Ancient physicians believed that humors ruled the health–both physical and mental–of the human body. Any imbalance was a sure cause for illness and disease. This belief gave rise to the practice of administering curatives such as bleedings, purgatives, diuretics, among others in order to restore the balance of humors within the patient’s body. Similarly, the classroom teacher must perform delicate procedures within the lesson cycle in order to balance the collective humor within each class period.
Maintaining the continuing Shakespearean metaphor, it is necessary to link the two types, or forms, of resolution in The Bard’s plays with the types of humor in the classroom. According to many Shakespearean scholars, The Bard’s plays usually end in one of two ways depending upon their particular genre of theater. In essence, disharmony is created in the audience through the characters and their actions. Through the course of the dramatic arc, resolution is achieved by the fifth and final act. Shakespeare’s two forms of resolution are based upon whether the nature of the play is tragic or comedic. For tragic works, the resolution is retributive justice. Wrongs have been avenged. Conversely, for comedic works, the resolution is restorative justice. The imbalance in the plot is corrected and the situation is set aright.
These two distinctions can be effectively implemented in the secondary classroom in a positive manner for both the students and the classroom teacher. Even retributive humor can be used effectively, even if it is of a self-deprecating nature regarding the classroom teacher. Yet, any humor, any at all, must be used cautiously and primarily by skilled and experienced practitioners. The art of humor is a steady and practiced art which both demands and commands patience, persistence, and above all humility. Attempting to implement humor of any kind into the daily learning environment or routine can very quickly and easily result in failure, sometimes even catastrophic in nature.
Surveying the two forms of humor, retributive and restorative, the latter type makes the most sense for use in the classroom. Smoothing over the tumultuous waves of a challenging, or even oppositional, situation is a proven method of maintaining control on the classroom without having to attempt to exert positional authority. These attempts almost always fail in the shortest amount of time possible. Worse yet, it corrodes and damages the tenuous relationship between the students and teacher, which is continually evolving. Humor should serve to cultivate and fortify this relationship.
Needless to say, restorative humor is instrumental in guiding the class back into focus with the daily objective(s) and easing the transition into new, and often times more difficult content knowledge and skill(s). This form of humor can also motivate reluctant and reticent students into some form of engagement with the material, the teacher, and possible even with each other through this gentle form of verbal and oral sparring.
Restorative humor can be both energizing and healing when used in appropriate and judicious manners. One of the primary mitigating factors in successfully utilizing humor in the classroom is a unique combination of student awareness and consent. This may appear like an odd pairing upon first glance, but given a Shakespearean hue and a second examination, a better understanding arises.
One of the cornerstones of the success of The bard’s comedies was his adept use of the audience. While for some this may come across as manipulative in varying degrees, it is no more harmful than asking students guiding questions throughout the lesson cycle. Shakespeare intentionally wrote his plays in order to have the different sections of the audience not merely laughing at the action taking place on the stage, but also at the different social classes which regularly comprised the audience, and even at themselves from time to time. This was part and parcel of the transcendent balance which continues to surround the comedies of Shakespeare.
However, the more difficult task is understanding and implementing retributive humor effectively and positively in the classroom. This somewhat more of a challenge even for humorous teachers who are experienced. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedies, retributive humor is neither vindictive nor hurtful, at least not in the traditional understanding of these two terms. Retributive humor effectively dulls the proverbial fangs of the lurking notorious classroom monster. This particular monster lurks in the corners, under desks, among the backpacks, and in the coffee cups in every classroom. Its unique characteristics include boredom, belligerency, bullying, and even buffoonery on both the part of the students and the teachers.
Yet the question still remains as to what applied retributive humor looks like. It goes without saying that this particular manifestation of humor will differ to some extent with each teacher due to personality, style, grade level, subject, and classroom/campus demographics. The tensions of adolescence coupled with the increasing demands of standards-based, achievement driven education is enough to create the conditions for the proverbial perfect storm. In this particular situation, the classroom teacher can guide and direct seemingly amorphous angst and anger which are timeless hallmarks of this developmental stage with retributive humor directed against the proverbial “them.” Uniting in this cause will help to diffuse the situation and build a rapport with the students which will help later on when difficult times arise in the learning cycle.
In order to alleviate the mounting pressure in order to maintain focus and facilitate learning in the classroom, sometimes humor is not only necessary but also the most effective tool. In these situations, the classroom teacher utilizes retributive humor as an educational tool in a somewhat self-depricating manner. Yet, while the teacher is the target of the jokes and puns to some extent, they act more as a metacognitive, disembodied voice. In essence, the teacher provides a running, sarcastic, sometimes slapstick comedic commentary that hopefully expresses many of the students’ thoughts. Simply put, doing this will clear the air and allow for some hilarity and learning to occur.
This begs the question as to the necessity and desire for humor at all in the classroom, specifically within the secondary setting. Again, an examination of Shakespeare’s works offers some insight leading to a greater understanding of this need. The jester, or fool, in The Bard’s plays, especially the tragedies, is usually the lone voice of clarity and reason. Most often, this wisdom is not necessarily heeded nor welcomed by the majority of characters. An excellent example of this is the play “King Lear.” A good comparison from antiquity can be made using the example of the chorus in Greek dramatic works. With the classroom teacher occupying this role, they are able to challenge students’ assumptions all the while lampooning the seemingly conventional educational system both parties are operating within.
This seemingly simple action allows the classroom teacher to differentiate, individualize, and engage each student as much as possible. The non-threatening context of a genuine conversation allows students to be relaxed and focused at the same time. This results in a certain level of cognitive dissonance which is ripe for both creative and critical thinking for both the students and the classroom teacher. When this occurs, then all parties involved have reached a particular climax in their educational experience. This unique tipping point will be explored in the next dispatch.