Autumn is a new time for me; a time of beginnings. I'm already starting to wax poetic, and I don't like it. I'll just say I started a new school year- The third of my career. This year I got asked to teach a new class, a Math Strategies class. It's a double dose of math for the students, and they're all weak in math, necessitating this extra math class in lieu of an elective like Art or French. Basically they're not exactly thrilled to be in my class. To make matters even more interesting, it's the last class of the day when everyone is fried and ready to go home. And then, just to make sure the class doesn't get boring, someone decided to make my section the international section for ESL students. Only four of the kids in the class have been in America for more than 2 months. I have a Jordanian who moved here in July, two Iraqis who came to America for the first time in August, a Colombian, an El Salvadorian, a student who is ethnically Eritrean, a Chinawoman, and an Egyptian, just to name a few. The Chinawoman didn't speak a word to me the first two weeks. Only just barely have I gotten her to say "Hi" to me when she walks into class. In May of 2014 these students will take the same state-mandated math test as their American peers, and I will be the one held responsible for their results (no one ever places the blame on the children if they fail...)
Faced with such a monumental task I knew something had to be done. Something different. Something no one has ever tried before. Something so significant it could help a class full of immigrants get caught up with their peers in 9 months. Something so drastic that these math-hating 7th graders would switch gears and ace their end of year test. What, pray tell was my master plan? A joke of the day! I just love jokes.
Everyday at 2:00 o'clock I tell the kids a joke. I don't really have the best jokes to start with, and then throw in that my specialty is puns, which require advanced English knowledge- something these kids don't have. My first two jokes were so bad that the kids didn't even recognize that they were jokes. I told the class they were jokes, and I told the class they were funny and they should laugh, but still some kids carefully wrote them down as class notes. The concept of a joke was entirely above their perception of math class.
Repetition is key for English Language Learners, so I kept doing the joke of the day in hopes that they would catch on. It's been a rough go, but definitely a humorous one. Here's one example:
Me: What does a puppy say when he sits on sandpaper?
(Keep in mind that I act everything out since I'm not sure these kids know what a puppy is, or what sandpaper is. I played the part of a dog and then sandpapered my table.)
Them: Blank stares.
Them: Blank stares. Some writing.
Me: Do you get it? It's a joke? It's funny. You're supposed to laugh.
Them: Blank stares.
Finally one student raised her hand and asked, "Is it funny because sandpaper is rough?"
Me: Yes! That's it! Good job.
Another student: Oh. I thought it was funny because puppies say 'ruff.' I guess I don't get it.
Me: No, that's it! You did get it! It's funny for both reasons! That's why it's funny.
I'm not sure if it's the content or the delivery, but the jokes just haven't been working. The students have, however, found it fun to guess the punchline ahead of time. They've become much more animated with the jokes, even if they don't laugh. Here's how another one went:
Me: What's black and white and red all over?
One student: A chess board!
Me: Well, no, those are usually just black and white. No red.
Them: The Iraqi flag! It's red, white, and black!
Me: Okay, that may be true, but remember, this is a joke. It's supposed to be funny.
At this point the students started looking all over the room for something that's black, white, and red. I think they thought we were playing 21 questions. All of their answers were sincere, but not at all close to being funny. I told them it was time for the answer, but they insisted on three more guesses (a chess board, a math textbook, and a candle).
Me: The answer is: A sunburned penguin!
Them: Blank stares.
Me: Do you get it?
Them: But penguins don't get sunburned. They live where it's cold. There's no sun where they live. I don't get it. That's not a joke.
Turns out I get the most enjoyment of anyone with the joke of the day. I'm going to keep it up in hopes that I'm at least teaching these kids some English. Once the English is solidified I'll move onto math.