classroom. The days of standing still in front of your crowd are long gone. Besides, if you model a static, non-interactive performance, your students will reciprocate the favor back to you. You have to continually interact with your students and incorporate them into your lesson.

Keep them guessing. If you see a student nodding off, walk by her desk, pick up an object such as a pen, study it quizzically, and then say something like, “Very interesting.” Yes, it’s zany, but you’ve just gained the entire class’ attention because they have no idea what you might do next.

Work the room during student activities. Monitoring student work lets you have a finger on the pulse of their comprehension, which in turn will help you structure the next series of lessons. Additionally, being engaged with the students is modeling exactly what you want from them and building the community aspect of class.

If you follow these tips, you’ll not only show everyone in class—from the class clown to the quietest introvert—that you’re in control, but you’ll also find exciting ways to bring the entire class into the fold of your lessons. Your class will become more cohesive, and your lessons will become more impactful, resulting in a successful academic year.

What strategies do you use to keep students engaged in the classroom? Let us know in the comments below.

Doug Petrick holds an Architectural Engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and a Masters of Arts in Teaching from California University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a high school Physics teacher at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug will be regularly contributing to a series for educators on Wiley Exchanges offering practical advice and instructional strategies.

Source: Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. New York: Workman Pub.

Image credit: Izabela Habur/iStockphoto


About the Author

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