Getting Comfortable in the Classroom

Teacher Darren laughs with students as they practice their A,B,C’s.

Teacher Darren laughs with students as they practice their A,B,C’s.

My students love to laugh. Every day in class they will erupt into laughter multiple times over. Their laughter makes the classroom a comfortable and exciting space.

Students’ comfort in the classroom is one of the strongest tools to build as a teacher. The ability to push their levels of communication and creativity intensifies when they are at ease with the rest of the class, when they feel free to laugh and make jokes. In the final weeks of class, however, I have become acutely aware of the need to balance the comfort that students feel—the peals of laughter they share—with a regulated flow of classroom activities that still keeps students on task.

No blame can be placed on university-aged students if their own laughter becomes a distraction. And as my students grow more confident in their English, I normally appreciate their off-topic humor if it is not in Arabic. But there are times when the flow of the classroom becomes disrupted, and this needs to be dealt with in a way that helps the students focus while also, and perhaps most importantly, does not scold students for the comfort they are feeling.

For example, my class is very comfortable joking with each other about their English by saying, “Speak louder,” when someone is presenting or asking, “Why?” or “Because?” when someone doesn’t explain a statement. These have been some of my favorite moments in the class because the jokes are actually pushing their abilities. But when a student is given the time to present their work and are interrupted by multiple jokes, the presentation itself suffers and the class can bring itself to a point of laughter that is hard to rein back in.

The simplest way to fix this problem is to set clear rules with students that presentations are times for only one student to speak—that we need to show respect as a listener.

What I have found even more helpful, however, is to assign specific activities that call for humor. When learning about careers and the workplace, I had students compete for jobs by coming up with the most convincing qualifications and experiences. There was also a segment of the activity where students got to say why their competitor would make a bad employee. When competing to be chefs, a student said that their competitor got their restaurant shut down because all the customers got sick. For a police officer, another student said their competitor could not see at night and accepted bribes. Students were able to make jokes about each other in a safe space using the content from that week.

EFL students participate in a skit using humor to practice their English skills.

EFL students participate in a skit using humor to practice their English skills.

Amy Olson, another Summer Fellow teaching in the Step! II EFL Program, has also seen the positive benefits of harnessing the energy students get from their level of comfort in the classroom and directing it towards the learning goals.

“My students find it fun to argue—not out of anger but from passion in their opinions. For example, I had a student present about the coach of Real Madrid, and all of my Barcelona football fans kept interrupting him and making jokes. One of my most successful activities was when I staged a murder mystery where students got assigned roles and were allowed to interrogate each other and argue about who committed the murder. Their questions were funny and creative, and they were all very dramatic when taking on their roles.”

Creating activities that call for humor gives students the positive outlet they clearly desire for making jokes and laughing with each other, but it also helps create a defined line between appropriate and inappropriate uses of humor in the classroom. Their use of humor is not seen as tangential—or even worse a hindrance—but instead a propellant for classroom learning. I have seen my students push their language capabilities when faced with difficult assignments, from writing and performing dramatic skits to giving presentations without notes, because they find comfort in their ability to laugh with one another and are willing to make mistakes in front of peers. Not only does their laughter make them enjoy the class more--it also brings me more success as a teacher.

-Darren, Summer 2016 EFL Fellow

The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.