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Comedy in the Classroom:
Just What the Doctor Ordered?


Emily Oldak, author of Comedy for Real Life, said "stumbling" into comedy led her to a career of teaching others to lighten up! In this Education World e-interview, Oldak explains the role of comedy in teaching and how it can ease the tensions of children in an unsettled world. Included: Oldak shares tips for teaching with comedy!

Emily Oldak, author of Comedy for Real Life
"Given the state of the world, it's a good time to use comedy to help young people handle their emotional stress and make learning a positive experience," says author Emily Oldak.

Oldak is the founder of the Comedy Prescription, an organization committed to bettering the lives of youths and adults through cooperative comedy and positive humor. As a national speaker and trainer, Oldak has based her programs on her background in fine arts and improvisational comedy and her work in community mental health with troubled youth.

Oldak's book, Comedy for Real Life: A Guide to Helping Kids Survive in an Imperfect World, and her workshops for kids reflect her passion for helping young people discover their strengths and capabilities through humor and the arts. She has been helping teachers integrate humor into their classroom activities for more than 17 years.

When outside influences make for a tense learning atmosphere, Oldak suggests, teachers can use comedy to help children -- and themselves -- reduce stress. "Kids too often forget that laughter can make life easier," she explains. "Adults too often forget that they were once kids."

Education World: You have called comedy the "foundation" for your life and credit it with helping you communicate and connect with other people. What does comedy mean to you?

Emily Oldak: Freedom. Comedy allows me to tolerate being in public! (And vice versa, I'm sure.) A serious person by parental training, if not by nature, I found comedy paved a path for me to reach out to others. While I personally love stand-up comedy and all sorts of silliness, it's the cooperative nature of improvisational comedy that transformed my life. Improv is listening, taking the focus off yourself, making the other person look good, trusting, and, yes, thinking on your feet. Improv trains your brain to think beyond the ordinary.

EW: What prompted you to write Comedy for Real Life: A Guide to Helping Kids Survive in an Imperfect World?

Oldak: Participants in my Humor in the Classroom seminars insisted on it! We were having too much fun and running out of time. They wanted a way to reinforce what they'd learned and continue back in their classrooms. I created Comedy for Real Life as a how-to manual to help them work comedy into their curriculum.

EW: In your book, you outline many improvisation activities for teachers and students. What role do you believe comedy can and should play in the classroom?

Oldak: The purpose of using comedy in the classroom is to optimize learning. While improv may look chaotic to the untrained eye, each activity is carefully planned and based on a specific structure. Various lessons can be inserted into that structure to meet targeted goals, creating a fun, innovative learning environment. Comedy in the classroom can be

  • a great mental warm-up before tests,
  • a refreshing energizer after a particularly difficult lesson and a reward for hard work,
  • a tool to assess student comprehension and retention,
  • a way for teachers to help students defuse stress.
EW: How do you recommend that teachers introduce the teaching of comedy improvisation? Will you share an example of a simple warm-up activity?

Oldak: The book has a whole section of warm-up activities to introduce students and teachers to comedy in the classroom. Elementary-age students, who still consider play a natural learning activity, usually will seize the moment. Sadly, older kids may need some convincing.

Sample Activity: This Goes With That
Teacher: Someone give me a word, preferably a noun or an adjective.
Student: Broccoli.
Teacher: Someone else give me a word.
Student: Nose.
Teacher: Who can tell me how broccoli goes with nose?
Student: Broccoli goes with nose because my nose knows it doesn't like broccoli.

Teaching With Comedy: Tips from Emily Oldak

* Join in the fun.
* Remember, you can enjoy students' humor, be spontaneous, and still stay in control.
* Keep in mind: a lesson learned with laughter is a lesson remembered.
* Model asking students for help during comedy exercises so kids who are performing in front of the class feel safe in doing the same.
* Have students lead a comedy activity once in awhile.
* Be on the alert for small miracles.
* Use Comedy for Real Life as a starting point. Embellish existing activities or create your own.
EW: Children sometimes have difficulty discerning what is appropriate and funny from what is not. How can teachers promote humor in the classroom while furthering their students' understanding of what is acceptable and positive comedy?

Oldak: Lay down the law. These things are not funny: putdowns, potty mouth, and references to violence.

Brainstorm with students to set guidelines. Most kids already know them. Some, don't. Use this as a learning opportunity for everyone. Gentle reminders may be needed. Discipline as appropriate. Most importantly, model positive humor yourself.

EW: You suggest that comedy reaches some students who are otherwise often overlooked. Is there a student who is the ideal "target" for the teaching of comedy? How does humor make a difference with this child?

Oldak: Shy children seem to find the structure of improv reassuring, making it safer to express their natural humor. Children with complex emotional problems that interfere with learning also benefit. Comedy normalizes some of their behavior. Kids can constructively vent and redirect anger, gain a different perspective on serious issues, and take a break from their problems.

EW: From your 17 years of experience with teaching comedy to children, is there a memorable moment that epitomizes the value of its instruction for kids?

Oldak: Shortly after I was introduced to improv, my friend Tracy, a special education teacher, invited me to her classroom as an entertainer. She warned me her students probably wouldn't pay attention, might kick me, and would likely bicker among themselves. But would I please come, because she needed to sit down!

[The experience] I left with was entirely different. The students were so amazed that they were being allowed to be silly in class that they forgot to misbehave. Tracy was amazed to see positive peer interactions she hadn't witnessed before. We were both amazed at the level of retention exhibited from week to week. In one shared insightful moment, we realized, we could plug lessons into the improvs. We found that many tasks the students struggled with became easier when locked into a comedy activity. They tested higher in those areas where the improvs were applied. What started out as "fun and games" became a profound learning experience for me!

To order Emily Oldak's book Comedy for Real Life: A Guide to Helping Kids Survive in an Imperfect World, call The Comedy Prescription at (303) 341-7747 or (888) 203-4406 or send an e-mail to [email protected].

This e-interview with Emily Oldak is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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