4th Grade play shows the teaching power of humor

Students in costumes on stage
Dec 10 2021

4th Grade play shows the teaching power of humor

“Like a welcome summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool the earth, the air and you.”
–Langston Hughes

Students in costumes on stageAfter the curtain lowered on the fourth grade play and parents gathered in the Theater Garden, many of the comments captured the evening beautifully: “The play was so much fun!” “What a perfect play for Keystone!” Thanks to the excellent direction of Ms. Gypsy Pantoja (Ms. G), the support of Ms. Holden, Ms. Holiday, Ms. Quintero, and Mr. Ciaravino, and the delightful acting and singing by the students, those of us in the audience thoroughly enjoyed “Alice’s Adventures with Idioms.”

Using Lewis Caroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” as a jumping off point, the play depicted the young protagonist’s escapades in the world of idioms and puns. Through songs, dialogue, and jokes, the characters grappled with the confusion that can occur when people don’t comprehend the double meanings of effective word play. Again and again, mishaps and hilarity ensued from the characters’ literal interpretations of figurative language.

Beyond the humor from the linguistic misunderstandings, there were important lessons on the power of language. As we know intuitively, humor demands a high level of intelligence and sophistication. It’s impossible to get a joke without knowing the contextualization behind it; this may be even more true for humor based on word usage. This is why it is so rewarding to watch our children develop their senses of humor; we can see their intellect blossoming as they decode jokes by others and create their own.

Academic research bears this out. A 2013 paper by Kristin Lems called “Laughing All the Way: Teaching English Using Puns” described ways teachers can apply jokes, puns, and idioms to teach English as a second language. However, much of what she says also applies to children learning English as their native tongue. At one point, Lems explains, “Jokes based on wordplay have additional benefits because they build metalinguistic awareness, or conscious awareness of the forms of language, and this, in turn, helps in learning more language (Ely and McCabe 1994; Zipke 2008; Lems 2011). In particular, metalinguistic awareness boosts reading comprehension and encourages higher-order thinking.”

As children become more confident in their linguistic development, they play with words and phrases; in the process, they deepen their understanding of language, its rules, and its possibilities. Lems points out, “Because they require processing the sound and meaning of words twice, puns demand considerable language agility.” This self-reinforcing cycle enables children to move from one level of comprehension to the next.

I recall as a parent how much joy I derived from reading funny books or engaging in wordplay with our sons. I may have laughed just as much, if not more, at some of the books we read that featured puns and silly language jokes. The books made us laugh, but also reflected their growing maturity. My wife and I could be proud that they understood the humor and had fun manipulating words to create something new. (She often wondered, though, who was enjoying the books more-our children or me.)

In addition, the sheer act of experiencing something humorous together brought us closer in the moment. Laughter can reflect our willingness to be vulnerable as we shed pretense; we may be closer to our most actual selves than at any other time, and as a result, we can lessen the distance between ourselves and others. There is something immensely satisfying and irreplaceable in laughing with our children.

As the audience revelled in the witty repartee of the fourth grade thespians and followed the lyrics of their idiomatic songs last week, we could be proud of them for their growing sophistication and maturity. However, we could also appreciate a moment where we laughed together and perhaps became even more connected to one another. What a lovely way to learn and build community!

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