Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Role and Function of Humor in the EFL Class

#ELTchat January 26 – The role and function of humor in the EFL class: from “Ha, ha!” to “Aha”

“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing.”

I was thrilled to know that the topic I have suggested was the chosen one to be discussed at the last #ELTchat. The use of humor as a pedagogical tool is something I have always been intrigued by. The way students respond to it is like magic. Humor breaks barriers and brings students and teachers closer. Teachers use humor as a way of putting students at ease, as an attention-getter, as a way of showing that the teacher is human, as a way to keep the class less formal, and to make learning more fun.

Pedagogically speaking, it is known that humorous activities can improve students’ performance since it drastically reduces tension thus promoting an anxiety-free environment. This can be also seen in tests results. As @JoshSRound skillfully pointed out: “Humour helps to lower the affective filter – helps learners to relax”. I vividly remember that at university I’ve had a professor who taught the whole semester using cartoons and comic strips. We could not avoid having fits of laughter during the final test! The usual tension surrounded by exam days was over. And we all thanked that teacher for that.

Some teachers believe that humor is easier to be dealt with higher level students. This is something I disagree. A good sense of humor, in my humble opinion, is what every teacher should have. No one likes to be taught by that cranky person staring at you with eyes of a hungry leopard about to devour anyone who dares to raise a hand. Cracking some practical jokes every now and then are what I call a differentiator. Bearing in mind that the students at this stage are far from being proficient, only universal humor is appropriate for it would in most cases be expected that the linguistic and cultural jokes are beyond the level of competence of the students. Teachers may introduce “quips”, that is, "smart" answers or retorts to the questions or statements such as:

Are you fishing ? / No, just drowning worms?
I don't like the flies in here. / Well, come around to tomorrow. We'll have some new ones.

Like @ShellTerrell said: “Teaching humor itself is easier with upper level students, but having in humor in class, no”. With my Young Learners (YL) I often use an activity they love and have loads of fun: Change your Persona – I put up some crazy characters on the wall and they have to respond to my question using the characters either I or other colleagues choose. (eg. Old lady, rude man, stutter, typical adolescent, angry mother, deaf granpa, mute…). Another great activity is 10 Top Things You Should Know About Me – I scatter some absurd and real information about myself on the board and read them very seriously till they realize some are not true and begin to laugh. Then I invite a couple of students to do the same and try to convince their peers of the most absurdities. Sure to be a hit!

However, as some educators rightfully adverted: cultural boundaries must be respected when using humor. What might be fun in the Brazilian culture not necessarily is in the Japanese cultural context. Teachers should be aware of these differences and moreover use humor in their favor. Be careful not make offensive jokes against the most problem

atic personal issues such as body size, sexuality, race, religion and the like. In this regard, Sigmund Freud's pioneered a study on humor in which a distinction was made between "tendentious" and "nontendentious humor", the former being that which is "derogatory or ridiculing and that masks them es of hostility or aggression” whereas the later, "void of hostility, is more playful and innocent in character". The first can also be referred to as “destructive humor” and the second is “constructive humor”. In this sense, I personally believe that touchy subjects such as these can be discussed using humor. I once used the below cartoon to try
to engage my students into the search-for-the-perfect-body issue:

Not only is this a very funny cartoon, but I could also engage a great discussion with my students which led to body modification, fatness, being comfortable with yourself, the importance of loving yourself the way you are, and ultimately bullying.
Another point that deserves our attention is that laughing at someone else’s mistakes can be devastating. But If teacher shows he/she can laugh at him/herself, then learners feel more able to do so too.

Some other activities I like:

- Advanced levels: I usually have students look for Phrasal Verbs in cartoons, comic strips and sitcoms such as Friends. On another note, I like to work with the concept of Pun (double sense humorous phrases/words) – students search for them wherever they can and come to class to explain both meanings to their colleagues

- YL: Playing any kind of Mr. Bean’s short-films is always a very welcome lesson started. Whether it be to teach vocab or a specific grammar topic (e.g: What is he doing now? – present continuous / Where did he park his car? – simple past) while they burst into laughter.

- One great idea proposed on the chat was to turn coursebook dialogues into complete nonsense. Students, therefore, get the chance to play with language and discuss language cohesion, coherence and other features.

On a final note, humor is part of virtually most social encounters; the use of humor and wit is intimately related to human nature. Humorous statements are speech acts that have different functions in spoken and written discourse. I defend, therefore, the notion that the use of humor in teaching English makes lessons more enjoyable and friendly and can contribute to student proficiency. Humor is an important factor for the development of listening and reading and literacy.

And now, my favorite cartoon for all of you teachers:


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Irrational Education

By definition, irrational means that something/someone is deprived or without the faculty of reason. It has occurred to me, through an inexplicable association of ideas, that Education in Brazil is somewhat irrational.

Let me try to explain it, then.

In spite of all rationale and constant diagnosis that has been done concerning education, much still remains incomprehensible to the majority of people. One of them is how much money should (must?) be spent – please read INVESTED. 5,2% of the GDP is currently been devoted to educational investments which is obviously not enough. It is undeniable that double this figure would be sufficient. However, what society does not understand is where this money would come from. Let along if the government has this money. It goes without saying that the more money invested, the better. But the heart of the problem is not only this. We do not spend too little on education. Rather, we spend too poorly. Too recklessly.

Another irrationality is the inability to face the educational drama. Teachers get far too little or none instruction before entering a classroom and payings are far below the average, I’d dare saying of the worst among other professions. How do we intend, this way, to offer quality in education? Teaching formation courses suffer from an abyssal anachronism. What has been done for fifty years cannot be done nowadays. Giving out computers for those who don’t understand the basics of it means next to nothing. Thinking clearly: ever since these machines entered the classroom, what have been the improvements in content? The results are nowhere near to be found in the Programe for International Student Assessment classification maps.

Currently, the construction of new schools is very rare. It seems that authorities and the government got tired of the subject. The building of new premises appears to be the only possible way to achieve the so desired wish: full time schooling which is the basic grounds of any developed country. The problem is that we are all too aware of the fact that our High School students spend roughly four hours a day at school. From this point we can have a glimpse of how deep the hole is. Furthermore, there is the lack of priority. There’s too little effort on technical courses and students do not get enough formation to face university life when they leave high school.

Do our schools feature libraries? No!
Do they feature equipped laboratories? No!
The non-equivalence between age and grade is under control? No!
Did we reduce truancy and failings? No!
Is there scientific initiation during high school? No!
Are reading levels going up? No!
Is the illiteracy level next to zero? No!
Are the gratuitous textbooks distributed to schools carefully chosen/designed? No!
Are those books well distributed? No!

A lot more could have been mentioned. Deep inside, what we are sadly aware of is that education has not been privileged due to a consistent political will.
So, where do we start? We start from the boosting in investiments in teacher development, career plans and equippment in schools (labs, I.T, libraries, sports). I hope that in the near future we come to realize that the literacy process of adults cannot be made only by generous volunteers. Rather, we need fully capable teachers who are trained and love what they do.
We all wish our children had great teachers. But who dreams to see their children become teachers? In South Korea, if i'm not mistaken, where they are acknowledged and well paid as doctors and lawyers there is a famous saying: "Never step on a teacher's shadow".

It's time we gave it more credit.

:-) See you in a post.

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