A Pedagogy of Laughter


All kidding aside, education is a serious matter. Most likely, our children’s lives are at stake. Yet, dear reader, I hear you ask: but we must have strict, challenging benchmarks that guide our education. We must not let the children down. We must not leave our children behind. (Yet we politicize the education of our children). Today, we explore what we all know deep down: that laughter mixed with trust and challenge goes to the heart of an effective philosophy of education. How does this fit in with the rigorously outlined organized of school education? This article explores the beauties and benefits of pedagogy of laughter through our experiences teaching at a private school in West Seattle, and within our life-education. Here, a pedagogy of laughter leads to trusting relationships, promoting expansive opportunities for learning, and a joy in wanting to seek un-answered questions; in short, the ability to think for oneself.

Drizzling rain begins as preschoolers sit inside the sandbox. They eagerly pack down moist sand into a play construction helmet, and then turning it upside down. I over hear them chatting about making a cake. As a teacher I ask if it is helmet cake? They giggle a bit, and then I ask what flavor it is? Most definitely, it is chocolate. Chiming in on play, I help them compact the helmet with sand, after a younger child steps on it. We then work together on slicing a “chocolate helmet cake” into pieces, and talk about how many slices they would need to cut, in order to have one slice for everyone in the class. Using wood chips for candles, we count them out loud, while singing happy birthday to a “chocolate helmet cake.” How ridiculous, but their now counting up to twenty with me, as a teacher may tell them to do, in a traditional math class. Yet they are laughing out loud. Students at the school are trusted to navigate their own experiences. Free to explore teaching moments unravel often and untimely. Laughter is often the breaking of ice, the frosting on the cake, leading to further inquiry and discussion. Laughter is often proof in the pudding that they are engaged in exploration.

I’m smiling behind him. Just having turned five, Jack begins to whine and cry; his hands are slightly shaking. His face is worried; he wants help. Jack is learning to climb on top of push-up bars. Many of the older peers in his class climb these bars with ease and now he wants to learn. At first, Jack only knows how to ask for help. He wants to learn by having me place him on top of the bars. “Can you lift me up there.” And once perched he will caw, “get me down.” This is pedagogy of technology: rely on others to accomplish things. I smile, standing centered behind him. Our go to motto at the school is always “give it a try and if you can’t get it I will be happy to help.”

Saying this he tries meekly in a performance that demands my help. And I help Jack up… and then back down. But what I hear Jack saying is not helping me get here and here but more: how can I learn to do this.

So with more urging Jack tries to mount the bar himself. And with this he offers more dramatic communication. “I can’t do it. I’m scared. Help me.” And I stand behind him calmly with my hands ready to catch him. I then help him to perch onto the bar.

His eyes are filled with tears. “We did it,” he says. And we smile at each other. His smile shows his happiness for pushing his horizon of ability. I’m smiling to share that I am proud of his work and to show that I have confidence in him. I’m smiling because it’s great to help someone through something so pragmatic and central to life.
Five tries later Jack is confident climbing up all by himself. “I did it,” he now says with a grin. And yet he performs the same drama as he learns to jump off the bars as well. Within this example, a pedagogy of laughter and such related fruits are expressed.

Often as teachers in a school environment we re-organize materials or introduce something new. After adding a bag of play money to the classroom, and observing their interests in counting, sharing, and playing shop, we decided to transform one of the desks into a play area, which they refer to as the bank. In the morning we typically ask, what projects they intend on doing. Asking if Sam is going to be a bank teller, (as he usually likes handling our money bag) he tells us he is going to be a robber. Smiling and laughing all together, I ask him how much he plans on robbing. And he replies, “All of it.” He then grins, when I ask he plans of sharing any of this money. His robbery does not become a reality, never fully carried out, as he shares the wealth with other friends in the classroom. He enjoys hording the most of it under the loft inside the classroom. Paying him a visit later in the day, as I hold on to the bag of money. I ask him how much money he would like and he asks for a five, and that is all I give him. Asking others kids in the classroom, I count out loud as I hand out bills and change, which they gladly accept with a smile.

We sit around tables in the studio. The young children, their bodies and eyes are tired and explorative this morning. This is the only thirty minutes of the day where an organized lesson is presented to them. I sit at the table and take on the character of a German scientist: “Today we will change the color of pennies. For some of you will be penny cleaners. You must clean the dirty pennies. Others of you (looking around the room with a grin) will turn … these… pennies GREEN.

All the class is focused and involved in the activity. Already they chant out their preference. A chorus of Green and Clean rises like evaporation above the classroom. This is a pedagogy of laughter. Play is de-solidifying rules and characters in the name of exploration. Me-as-German-Scientist showed them MY interest in the subject, illustrated the excitement and life to be found in the lesson, and solidified our group identity as learners going through a process together.

The most influential teachers through my youth and into my adult years at college used laughter. Their smiles, enthusiasm, and zest to tell their stories on or off the subject matter, left a permanent impression on how I would grasp complex concepts. In a college poetry class, it was the professor’s funny remarks, such as, “I may have been born yesterday, but not last night, “ which would settle any classroom tension. One of the students actually archived the professor’s whimsical, witty, comical comments, sharing them with the class at the end of the quarter. From our time together in the classroom and out in the field, laughter was a nonstop presence, as if it was part of the curriculum. A side from rolling out of tables and chairs in class or around a fire on a fieldtrip, the sharing of spoken word and the written word, was never a concern of grading or who’s work was better. Trusting relationships flourished, and education was no separate from the breathing moments, laughing together and sharing in the experience of learning. Laughter enriches life’s experiences, truly at the heart of the matter – an important part of pedagogy.

The pedagogy of laughter is a serious matter; we need to find ways to cultivate this emergent curriculum during every waking hour in or out of the classroom. Play and laughter expands horizons. When a learner and I are working through learning to climb up a pole, thinking about a craft design, counting play money, experimenting with imaginative play, or writing a story, laughter secures a relation of trust and creates open roads for the child to ride their imagination and will beyond their bounds of exploration. There is not a definitive, clear, science to the way in which a person learns, it cannot be controlled by a centralized method or one set pedagogy, from the top down approach, it requires a broad spectrum of pedagogies, with laughter as a key component to a thriving education.

The beauty of laughter and play are that they most powerfully illuminate the pliable nature of our socially constructed world. In other words, laughter liquefies the solidity of our history, our science, and our literature and dramatizes their essence. From this, multi-perspective views on history, science and every other interest, can be more fluidly captured in a learners mind.

For most people though, the power of laughter and play in education has one cause: it makes indoctrinated learning interesting and personal. This link is of great importance where the learner’s identity is sometimes infused and aligned to the topic at hand. While one solution to seemingly lifeless material is to throw such curriculum, in a standardized world, laughter is a tool frequently used on the front lines.

Life is a journey of joy and through the multitude of processes learning occurs, most notable unplanned, unexpected, unrehearsed, when our visions and compassions are not coerced by others. We must enter into these new areas as if they are stages which make the world come alive, letting laughter shine the way Each new exploration captures a different lens and dramatization of the complexity of the world. True to the saying, we are travelers on this earth; we are social beings. Together in the connective exploration of education, we value connective and explorative learning, letting the joy of laughter be our guide. And its also a good time.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at riseout@riseup.net

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