Volume:1, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2009

Social Studies Can be Social: Using Humor to Foster Engagement and Invigorate Learning in the Social Studies Classrooms
Lovorn, Michael G. [about]

SYNOPSIS: Poor state of teaching social studies in the US has lead to a search of new effective strategies. The author has worked out five introductory humor strategies that have been successfully used in high schools and colleges. A detailed description of these strategies is presented in the article.

There is no shortage of public opinion, commentary, and conjecture lamenting the “sad state” of social studies education these days. One can simply turn on the television to see comedians such as Jay Leno2 making the most of on-the-street encounters with young (and not-so-young) adults who are apparently incapable of identifying photographs of famous world leaders like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. Similarly, much to the great egocentric entertainment of the viewer, who, presumably, could correctly answer all such questions, these seemingly inept passersby commonly misidentify recognizable world landmarks such as London’s Big Ben, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. As interviewees hazard reckless guesses, the audience laughs wildly, and a great time is had by all… all except the interviewees’ dear old social studies teachers, that is, who hang their heads in bewildered disappointment.

While admittedly, I too find these impromptu encounters humorous, I remind myself that skits like these are created for entertainment’s sake and are not to be viewed as serious commentary on the utter failure of public education or ineptitude of social studies teachers. Keep in mind that we do not see clips of the passersby who answer correctly. Why? Of course and quite frankly, they are not as humorously entertaining. I also must remind myself that the purpose of these clips is not to re-teach those who neglected social studies while in school or even to shame society for their general social studies incompetence, but to make people laugh. And what’s wrong with that?

I find it interesting that American comedians such as Jay Leno, Tina Fey3, Stephen Colbert4, and Sacha Baron Cohen5 regularly select social studies-related topics for the bases for their skits. In addition to Jay Leno’s Jaywalking segments, Stephen Colbert’s relentless roasting of unwitting politicians and other dignitaries on the Colbert Report is wildly popular with the 20-35 year old Americans. And Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G., Borat, and Brüno characters thrive by confronting the viewer with persistent and uncomfortable societal incongruities, often related to history and consequential relationships.

The great popularity of these and similar comedic activities attests to a sweeping appreciation among the masses for creative engagement relating to history, politics, sociology, psychology, economics, and even geography. Unfortunately, most of us are treated to this manner of engagement with social studies subject matter only after we leave the classroom (Steele, 1998; Rainsberger, 1994). Even in the 21st century, with a wealth of research to suggest that monotonous lecture and other traditional strategies are not the most effective ways to present social studies topics (Mann & Robinson, 2009; Hicks, Carroll, Doolittle, Lee, & Oliver, 2004; Beard & Wilson, 2002), many middle and high school students still encounter dull, predictably disconnected lectures accented by copious note-taking, which culminate in mundane regurgitation of “facts” on an exam. It seems that social studies is often anything but social!

The purpose of this paper is to present a variety of strategies on which teachers may build up the social environments of their classrooms, the better to foster student engagement and invigorate in-class learning of social studies subject matter, ideas, and concepts. As demonstrated above, history and social studies are academic areas that naturally encompass the potential for humor engagement between teachers and their students. To neglect, ignore, or purposefully avoid this essential element of humanness is to short-change students on our very nature, and contribute to what author Mary Kay Morrison calls a “humor paradox”, wherein we all proclaim the great value of sense of humor in daily life, yet we frequently abstain from or mute it in academic settings (Morrison, 2008).

The intent of this paper is to articulate and demonstrate the great value of humor in the history/social studies classroom, and in doing so, dispel the restrictive affects of the humor paradox. The strategies discussed in this paper should be perceived as starting points from which history/social studies teachers may expand the scope and purport of their in-class strategies for presenting subject matter. Teachers are encouraged to experiment with these and similar strategies, and accordingly, welcome humor as a means of teaching, learning, thinking, and communicating in their classrooms.

A Humor Rationale

Teacher and humorist Leo Rosten6 once said: “Humor is the affectionate communication of insight”. Social studies is effectively taught when subject matter is made relevant and emotional for students, and as discussed previously, history/social studies subject matter is particularly conducive to a humor approach. By introducing and building on structured (planned) humor into their classrooms, social studies teachers encourage students to think more relevantly and critically about content. Research indicates that laughter is a natural and effective way to engage students and build connections to subject matter (Berk, 2002). By repackaging content to be viewed through a humor lens, social studies teachers pique students’ interests, encourage creativity, and facilitate acquisition of knowledge and understandings of concepts.

It is no secret social studies can seem dry and irrelevant for many students. Social studies teachers, when satirized in American movies, are commonly portrayed as boring, militant, or disconnected. Ben Stein’s7 portrayal of a mind-numbingly dull economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sam Kinison’s8 imitation of a shell-shocked, ex-military history professor in the cult classic Back to School are hilarious caricatures based on common perceptions of traditional social studies teachers, their teaching >

Laughter is a universal form of communicative expression. Humor-induced laughter favors no culture, political affiliation, or religion. It transcends age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. It is enjoyed by people of every walk of life, regardless of height, weight, health, strength, weakness, ability, or disability. In short, everyone laughs, which makes humor a great communication and teaching strategy.

Research indicates that teachers’ structured use of humor can make the classroom inviting and exciting for students, and that the related potential for learning success and social growth is significant (Morrison, 2008; Gurtler, 2002; Bainbridge-Frymier & Bekelja-Wanzer, 1998). As a veteran social studies teacher, I can attest to these findings. My use of content-based humor has had a unifying, edifying impact on my students, regardless of their grade levels, behavioral demeanors, or preferred learning >

Much like physical exercise, children need a daily humor workout (Morrison, 2008). A common misperception about this approach is that teachers should expect to have students rolling in the aisles in uproarious, and potentially disruptive, laughter. In-class humor strategies can and often should be much more subtle (Bainbridge-Frymier, Bekelja-Wanzer & Wojtaszczyk, 2008). In addition to engaging students with banter, hyperbole, mild sarcasm, and other forms of reactive humor, teachers should rely on planned, structured activities that promote appropriate, constructive, and content-centered teaching and learning (Lovorn, 2008; Steele, 1998).

I have identified five introductory humor strategies that are relatively subtle, and easy to implement. Each strategy requires minimal preparation or deviation from the average classroom routine, yet invites students to become active participants in humor creation and exchange. This process helps students build skills and confidence relating to the use of humor in educational contexts (Lovorn, 2009; Berk, 2002). These strategies are not meant to be exhaustive examples of how to “funny up” the classroom, but rather to answer those social studies teachers who ask: “What do I do if I’m not funny?”, and to encourage them to think of ways to develop humor skills and confidence.

These five strategies build an environment conducive to creative and humorous thinking: (1) reserving part of the white board for daily humor, such as thought-provoking fun-facts, trivia, caricatures, or a “joke of the day”; (2) decorating the classroom with verbal and visual humor, such as historic quotations, curriculum-centered cartoons, and student-originated humor; (3) adapting and playing creative, face-to-face vocabulary games such as Taboo9, or Cranium10; (4) allowing students to plan and act out, sing, or perform content in front of class; and (5) engaging in teacher-initiated, self-deprecating humor.

Strategy #1: Board, not Bored

I like to reserve a corner of my whiteboard for daily fun facts and trivia tidbits. I label the corner something catchy like: “Lovorn’s Thought for the Day”, “Say it ain’t So!”, or “Amazing, but True”. I generally tie the humorous and thought-provoking statements to my daily lessons, and I look for content-related items students will find amusingly interesting. This strategy also presents an opportunity for the teacher to encourage students to examine how previous generations have commonly used humor to deal with difficult times or situations. A lesson on the Dust Bowl11, for instance, may be enhanced by an anticipatory set that incorporates a caricature of Woody Guthrie12 singing a few stanzas from his humorous vernacular account Talking Dust Bowl.

We got out to the West Coast broke,
So dad-gum hungry I thought I'd croak,
And I bummed up a spud or two,
And my wife fixed up a tater stew --
We poured the kids full of it,
Mighty thin stew, though,
You could read a magazine right through it.
Always have figured,
That if it'd been just a little bit thinner,
Some of these here politicians
Could have seen through it.

Additionally, I often post a “Joke of the Day”, which is usually a content-related anecdote, hyperbole or verbal exaggeration meant simply to encourage students to think about history or social studies subject matter in creative or alternative ways. I am proud to say these jokes also often put smiles on students’ faces and make my classroom a more warm and inviting place.

“During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union are engaged in a great competition for world domination. Who's bigger, who's smarter, who's faster, and who’s stronger?

Space is known as the “Final Frontier”, and the Americans and the Soviets have started a “Space Race”. The Russians launch Sputnik, then Gagarin. The Americans counter by circling the earth and going to the moon.
Then one day the US President gets a call from NASA: "Mr. President! The Russians have landed on the moon!", but the American President treats the issue with little interest.

The next day NASA calls again: "Sir, the Russians are starting to paint the moon red!" NASA, the US Air Force, the Navy, the Army, the Marines are all alarmed and push the President to do something about it.
The third day, they come to him in a flurry: "Mr. President, we have to do something, the Russians have already painted half of the moon red!", but still, the President does nothing.

The fourth day, the US Congress meets to discuss the situation, and a committee of Senators approaches the President: "Sir, the Russians have painted the moon red! It's as red as the communist flag: red, red, red!"

The President replies: ‘Ok, guys, let's go write Coca-Cola on it now!’"

This absurd situational joke may be used on a day when students are to engage in a conversation on the Cold War, and may lead to a rich conversation on US/Russian relations during this time. Initiating history lessons/conversations with a humorous tone or situation serves to introduce the content in a more relevant manner (Paterson, 2006; Henry, 2000), and helps prepare the student for meaningful participation in the lesson. And unlike much of the humor students engage in on a daily basis, these jokes are clean; free from hurtful language, divisive racial or cultural overtones, and sexual innuendo. It is important that teachers make sure to model humor that is appropriate for the setting, and as the jokes become a part of daily routine, students learn that there is value this sort of expression.
The factoids and jokes I use come from several sources. I have collected several humorous and thought-provoking social studies reference books for this purpose. One of my favorites is 2,201 Fascinating Facts by David Louis. Factoids in this book are brief and leave a lot to the reader’s imagination, and I find this design quite useful for my purposes. There are also countless online sources for humorous trivia.

Strategy #2: Building a Humor Environment

Teaching effectiveness is heightened when the learning environment supports the curriculum and fosters student engagement (Beard & Wilson, 2002; Heitzmann, 1998). Learning is not a static activity or behavior, therefore the social studies classroom should encourage and accommodate dissemination of new information and change. Classroom walls, ceilings, and furniture provide more areas for humor expression, and I fill these spaces with content-related materials that reinforce my teaching strategies and inspire students’ participation in my lessons. I post witty or humorous quotes from philosophers, orators, writers, scientists, politicians, athletes, teachers, and popular icons.

“Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” – Mark Twain, Following the Equator, Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.

“Nothing will work unless you do.” – Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

“If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later.” – Will Rogers, Travelogue Series.

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire13 did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.” – Bob Thaves, Frank and Earnest.

For quotes such as these, I use Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations14 and websites such as www.brainyquote.com, but I do not limit my postings to these sources. I also like to encourage students to develop their own witty or humorous statements or political cartoons about themes, concepts, eras, and events we study in class. These activities encourage students to exercise their humor creativity, and I frequently post their products around the room as well.

Classroom furniture may also be arranged to support students’ humor expression. I rearrange students’ desks regularly, sometimes daily. Depending on my activities and teaching strategies, I may have students facing one another, in groups of four, in a big circle, or any other design that fosters communication and enable humor exchange.

Strategy #3: Playing Games with a Purpose

On occasion, I like to use educational games to enrich my teaching approach and give students an opportunity to interact with subject matter in a variety of creative ways. Like the previous humor strategies I have discussed, games such as Password, Taboo, Cranium, and Jeopardy!15 may be employed to reinforce content, concepts, and ideas. These and other games may be adapted and reconfigured as necessary to fit into virtually any lesson unit timeframe and field of study. I know creative teachers who have adapted games such as Jeopardy, for instance, in such unique ways; contouring them to meet pedagogical needs and desired outcomes, that they are similar in name only.

Taboo, for instance, is a popular game that is made up of small cards, each with one keyword or phrase at the top, and a list of descriptors at the bottom. Although this is a party game, I regularly adapt it for use in my history classes. I create my cards to represent the lesson unit we are studying at the time.

Examples of Taboo cards created for use in a geography class:

Machu Picchu

“Lost City”
Hiram Bingham

Tierra del Fuego

South America
Cape Horn

Angel Falls

Jimmie Angel

After placing students on teams of two, I then arrange for two teams to share a table. One student draws a card and attempts to get her teammate to say the keyword or phrase. In doing so, she may say any word not included in the list of descriptors at the bottom of the card. Members of the other team monitor this rule, after which time they will perform the same task with a different card.

The great benefit of this game in a history/social studies classroom setting is that students’ descriptions are limited to vocabulary not found on the card. This mean they must describe the keyword or phrase in their own unique way. Students’ vocabulary command is strengthened, their descriptive capabilities are challenged, and the result is inevitably series of humorous episodes. Altogether, games of this nature allow students’ confidence regarding subject matter to increase as they engage in creative and dynamic dialogue (Lovorn, 2008; Morrison, 2008; Berk, 2002).

Strategy #4: Giving Students the Floor

Many, if not most, middle and high school students are engaged and their learning enriched when teachers introduce content through performing and visual arts. Art, music, role play, and dramatic expression have significant effects on student engagement, and may also be an avenue to introduce humor and wit into the classroom dynamic (Lovorn, 2009; Posnick-Goodwin, 2009).

Social studies areas are also particularly conducive to students’ artistic and creative expression (Paterson, 2006). By enabling students to act out, sing, or perform social studies events, concepts, or ideas, teachers allow them to interact with content, and in effect, “do history” rather than merely read about it (Beard & Wilson, 2002). When presenting a lesson on civics and the rights of citizens, for instance, a teacher might prompt students to orchestrate an exchange between a student portraying an average citizen using (and perhaps abusing) his right to free speech. Exchanges of this nature not only allow students to demonstrate their understanding of the concept, but they are frequently comical and humorous to their peers. The result is usually a lively and often humorous display of student creativity and interaction.

Some social studies teachers have also been known to allow their students to compose a content-related rap or song to share with classmates. These musical compositions combine academic influences and activities many students find entertaining. Activities of this nature allow students to process content by putting it their own words before sharing with classmates. Many incorporate humorous retellings of events or ideas.

Finally, students may be encouraged to act out events or ideas in pantomime. Much like creative games such as Taboo, silent role-playing challenges students to produce creative and sometimes abstract ideas relating to social studies concepts. Many student who are asked to act out a concept such as love, freedom, god, or wealth, will rely on humorous expression while they perform. Learning will occur, while students are enabled to dabble with creative humor.

Strategy #5: “When I was a Kid, Back during the Stone Age…”

One of the most effective ways to cultivate humor in the classroom is to engage in teacher-initiated, self-deprecating humor. Students are intrigued when they hear authority figures laughing and poking fun at themselves, and a teacher who commonly makes herself the butt of playful jokes creates a welcoming, unintimidating learning environment, and models favorably affective social engagement (Lovorn, 2009; Morrison, 2008; Berk, 2002). Students generally respond in kind, becoming more receptive to critique, and enriching teacher/student and student/student communication.

This strategy works in virtually all classroom settings, and is especially effective with teenagers. Some of my favorite self-jabs include my “horrendous” fashion sense, unflattering singing and dancing skills (which I proudly display at a moment’s notice), and “less-than-cool” hobbies and personal interests (such as my uninterrupted 1974-to-present collection of National Geographic Magazines). Students know this is all in good fun, and I am fine with fitting the “un-cool” persona.


Teachers who use humor in the classroom engage students and enable them to build content connections through laughter. Structured humor strategies enable students to investigate social studies topics through creative, relevant, and emotional lenses. These strategies allow us to realize Leo Rosten’s observation that humor is the affectionate communication of insight. Humor facilitates learning by creating an inviting, engaging environment, and enhancing teacher/student and student/student communication (Morrison, 2008; Berk, 2002). This constructive and welcoming form of expression reduces classroom fear, anxiety, and feelings of intimidation (Gurtler, 2002; Rainsberger, 1994; Steele, 1998), and has a general positive effect on the all aspects of the learning environment (Beard & Wilson, 2002).

These findings are observable in all academic disciplines, but are particularly noticeable in the social studies classroom. Human beings around the world communicate through humor, and laughter transcends physical, cultural, social, and socio-economic demographics. Social studies teachers encourage their students to investigate these and other demographics, past and present, in an attempt to “do history” rather than simply study history.
As both a student and a teacher, I have benefitted from content-based humor and humorous expression, and I encourage all teachers to explore these strategies, calling upon their inner humorists to laugh with confidence, and approach teaching with a dedicated yet light heart.


1 Michael Lovorn is a Social Studies Education Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama. He may be reached at mlovorn@bamaed.ua.edu

2 Jay Leno (1950- ) is an American comedian and popular former host of The Tonight Show, a staple primetime television variety show. One segment of his show, “Jaywalking”, shows him walking the streets of Hollywood asking passersby random, simple questions about history, politics, and contemporary issues. Interviewees often give incorrect answers for even the simplest questions.

3 Tina Fey (1970- ) is a popular comedienne and writer of the TV show 30 Rock, which is currently one of the biggest American television hits due to the satirical portrayal of characters in the day-to-day office environment of American media giant NBC.

4 Stephen Colbert (1964- ) is a popular contemporary American comedian known for pushing limits of appropriateness and decency. Colbert’s nightly TV show: The Colbert Report sketches daily news by ridiculing news and newsmakers.

5 Sacha Baron Cohen (1971- ), a British comedian, also pushes decency limits with his character Ali G.;a young Middle Easterner who is consumed with Western suburban life, and his recent comedy movies; Borat and Brüno wherein he travels around America as a foreigner testing social and cultural norms.

6 Leo Rosten (1908-1997) was a teacher, journalist, and humorist known for writing scripts, stories, and Yiddish lexicography. He wrote many humorous stories about school and education.

7 Ben Stein (1944- ) is an American actor, writer, and political commentator known for his satirical role as a high school economics teacher in the hit comedy movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).

8 Sam Kinison (1953-1992) was an actor and stand-up comedian known for his loud, boisterous delivery. He is, perhaps, best known for his role as the loud and easily-offended Vietnam War veteran-turned history professor in the college-life satire Back to School (1986).

9 Taboo is a word-guessing game created by American toy-maker Hasbro. The object of the game, which is often played by large groups at parties, is for one player to have her/his partner(s) guess a keyword without using the keyword itself or the five additional descriptive words listed on the card.

10 Cranium, billed as “The Game for Your Whole Brain”, includes a wide variety of humorous activities with the object of correctly guessing a person, place, idea, or thing after observing one team member draw, mold, spell, hum, or whistle clues about it.

11 The “Great American Dust Bowl” (1930-1937) was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American prairie lands.

12 Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) was an American folk singer/songwriter known for his ballads about the lives of common Americans. His song Talking Dust Bowl, is a humorous account of this natural disaster.

13 Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987), classical Broadway stage dancers, became one of America’s most beloved dancing couples of the 1930s and 1940s. Together, they starred in many American dance movies.

14 Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is an American reference work that is the most widely distributed collection of quotations. The book was first issued in 1855 and is currently in its seventeenth edition, published in 2003.

15 Jeopardy! is an American quiz show featuring trivia in topics such as history, literature, the arts, pop culture and science. Unlike other game shows, Jeopardy! has a unique answer-and-question format in which contestants are presented with clues in the form of answers, and must phrase their responses in the form of a question.


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Michael and Dolores Beirne (Oct. 29, 2009)
Humor is a two-edge sword. If not used correctly, it can cut deeply. There is no doubt that humor can change all classroom dynamics in a positive way. The question is: can humor be used correctly by both teachers and students? The issue here is: does the form of government encourage or discourage humor in the classroom? For example, in China can a teacher make humorous comments about his form of government. I think not. Can a teacher in a Moslem country make humorous comments about his country's religious leaders?--probably not. At what point does innocent humor become political criticism? Keep in mind that it is the government, either national or local, that is paying teachers' salaries. Another issue is: when students hear and enjoy humor in the classroom, in many instances, they repeat the humor at home in the presence of their parents and siblings. This raises thorny issues. The students find the teachers' remarks funny and enjoyable, other members of the family may find them upsetting and insulting. Race in America is a good example. If this is the case, will those at home who are insulted, report this humor to the teachers' superiors? To Summarize: Yes, humor adds and enriches classroom teaching, but like any other tool, it must be used carefully so as not to inflict damageon the teacher or the student.

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