My brother is a stand-up comedian. He tells jokes, spins humorous tales and relays pithy anecdotes on small stages throughout the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He has long dreadlocks and a laid-back on-stage demeanor. Some of his early jokes were inspired by when he visited me in the Czech Republic.
The truth is that I, too, have always thought of myself as something akin to a stand-up comedian, but I don’t stand on a stage.
Like many expats in this city, I teach English. Instead of entertaining a drunken crowd, I try to get a roomful of teenagers to understand the difference between past simple and present perfect. Finding the interesting/memorable explanation to explain the grammar takes time. The humor, if there actually is any, is a bonus.
Telling a joke and teaching are similar. Both require constant refinement to fit the audience. Both require planning out a strategy, rehearsing, practicing the routine on different groups, tweaking phrases, switching to more interesting words, preparing for what will hopefully appear to be spot-on timing and working toward presenting the most entertaining/educational experience. There are gestures to practice and movements to consider. When it is done correctly, it is magical.
And, combining the two — humor and teaching — can be a powerful weapon. It is not easy to get people, oftentimes strangers, to converse, let alone get them to open up in a language in which they are not completely comfortable. Humor establishes an atmosphere that loosens people up, allowing them to let the words flow freely and the language to slowly settle into their brains. Plus, witticisms improve listening skills by keeping people active.
Basically, it all comes down to maintaining attention. Then, and only then, will you be able to transition into teaching something. Here are some tips:
Sprinkle in some mispronounced Czech words
I make sure to speak English all the time in a classroom, but oftentimes after I give instructions for an activity, I’ll throw out some form of the word chápat, which is Czech for “to understand”. It’s easy to pronounce, but I butcher it in every which way: Chaptovat? Chaputejte? Chapingte? Tsapeetee? (Who knew that you could get so much variation from a single word?)
When a student sees how absurdly the teacher pronounces an easy Czech word, it lowers the bar to speak English. In conversation classes, speaking is important: you can’t fix a mistake if you never hear it.
Appropriate Moravian slang.
It is boring to qualify correct answers with “Correct” or “Good job” a dozen times in a row. That is when I throw in a Jsi chytrý jako sviňa! Roughly translated, this means “You’re as smart as a pig.” Sviňa, when used in many Moravian exclamations, is positive. Prase is another word for a pig that is used in a similar way.
Of course, this doesn’t work in all situations, so it’s fun to use an old comedian trope: What’s with this sviňa thing? The other day I told my (Czech) wife Jsi krásná jak sviňa (You look beautiful like a pig). She got mad. And then she got even angrier when I commented on her perfume with Voníš jako sviňa (You smell like a pig). Women! Am I right, guys?
It all drives the point home that collocations matter. It helps explain why, in English, we say you “take a photo” instead of “make a photo”, the direct Czech translation.
Use anticipation to review vocabulary.
A couple of years ago I developed a verbal tic: “Excellent. Fantastic. Great.” It had become so pronounced that classrooms of kids started to blurt out the “Great” with me. Now I use that pattern against them to review vocabulary: “Excellent. Fantastic. [Fill in the blank.]” Wonderful. Fantastic. Amazing. Unbelievable. Great grandfather. Graduation. Anticipation. Triplets. Junior Year. Always keep them on their toes, lest they fall asleep.
Tell funny personal stories.
A good anecdote can be an authentic listening exercise, a good way to introduce/review vocabulary words and – if it is sufficiently interesting – memorable, such that students actually retain the knowledge. This is where teaching is exactly like stand-up comedy. To practice terminology for the “Education in the United States” section of the graduation exam, I tell stories about my high school years, like the embarrassment of trying to pin a corsage onto my prom date’s ample décolletage (while her oblivious-to-my-discomfort father videotaped it all).
Adolescents care about their classmate in the next seat, their love interest across the room, their mobile phone, their grumbling stomach, the entire world that is just beyond the classroom window. So, I try to wake them up:
- Say that you hate Star Wars.
- Denigrate Johnny Depp.
- Enthuse about Karel Gott or Czech folk music.
- Force them to get up and move around.
- Get them to embarrass themselves: Everybody, stand up. Close your eyes. On the count of three, point north.
Food finickiness goes a long way.
I like spaghetti and I like ketchup, but having them together is abhorrent. For some reason, this combination is a thing in this country. It always makes Czech teenagers gasp to say I dislike cheese.
The best way to wake up a group of teenagers is to disparage Kofola. I feel as though they lose a bit of their youthful naivety when they realize that someone can dislike that (truly) disgusting drink.
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Writing out these bits makes them sound stale. It’s all in the presentation, which means it is all about being very much like a stand-up comedian.
All of these tricks get students to focus on what you want and help you to make the subsequent lesson more interesting. When you incorporate them into the grammar and vocabulary, it makes the whole package stronger.
Luckily, in the end, teaching is about getting the students to learn. When a perfectly crafted explanation of verb+verb formation — with funny examples — fails, you can always turn to the textbook.
Theoretically, you won’t get booed off the stage.