Teacher Education’s Michael Lovorn knows the value of humor in the classroom, especially when that classroom is overcrowded with restless teenagers in Appalachia. Lovorn, who joined the university in 2005, is writing a book on the use of humor as a teaching tool.
His humorous expertise was sharpened by 12 years of teaching middle and high school in Tennessee and Georgia. “I am proud of my upbringing and where I’m from, but as is true in various regions around the country, many Tennesseans see themselves as Tennesseans first and then Americans. Much less attention is given to the global community” he recalled. “Teaching history and geography in this environment can be challenging, especially in an overcrowded school. In my first year, I taught 43 eighth graders in a corner of the cafeteria while lunch was being served. I had only 35 books and no maps. I thought I had made the mistake of the ages by becoming a teacher. All I had at that point was my humor and I learned to make it readily available.”
Humor proved invaluable in broadening a homegrown worldview. “When I visited England as an exchange student, I was the first member of my family to travel abroad for any reason other than war,” he said. “When I returned, the interest in my eye-opening experience was less than I’d expected. Maybe, in fact, it was more confusing than anything. Cultural diffusion comes slowly to regions of the country where there is muted cultural, economic or social exchange. As far as many Tennesseans from rural Appalachian communities are concerned, the world drops off at the state border.”
Humor helped change that. “As a history teacher, I found that there is so much in history to laugh about,” he said. “I used to entertain my students with stories about President William Howard Taft getting stuck in the White House bathtub and Lyndon Baines Johnson showing his gall bladder surgery scar to the press. Getting young people interested in American or world history can be a tough nut to crack and looking at history through the lens of humor can help. It engages the kids, motivates them and sells the idea of history. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got them.”
Lovorn later shared his eye-opening look at the larger world by being the first in his school to lead a student group to London. “When I first pitched this idea to a group of interested students and their parents, a parent asked how long a bus ride it was to London. She had no idea her baby would be climbing on airplanes to reach it,” he said. The trip was a success. He led student groups on trips to Paris and Rome in the years that followed.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Carson-Newman College in Tennessee, before his masters and Ph.D., the latter in 2003, from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He was an adjunct professor at Brenau University and lived in England for a year as an exchange student at Imperial College. When he returned to the United States, he began his teaching career and soon found that it can be a difficult world out there for teachers looking to compete with cell phones, video games, iPods and television.
“Humor allows teachers to compete,” he said. “If it’s going to be an enjoyable social sciences class, and this is probably true of other disciplines, there must be some entertainment value. Kids expect it these days. Attention spans dwindle. Students are in our classrooms longer than they are awake at home. When presented poorly or in lackadaisical fashion, subject matter can become mundane and boring in a hurry. This is even true in my once-a-week college classes. My college students are in my class for three or more hours a day. Typically, I might have their undivided attention for 20 minutes at a time. If I insist on lecturing most of the time, with little or no pointed effort to engage my students, I should not be surprised if they tune me right out. If I, the instructor, neglect this necessary element of teaching, I do so at the peril of my lesson. I have found that when it comes to engaging students, humor helps.”
In 2006-07 he received a Faculty Scholarly and Creative Activity Award (SCAC), renewed for 2007-08 to study “Social Studies Really is Fun: Using Humor to Invigorate Lessons in the Social Studies Classroom.”
Lovorn believes humor in the classroom has great practical value and his SCAC recognition validates that. “We do a great job in the College of Education of preparing teachers to go out and do the things that teachers do when it comes to planning and presenting a lesson, accommodating for all students’ needs and managing a classroom,” he said. “We need to know more about laughing. Human beings have been laughing for a long time. In fact it is one of the oldest things we know how to do, and it is no coincidence that it is a staple element of common conversation. Noted teacher and humorist Leo Rosten called humor the ‘affectionate communication of insight.’ I agree with his assessment, and I think laughter is a perfect way to help students make critical connections to subject matter. Making content relevant is the key to classroom success. Humor can enable a teacher to pursue that relevance and connectivity. Some research has been done in this area, but I see the need to follow up with something practical for young teachers. That is why the SCAC award has been so important to me. It has given me the opportunity to do more research in this area.”
Lovorn acknowledges that humor may seem alien to some teaching styles but that it is a flexible and useful tool, especially when turned on the teacher. “I encourage my future teachers to include self-effacing humor in their approaches,” he said. “This is good, I think because it demonstrates to students that you are indeed a human being, just like them and that you have a really nice sense of humor, one worth emulating.”
Lovorn encourages educators to give humor a chance. “Humor has a place in a child’s zone of proximal development,” he said. “In fact, I’d argue that it is quite necessary in order to maximize the child’s learning experience. Make an effort. If you can show students you are excited about the subject matter, and that it can be fun and funny, you can certainly enrich their lives and make those valuable connections to things they learn in your class. Use humor for your own benefit too. If you use it in a way that is enriching, relevant and mindful of the effort that it takes to teach certain things, you’ll always be glad you laughed.”