When I first started teaching, I used to worry that if I didn’t have all of my students sitting at their desks quietly focusing on their learning objectives, I was failing as a teacher. I used to think that if students were laughing and having fun, someone might look in and think that I wasn’t doing my job. I really didn’t want to be a boring teacher who made learning into drudgery though because, even from the very beginning of my career, I loved it when my students were having fun. The most important thing I can do in a classroom is leave my students wanting more. The more I learn, the more I want to learn and it is my goal everyday to make my students feel the same way. I believe that learning is hard work but I also believe that hard work can be fun.
When I think back on all of the most difficult jobs I have had, I remember the fun moments most vividly. In my mid-twenties I worked on several cruise ships. Working on a cruise ship was the most physically demanding job I have ever had and that is saying something because I grew up on a farm. The day started at 5:30 with the breakfast service and ended at 11:00, after dinner had been cleaned up and the dining room was set up for the following morning. I lost feeling in parts of my feet and my joints all swelled up but I also laughed as my friends and I painted each other as well as the holds. We played tricks on each other by sending the new people down into storage to find the dehydrated water and we made life-long friends.
I want my ESL classes to be the same, I want my students to work hard but I want them to play and have fun too. Here are a few of the activities I plan that encourage my students to laugh, bond and leave my classes wanting more.
Help Your Students Understand Jokes and Humor in English
Humor is one of the most difficult things to understand in a foreign language. Even in English I sometimes have trouble figuring out humor from a different English culture. I remember struggling to figure out why Monty Python was funny when I first saw it. I am from the United States and British humor is different than American humor, but after repeated exposure I do understand the humor now.
Not many language courses explore humor; none that I have taken at least, but it is a really important part of the way we communicate. Not being able to share in a joke can make you feel left out. I know that I used to sit through many a social occasion when I first arrived in Colombia, struggling to comprehend what was going around me and not understanding why people were laughing. Did someone tell a joke? Were they laughing about a story someone told or where they laughing at me? I usually chose to think that they were not laughing at me and if they were, they didn't mean it in a bad way. That helped me not to feel too insecure about trying to join in on conversations. Nevertheless, I did spend quite a bit of time fake laughing because it seemed like joining in would make people like me more.
Helping students to understand humor can help them to avoid hurt feelings or just feeling alienated. Last semester I asked my students to watch a humorous video on a serious topic. Some of the students understood some of the jokes and laughed but most of the students looked confused so I asked them to choose one part of the video in which the audience was laughing, examine the language that was being used before the laughter started, and to try and understand exactly what was being said. Then, they had to take it to someone who worked in the English Community Zone at our university. This is a service the university offers to our students where they can go and chat with students who have mostly either lived abroad or are exchange students. They were then supposed to ask those students how humor was different in their countries from humor in Japan. If your school does not have an English Community Zone, you could show students how to ask questions on-line. This site shows 13 different places people can go to get their questions answered.
In my class, students learned some really important information, for example, in the United States good friends often insult each other in a friendly way. This is supposed to be funny and show how close their relationship is, it is not supposed to be taken seriously. It also made students think about how we use language to make each other laugh. They really enjoyed going out and finding this information and bringing it back to their classmates.
Some of my favorite comedians are:
Eddy Izzard is an English comedian who also does stand up in French German and Spanish. He did an interview with NPR about learning languages.
John Oliver is an English comedian living in the United States who does a news show
David Sedares is an American comedian living in France. The video linked to his name is a piece he wrote about learning French.
Trevor Noah is a South African comedian living in the United States who does a news show. In this interview he talks about his move to the United States.
Warning: these comedians are all meant for adults and sometimes use adult language.
Ask your students to find and make jokes. I am terrible at telling jokes and I only really know one joke so I tell it any time the subject of jokes comes up. I am learning new jokes and expanding my repertoire by asking my students to look at their vocabulary list, do a search to find a joke with that word and bring it to class with them. They came up with some pretty good jokes and had lots of questions about why things were funny.
Vocabulary is the backbone of learning a language. The more words you know, the easier it is to communicate. Learning those words can be drudgery though so why not jazz it up with a few games.
1. Blind Banana- I was introduced to this game by one of my friends. It is simple to put together and fun to play.
Materials: All you have to do is make a stack of vocabulary cards and you are ready to go.
2. Memory- This was one of my favorite games as a child and I still love it today.
Materials: Identical cards with vocabulary words on one card and either a picture or a definition on another.
3. Roll of the Dice- This is fun because it adds the element of chance
Materials: a stack of vocabulary cards, a dice and a list of what each number should do. The list can look something like this:
1- give a definition
2- use the word in a sentence
3- give a synonym or antonym
4- explain the pronunciation of the word (how many syllables? Where is the stressed syllable?)
5- Give 2 collocations that go with the word
6- Give the card to another player who reads the word and you must spell it.
4. The Wall Between Us - This game is great because it asks student to move things around and rely on their listening skills rather than their reading skills.
Materials: Picture cards for each vocabulary word for each student, a folder to place between students so they can't see what the other player is doing.
Fun with Realia
Nothing livens up a classroom like bringing in real stuff and letting students feel, smell and listen to it.
Blindfolded Touch and Feel
If you are doing a unit on clothes or seasons, you could bring in a big bag of clothes.
Hunting for Clues (inferring)
If you are teaching a skill like inferring, you could bring in items that belong to people you know.
Not every activity in your classroom needs to be focused on fun but a variety of different activities in the classroom is always a good idea because it keeps students engaged while not exhausting one part of their brains overmuch.
Emotion is one of the keys to learning. If students don’t feel anything while they are learning, the learning is not likely to stick. This is why it is important to weave fun into your lessons. Students who look forward to your classes will in turn create classes you look forward to teaching.
Good questions to ask yourself while planning any lesson are, Would I enjoy doing this? If I were a student in this class, would I leave feeling as if I had learned a lot and I wanted more? If, after an honest look at the activities you are asking your students to do, you can’t say that you would enjoy it, you should think about how fun could be integrated into even serious topics.
Humor can get students thinking just as much if not more than approaching things from a totally serious perspective. As they say, laughter is the best medicine. Laughter actually changes the chemistry in your brain, it makes your whole body feel better and it can make learning difficult things a joy. Go on, don’t be afraid to let your class laugh and get a little rowdy sometimes, it may not look like students are learning to some critical eyes, but I assure you, if the activity is well-planned, students will be learning as well as laughing.
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Hi, I'm Kia.
Teaching is my passion, I have been teaching for over 20 years in 4 different continents. One of the things I have learned over the years is that I am never done learning about teaching. Both teaching and learning should be fun and inspiring.
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