Comedy routine 'can help in class'

15th August 2008 at 01:00

What do you call the teacher who thinks she's a comedian? A success.

So says Dr Kevin McCarron, a comedian and reader in American literature at Roehampton University in London who has launched a course showing teachers how to use stand-up techniques in class.

It is not, he says, about telling jokes at the whiteboard, but about learning to engage with an audience. "Stand-up is a live business," he said. "It's not like acting - you have to interact with the audience. And it's the same in teaching."

In both classroom and comedy gig, the audience is reluctant to sit at the front. So it is up to the performer to get them involved.

"You have to enthuse them," says Dr McCarron. "Some teachers are like tanks: remorseless. But there has to be a recognition of the people in front of you that takes account of their body language or their incomprehension."

He says teachers should stand up, as this encourages pupils to look at them, and combat negativity by voicing pupils' thoughts. He cites a 20- stone Jamaican comedian who always begins his routines with the line: "I know what you're thinking - who's on the door now?"

Teachers could use this technique when introducing a Shakespeare play or a Victorian novel. "Instead of saying, `What do you think?' they could say, `I know what you're thinking - this is just another boring book written by an irrelevant old fart,'" he says. "Then pupils have to own that interpretation or resist it. Once they resist it, you're up and running. The lesson has been kicked off by them, rather than you."

In the classroom, as in comedy, there are always those who want to fight the performers, rather than listen to them. At school, the heckler is often a 15-year-old boy.

"Teachers are too soft," says Dr McCarron. "They try to cajole. But you can't cajole a heckler or a 15-year-old into being quiet. You've got to put them in their place, make everyone else laugh at them.

"I'd be up for a little humiliation. `I've heard you can get a girlfriend by reading, you know.' It certainly puts hecklers in their place."

But the best way to avoid heckling is to keep the audience interested, he says. Dr McCarron even advocates under-preparation as a way to hold pupils' attention.

"Lesson plans are a killer," he says. "Teachers can over-prepare because they're frightened of students catching them out. But if the teacher is flying on adrenaline, there's something exciting going on. There needs to be more improvisation."

Kevin McCarron will be running courses in Edinburgh this month, and in London in September. For further details, see www.aboutcomedy.co.uk.

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