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Roars of laughter emanating from the classroom used to mean one thing: a delinquent child has seized the occasion to ruin a pleasant learning environment, often with an absurd remark or a dirty joke. As kids fall out of their chairs and their overlord fumes in frustration, the said delinquent and future prison inmate smirks with self-satisfaction. Yes, something not very educational has just happened, to the detriment of all and aggrandizement of few.
But more and more educators no longer dread the ominous sounds of cackling in the classroom - and are using it to further their educational goals. No, this is not useless woopie cushions and airhorns, as many would assume a dorky teacher would employ, but rather helpful linguistic instruction.
A hip Israeli educator, Ehud Tzeltner of Tel Aviv, animates his curriculum with a dash of humor to help prospective university students learn English.
The EZ Way, which has mushroomed all over Israel since its development by Tzeltner in 2001, is a program designed to teach English the funny way to students preparing for the Psychometric Exam (The Israeli equivalent to that all-important bummer of a test, the SAT).
His farcical methods, which claim to significantly boost psychometric scores and have been tested on some 10,000 students, excited interest at a recent conference at Bar-Ilan University. The conference dealt with, among other issues, bolstering motivation in learning a second language.
In Tzeltner's textbook-based program, tomfoolery helps students address growing complications in levels of both vocabulary and grammar.
Here's a delicious repartee that addresses lacking vocabulary:
Excuse me, what is your opinion about the shortage of beef?
In Somalia: What is beef?
In Iran: What is an opinion?
In the US: What is a shortage?
In Israel: What is excuse me?
Vocabulary: Opinion, shortage and beef.
Here's a politically incorrect revelatory illumination:
Do you know the punishment for bigamy?
Vocabulary: Punishment, bigamy, mother-in-law.
Keren Avrahami, a former EZ Way student who now teaches it in Rishon Lezion, said that although it helped with her vocabulary and technique, it was not enough by itself. "I read books, watched TV without the subtitles and travelled to India, which all helped," the straight-faced Avrahami commented.
It has long been recognized that humor can be an effective tool in helping students learn and lessen the effect school has on crushing their character.
In an article published in The Journal of Experimental Education, Tel Aviv University psychology Prof. Avner Ziv said that joshing in the classroom reduced student anxiety and significantly increased their ability to recall information.
Humor helps students retain information if it is employed correctly, Ziv told The Jerusalem Post. A clever yarn gives pleasure and learning with a thrill improves memory about the subject taught, he added.
Hungarian-born Prof. Zoltan Dornyei of the University of Nottingham, who taught English for 10 years before focusing on research, stressed the importants of good relations between classmates. A motivated classroom, said Dornyei, promotes group cohesiveness through students learning about one another, interacting, cooperating - and laughing together.
When asked by the Post if humor could be useful in concocting such an environment, Dornyei - who had made his audience laugh several times during his lecture - replied: "Humor is incredibly important. The problem is, what if you do not have a sense of humor? If you can use it, humor can be one of the best tools for teaching."
Dornyei then proceeded to destroy watermelons with a giant hammer.
Ellis Weintraub contributed to this report.