Hey all! Here is all the information pertaining to my final project: Outline, Prezi, Agenda, Journal Articles, Cartoons, Videos, and other resources.

Please put any comments or questions you have here:

Hi Brian,
I really enjoyed your presentation yesterday and thought you did a great job sharing the research and information you found. Here is the link to the Ted Talk I was talking about when we were discussing the benefits laughing/smiling can have on a person's overall well-being. Your presentation and this person's research definitely make me want to have a little more laughter and humor in my classroom and life in general!

Hi Bryan,
I finally have some time to sit down and write comments. I really enjoyed your presentation. Your work with the spicy node made me want to take another look at that program and to try to get it working for me. You mentioned the book "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" which has motivated me to get a copy ordered. Your take on humor and how to use it in the classroom to motivate and to encourage was very enjoyable.
Well done,

Tickling Your Funny Brain: Using Humor in the Secondary English Language Arts Classroom (An Outline)Brian Hennelly, July 2011

Genesis and Context

When I was very young I was what I suppose we as teachers designate the “class clown.” I liked it very much, but I didn’t like the stigma. I had kind and supportive teachers, but teachers who (like many of us still – myself included) feared losing “control” of the classroom. For much of education history, humor and laughter have been anathema to classroom management. I survived those early years and my clowning evolved into an intense interest in comedy in the form of comedic film (Caddyshack anyone?) and sketch comedy (I grew up two blocks from The Second City, a live sketch comedy show which served as a springboard for many film and television careers: John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Shelley Long, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Steve Carrell, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Tinay Fey… I could go on).

In middle and high school, when I began exploring this interest in the theater department and with friends in a sketch comedy club, the response changed. Again I had the great privilege to have supportive and caring teachers, but their reactions to my behavior turned for many of them from tolerance to praise. They saw the great value in invigorating their classrooms with laughter. They saw the social value of humor to promote cohesiveness. In the end, they had no choice; I simply made them laugh. Comedians speak of the feeling of getting a laugh in a lot of different ways – it is almost always described as an intense emotional high. What this did for me as a student was that it not only validated my comedy, but my sense of self and my intelligence. Most high school teachers aren’t going to laugh at your jokes if they’re not smart. I was no longer the class clown. I was a clown inexplicably succeeding in class.

Fast-forward five years and it was my job to validate students. I failed miserably. I don’t say I was a completely unsuccessful teacher, but on this one point of student validation I was completely ignorant. I viewed my role in the classic model of “molding minds.” I appreciated their personalities, quirks and all, but when it came to the classroom I thought my job was to shape them, to tailor those aspects of their personality to socially accepted norms. They could be funny or quirky, sure, but within bounds. To that end, I created a persona: Mr. Hennelly, the intellectual, the font of wisdom, the serious-minded academic. I had these qualities in me, but they weren’t the self I was most comfortable with. My gregarious self, my inner comedian, my Brian as opposed to my Mr. Hennelly was nowhere to be found in my classroom.

My epiphany came in the comment of a ten year old: “Mr. Hennelly’s really smart, but sometimes I think he’s sad.” They had learned something in my class, I’m sure, but I had still failed. That was two years into teaching, and I have been trying to change continually since then. I have tried to become Brian in the classroom, and now I have the opportunity to draw on the wisdom of my predecessors in the foundations of education to explore how I can implement my ideas more fully in the classroom. I feel I have made great strides in the past eight years of teaching, but my sense is that approaching the idea from a meta-cognitive perspective will help me towards more breakthroughs with my students.

Connections to Foundations of Education

There are a number of readings and areas of inquiry in my coursework on foundations of education that I believe speak to the importance of humor in the classroom. Some are slightly tangential, yet essential to my understanding of the subject, such as ideas relating to the social and emotional well being of children. Others are more directly connected, but perhaps somewhat obvious, such as the ability of humor to challenge assumptions and change minds. Most of the various theories of education that I have encountered in the class speak in some way to the use of humor in the secondary English language arts classroom.

Perennialism, though perhaps a dirty word in education today, has its place if approached with the best intentions. Two of the four themes of perennialism outlined in Pamela Joseph’s chapter on the subject are “the humanizing potential of study, and learning as power[…]that allows individuals access into the dominant society” (53). When good, intelligent humor reaches us, it is often because it has widened our view of our fellow human beings. The humanizing power of good literature or art is also inherent in good comedy. Erroneously considered “low art,” comedy is in fact a high form of discourse. Political humor, often in the form of satire, is often at first inaccessible to high school students. Through exploration, an increased understanding of this type of humor indicates growth in analysis and higher order thinking skills. Joseph also addresses the idea of “getting it” as a form of cultural capital: “Having the wherewithal to understand classical cultural references (including humor) allows individuals to ‘fit into’ society or to feel ‘less alienated from the mainstream’”(55, emphasis mine).

Progressive education is one of the educational movements that most comedians would themselves identify with. Most comedians want to change the world in one way or another. They see the world as it is as slightly (or greatly) flawed and hope, through humor, to affect positive social change. The “common principles” that John Dewey forms in opposition to traditional approaches in education are very much in line with the purpose of comedy, particularly his idea that the “new” education should embrace the “expression and cultivation of individuality”(188). Here we are reminded very much of the stand-up tradition in comedy. Interestingly enough, when stand-up was first evolving there was resistance to the form of a single voice and a favoring of comedy teams. In England, before the music hall comedy of the 19th century, comedy was theatrical and collaborative (Fisher 77). In the classroom, humor projects personality, which in turn promotes individuality. The teacher can model the fact that it is acceptable to be yourself, to have quirks, to deviate from the norm. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, these efforts also demonstrate constructivism and even radical education. Dewey also notes that in opposition to external discipline the new education offers “free activity”(188). A traditional argument against humor in the classroom posits that it can only cause chaos. One response is that with effective classroom management, this need not be the case. Anther response is simply, “so what?” Chaos can have deep meaning, as our most cutting edge mathematics teaches us. Putting the power to create humor in the students’ hands gives them agency and allows them to (gasp!) have fun.

Critical pedagogy can at first glance seem too theoretic, esoteric, or serious to have anything to offer proponents of humor in the classroom. Yet humor can diffuse as well as enlighten; it can be a vital tool to overthrow, or at least combat, the oppressor. Many are often surprised that in some of the darkest times and places in human history (the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, for example) literature, art, drama, and yes, humor flourished. It seems that in face of great oppression, the human spirit reaches for its bread and butter. People can be forced to work, starved, and beaten, but you cannot stop them from laughing (see Nichole Force and John Morreall). In Paulo Freire’s seminal work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he asserts that “[s]olidarity requires true communication”(4). That is, the traditional walls between teacher and student, us and them, is hierarchical relationship analogous to those of oppressor and oppressed, slave owner and slave. A bit heavy handed, yes, but accurate to a degree. If we agree that collaboration between student and teacher is vital to learning, then it follows that communication must be free and unfettered. If a student (or teacher) is afraid to employ humor in the classroom, then she has lost an effective means of communication, one that might have bolstered the collaborative spirit. In the context of the concept of “praxis,” Freire writes, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(1). In challenging the assumptions of society, comedy can aid in this “invention and re-invention.” Black identity in America has been challenged and re-formed by such comedians as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Wanda Sykes, and Dave Chappelle. These are comedians (as are many minority comedians) who are normally classified as controversial. They deviate from the normative assumptions. They are deviant in the sense of Ray Rist’s conception of labeling theory. Comedy can counter labeling because it “rejects any assumption that a clear consensus exists as to what constitutes a norm violation—or for that matter, what constitutes a norm—within a complex and highly heterogeneous society”(Rist 176).

Multicultural education is typically a theory of education in which even those who allow for humor in the classroom feel that humor is not safe. This is an erroneous assumption and based largely on legal and job security concerns. Those concerns certainly exist, but they have no bearing on the effectiveness of humor when exploring issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, or age. Silenced cultures at the secondary level can find their voices with humor much more easily than they can through debate or even traditional discussion (though a discussion of the humor must follow). This speaks to what James Banks calls “an empowering school culture and social structure”(6). We must not underestimate the transformative empowerment offered by humor that is representative of an undervalued cultural group. The teacher who offers a two minute video of a stand-up routine on texting to her media studies class is performing double duty if she has Americanized students of Indian decent and the stand-up comic is Aziz Ansari. Humor can also directly address issues of racism or sexism, for example, in the English-cum-affective education classroom (such comedians as W. Kamau Bell or Wanda Sykes directly challenge racial and gender stereotypes in their material). Furthermore, such comedians often challenge the “politically correct” responses to these issues; they eschew the paternalistic “Benetton Treatment” approach described by Jurjo Torres Santome (74) in favor of open and honest dialogue.

Research Questions

• How do humor and laughter function in the brain?

• What are the best ways to incorporate humor into the secondary English language arts classroom?

• What are the challenges to using humor in the English language arts classroom?

List of Sources and Works Consulted

Broek, Walter van den. “Where Does Humor and Laughter Reside in the Brain?”
accessed July 14 from http://www.shockmd.com/2009/01/07/were-does-humor-and-laughter-reside-in-the-brain/
Frymier, Ann Baibridge; Wanzer, Melissa Bekelja; Wojtaszczyk, Ann M. “Assessing
Students’ Perceptions of Inappropriate and Appropriate Teacher Humor.” in Communication Education. vol. 57, no. 2. April 2008. pp. 266-288.
Garner, R.L. “Humor in Pedagogy: How Ha-Ha Can Lead to Aha!” in College Teaching.
vol. 54, no. 1. 2006.
Garrett, Michael Tlanusta; Garrett, J.T.; Torres-Rivera, Edil.; Wilbur, Michael;
Roberts-Wilbur, Janice. “Laughing It Up: Native American Humor as Spiritual Tradition.” in The Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. vol. 33, no. 4. American Counseling Association. 2007.
Huss, John A. “Getting Serious About Humor: Attitudes of Secondary Teachers
Toward the Use of Humor as a Teaching Strategy.” in Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research. vol. 3. 2008. pp. 28-36.
Meeus, Wil; Mahieu, Paul. “You Can See the Funny Side, Can’t You? Pupil Humour
with the Teacher as Target.” in Educational Studies. vol. 25, no. 5. December 2009. pp. 553-560.
Perlmutter, David D. “What Works When Students and Teachers Both Misbehave.” in
The Chronicle of Higher Education. vol. 50. April, 2004.
Philaretou, Andreas G. “Learning and Laughing about Gender and Sexuality through
Humor: The Woody Allen Case.” in The Journal of Men’s Studies. vol. 14, no. 2. Men’s Studies Press. 2006.
Skinner, Michael E. “All Joking Aside: Five Reasons to Use Humor in the Classroom.”
in Educational Digest. Oct. 2010.
Sev’er, Aysan; Ungar, Sheldon. “No Laughing Matter: Boundaries of Gender-based
Humour in the Classroom.” in Journal of Higher Education. vol. 68, no. 1. Ohio State University Press. 2003.
Siegel, Bernie. “How Humour and Laughter Affect the Brain.” accessed July 14 from
Wanzer, Melissa B.; Frymier, Ann B.; Irwin, Jeffrey. “An Explanation of the
Relationship between Instructor Humor and Student Learning: Instructional Humor Processing Theory.” in Communication Education. vol. 59, no. 1. January 2010. pp. 1-18.
Wanzer, Melissa B.; Frymier, Ann Bainbridge; Wojtaszczyk, Ann M.; Smith, Tony.
“Appropriate and Inappropriate Uses of Humor by Teachers.” in Communication Education. vol. 55, no. 2. April 2006. pp. 178-196.
White, Gayle Webb. “Teachers’ Report of How They Used Humor with Students’
Perceived Use of Such Humor” in Education. vol. 122, no. 2. 2001.
Ziv, Avner. “Teaching and Learning with Humor: Experiment and Replication.” in
Journal of Experimental Education. vol. 57, no. 1. 1988.


There is a plethora of research on using humor in the classroom, but it is fairly squarely divided between the earliest research in the mid to late 70s (which focused on the appropriateness or inappropriateness of using humor from a classroom management perspective) and more recent research in the past decade has begun to explore humor from a social-emotional point of view, using the emerging brain research on laughter, humor, and emotion in terms of brain processes. There was almost a complete lack of research in between those two. Many current researches who are also still in the classroom (such as Michael Skinner) focus on the practical application of humor to the point of presenting lists of ways to do so. Others (see Wazner or Frymier) are very concerned with the potential downsides, trying to implement or catalog longitudinal research from the perspective of both the teacher and student. Some of the most interesting research touches on humor from a multicultural perspective (Garrett, et. al.). There is a decided lack of such intriguing studies.

In toto, my research led to only a few sources that addressed my particular area of interest directly. Chief among these was the work published several years ago by John A. Huss of Northern Kentucky University. Many of the areas of inquiry which interested me were echoed in his article “Getting Serious About Humor: Attitudes of Secondary Teachers Toward the Use of Humor as a Teaching Strategy.” Any further work of mine will be necessarily predicated on Huss. In the abstract he succinctly states some of his findings: “teachers believed humor contributes to a more enjoyable classroom climate, helps students make content connections, and relaxes students. Teachers differed as to whether humor enhances or detracts from an instructor’s professional credibility” (28). More incisively, in his analysis of the data he states, “Investigation the perceptions of secondary teachers toward the use of humor in the classroom has its theoretical underpinnings in social interactionism, which sets forth the premise that the shared meanings associated with humor are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation” (30). This speaks to, but does not move fully towards, the ultimate conclusions I would draw about humor, emotion, and brain function. I was also particularly taken with the work of Wil Meeus and Paul Mahieu in looking at student use of humor. They presented a study of some depth in “You Can See the Funny Side, Can’t You? Pupil Humour with the Teacher as Target.” They looked at the various motives students have for using humor directed at the teacher and the possible outcomes. When you look at their data, it becomes clear that if nothing else, understanding the locus of students’ humor can be a wonderful source of information about them as learners and human beings.

N.B. Sources cited in this section form the basis for my research and are therefore listed in the List of Sources and Works Consulted section above.

Reflection and Further Research Questions

More study must be devoted to the explicit links between the most current brain research on emotion, in general, and humor, in particular. I hope to implement a bit of pilot research this year in my classroom (my two 10th grade sections provide a natural control group set-up) that will serve as a first stepping-stone to further academic research and perhaps a more scientific study. Huss’ concern (cited above) for the “instructor’s professional credibility” is not one I share, and I would like to find a way to eliminate that element from my future investigations. That is for me an entirely teacher-centered, traditionalist concern and therefore has no particular bearing on student well being and learning. I also believe that Meeus and Mahieu have merely opened the door for much further study into student use of humor in the classroom.

Question for further immediate research: How do students self-assess their emotional state with and without a daily humor activity in the classroom?

Question for future research: How does the most current brain research inform our understanding of humor in the human brain and therefore its use and presence in the classroom?

Sources for this document:

Banks, James A. “Multicultural Education: Historical Development, Dimensions, and
Practice.” in Review of Research in Education. ed. Linda Darling-Hammond. vol. 19, pp. 3-49. American Educational Research Association (1993).
Dewey, John. Experience and Education. Free Press: New York (1997).
Fisher, John. Tommy Cooper: Always Leave them Laughing. HarperCollins UK:
London (2007).
Force, Nichole. “Humor As Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve.” (Retrieved July
14, 2011 from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2011/humor-as-weapon-shield-and-psychological-salve/)
Freire, Paulo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum Books: New York (1993).
Joseph, Pamela Bolotin. “Connecting to the Canon.” in Cultures of Curriculum (Studies
in Curriculum Theory Series. ed. Pamela Bolotin Joseph. Routledge: London (2010).
Morreall, John. “Humor in the Holocaust: Its Critical, Cohesive, and Coping
Functions.” (Retrieved July 14, 2011 from http://www.holocaust-trc.org/holocaust_humor.htm)
Rist, Ray C. “On Understanding the Processes of Schooling: The Contributions of
Labeling Theory.” in Power and Ideology in Education by Jerome Karabel and A.H. Halsey. Oxford University Press: London (1977).
Santome, Jurjo Torres. “The Trojan Horse of Curricular Contents.” trans. Eduardo
Cavieres. in The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Education. ed. Michael W. Apple et. al. Routledge: London (2009).

The Prezi I used in my in-class presentation:


The agenda for my in-class presentation:

Journal Articles in .pdf format:

Liza Donnelly cartoons:









Video Resources:

Shakespearean insult generator:

Smiles from my niece Maggie: