“Humor, like hope, permits one to focus upon and to bear what is too terrible to bear,” Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, writes in “The Wisdom of the Ego.”
“Why did the cookie go to the doctor’s office?”
“Because she was feeling crummy!”
“Do you get it?”
My 4 year old daughter, Emma loved to tell this joke when she found herself in new strange hospital situations. Humor is one of those incredible gifts that we all have for making human connections. This was her way of taking some kind of control over her illness and she loved to tell this joke over and over. The delight in her eyes in seeing who “got it” was sheer heaven, thinking she was so clever and loving the joke over and over herself. There was something in this joke she could see that made her enjoy it every time she told it. She “got” it and was always sure to ask, “Do you get it?”
The getting it is like the ultimate secret that she is privy to; the delight is making sure that everyone is able to enjoy the magic of the punch line in the same way as the teller. And there is an art to telling a good joke and the feedback is instant…did you get a laugh or not? You can always tell those who get it as an expression of knowing crosses their faces, and then there are those that laugh to be polite and those who are laughing as they are still trying to figure it out. We have all been there, at one end or the other and of course the worst place to be is to be the jokester that gets no laughs at all. It is a tough lesson, but one that you can do something about right away.
In the classroom one part of our morning meeting was joke telling. There were some rules surrounding the telling. First the joke had to be appropriate for school. Yes, of course there were those who pushed the limit, but for the most part kids were able to discriminate between those that would be acceptable and those that would not. Just trusting them allowed them the freedom and the responsibility to make good choices.
The second rule was that you had to practice the joke at least three times and that you had to get a laugh at least one or two of those times before volunteering for morning meeting. This was for two reasons; one was to work on the delivery and to work on making it funny. We would talk about what made a good joke and what didn’t. We talked about the emphasis being on the punch line and how to deliver an effective punch line. These could be classified in our under reading with expression, the importance of audience and comprehension studies. (How is that for meeting standards?) It was a clear test of whether the child understood the joke or not based on the reaction of the audience. If it was not funny we worked together as a group to think about what could be done with the joke to make it funnier. This is revision in real life. Then the child would take his or her newly revised joke out into the world and wait until it was funny enough to bring it back to the class.
Everyone had ownership of the joke by then and often there would be many versions of the same joke told over and over again. This gave us time to talk about the fact that authors do this all the time. Once someone has a great idea then other authors try to take the basic idea and make it their own. We talked about how this often happened with jokes and that jokes changed regularly in their details because joke-telling is typically an oral form of literacy that is passed on from person to person. The game of telephone is a great way to show how things change based on the oral telling and that people all hear things differently.
I would always begin the year telling a joke to model how to tell a joke. I would overemphasize the telling in order to be able to point out to the class just what it was I was doing and that there are things that you can do to tell a good joke. The joke I told was about a chicken that goes into the library to get a book. He goes up to the librarian and says, “Book, book book”. This is said like a chicken saying bok, bok, bok with a high voice. (This is hard to put into writing!) The chicken takes the book and returns within 10 minutes shouting the same thing to the librarian, “Book, book, book”. The librarian thinks this is strange but gives the chicken another book. Sure enough if you have heard enough jokes you know that this chicken is going to be back in no time. This structure allows us to look at it closely and see there is predictability in jokes and that if you wanted to make up your own joke then like fairy tales, the magic number of 3 often appears. Well, the chicken magically does show up again but this time the librarian wants to know what is going on, knowing the chicken could not have read either of those books so quickly. She gets on her coat and decides, after giving the chicken yet another book, to find out what is going on by following the chicken. The chicken leaves the library, heads up a big hill, out into a field and through the forest to a clearing. (Again here is a way a leading the audience into what we know is going to be the punch line. I talk about slowing down here and that when I do the audience almost leans in waiting, waiting, waiting and thinking get to the punch line already!) At the edge of the clearing is a pond. The chicken walks over to the edge of the pond where a frog is sitting. The chicken pulls out the book and shows it to the frog. The frog looks at it and promptly replies, “READ IT. READ IT”. Of course this is said like a frog instead of ribbit it is read it. These slight changes in voice are very important because without them the joke is just not funny! So, okay you are thinking this is a dumb joke, and it is. It is also, however an excellent model for kids because it is clean and it contains so many elements of a good joke. This gets kids thinking about their own jokes and jokes they have heard in the past. Often one of the hardest things to do is to just remember the joke. I tell the kids that having one or two good jokes in your pocket is a great way to be in a new crowd. Everyone loves a good joke. But is has to be a GOOD joke. A bad joke won’t get you very far. This also encourages kids to think about themselves in social settings and to think about when it is appropriate to tell a joke and when it is not.
“Jokes compact the elements of storytelling into bite-sized mini-narratives. They are not just funny. For writers and editors, they are models that can help teach storytelling” Chip Scanlon, the Poynter Institute.
Joke telling is a form of storytelling; something that we can use to help our young readers and writer’s to see the elements of a story in a very compact version. To tell a good joke the teller must prepare the reader by setting the stage introducing main characters and setting, the chicken, the librarian and the library.
Next is to provide some kind of background for the reader, in knowing the structure of many jokes, one is sure that the chicken will be coming back at least a couple more times. Also using the voices allows for the characters to know more about them. She is a female chicken with a high voice; the librarian is suspicious about a reading chicken from the beginning.
The joke relies heavily on creating scenes that the reader can follow. The chicken comes and goes, comes and goes and does these actions very quickly, leading the librarian to become even more suspicious.
A good joke creates suspense, engaging the reader as they sit and listen, leaning in to find out what in the world is going to happen next and often this is done through conflict. The conflict here is for the librarian who is miffed that this chicken keeps on coming back without having read a book!
Next it builds to a climax and a clear resolution. We know that when the chicken leaves and the librarian follows that we are going with her and that we will find out instantly just what the chicken is up to.
Finally, is that wonderful element of surprise, the “aha” moment where we wonder how we didn’t get it all along. It is funny that the chicken is trying to get the frog a new book and so we laugh with this quick resolution and twist that we can visualize as being very funny.
Derek was a small fourth grader who had a hard time fitting in. Not only was he smaller than all of his classmates, but also he was somewhat goofy looking and gangly. He had a hard time finding his place in the world and was often seen getting into it with kids. If there was trouble, then Derek was in the middle of it. In the classroom he struggled. As a reader he struggled the most. For Derek, this opportunity to tell jokes, this place where being the class clown was encouraged was his place to shine. By the end of the year he had found every joke book in his local area. I will never forget the day he showed up with a book the size of Webster’s heaved up under his arm. It was titles “A Million and One Jokes.” Derek would sit for hours pouring over this book in search of the perfect joke. It was a ridiculous book for him as it was laden with jokes that were so out there that I didn’t get a lot of them. Many of them politically motivated from cultures all over the world. The schema one would have to have for many of these jokes would put Google to shame! The print was as small as anyone could imagine, but he continued to read over it, searching for that one joke that he did get! And he would know when he would get it. You want to talk about serious close reading. He was getting to know himself as a reader through this insurmountable task he had set for himself. He would carry that book everywhere…and did I mention it must have weighed 25 pounds??
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At first he would tell jokes that none of us got. Eventually, though he was able to work on finding a good one, practice it and in no time Derek became one of the classes favorite joke tellers. This was his forte’. This was his place to find comfort and acceptance for who he was. This also gave him a very real reason to read and to read for meaning and with purpose. It also gave him a real reason to write as he then went on to write his own jokes. At morning meeting it would be Derek that everyone wanted to tell a joke. Each day we had time for three jokes. On days when nobody else would volunteer, they would all chant Derek’s name and he would get up and do his own version of a Leno monologue telling joke after joke. He was good. I don’t know where Derek is today, but I have a hunch that someday I may see him on stage at the Laugh Factory!
We need to value children, for who they are, not who we want them to be. We need to look at each child and find the strength inside of him. Derek could also easily have dropped out of school. It was not a place that he “typically” succeeded and joke telling allowed him to have a place in our classroom community for who he was. Don’t get me wrong. This was not that all magical cure and Derek continued to struggle each and every day in the classroom and on the playground, but offering this as an option allowed for Derek and other kids to use their humor in an effective and constructive way. It also allowed Derek to take some of the painful anger in his life and poke fun at that as well. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in Team of Rivals, a study of Abraham Lincoln where she focused on “the vital role humor and storytelling played in Lincoln’s melancholy personality.” , “He laughed, so he did not weep. He saw laughter as the ‘joyous, universal evergreen of life.’ His stories were intended ‘to whistle off sadness.’”
We should each laugh as many times in the day as we can. I remember reading somewhere that we use so many more facial muscles to frown than to laugh…therefore frowning causes more lines in the wrinkles of life. So heck, let’s laugh or in the end…the joke is on you!!