Funny Math

Teachers face perhaps the toughest audiences, but few have show-business training. That’s why Math for America, a nonprofit that recruits instructors, is offering after-school improv lessons taught by Second City alum Rachel Hamilton. At a recent class, the math teachers practiced talking gibberish and pantomimed wrestling a snake and tangoing with a midget—all to help them work a room, deal with hecklers, and generally make math more entertaining. Afterward, they spoke to Sarah Schmidt.

Photo: Sarah Schmidt

Ninth grade, Banana Kelly High School, South Bronx
What have you learned here?
Nonverbal communication—for instance, walking toward the audience is different from backing away when a situation is escalating.
Do things escalate a lot?
I’d say I break up one a year. It’s more that their language often says, Oh, they’re going to fight—but sometimes it’s just their banter.
Are you funnier in class now?
Say I have chalk on my face, or my fly is down—that’ll make the students’ day. But this helps you be intentionally funny.

Ninth and twelfth grades, New Design High School, Lower East Side
Did you have any theatrical experience?
I was in a play in college and a couple of bands.
Does humor ever go awry?
Once I told them you couldn’t do a particular thing with a fraction because you’d get something ugly on top and something ugly on bottom. One kid goes, “Yeah, like Francisco on top?” And I said, “Yeah, and Edwin on bottom”—not realizing I’d made a sex reference. But everyone laughed, and I did not get fired, so it was all right.

Seventh grade, P.S. 50, East Harlem
Have these improv lessons helped you bring humor into the classroom?
Yes, but it’s a tragic mistake to try sarcasm with a class full of seventh-graders.
Why so?
Some just aren’t there yet. Earlier today I asked, “Does anyone have any questions about homework? Or the grade you’re getting?” On through a list, and I ended with, “Does anyone have any questions about the circus?” They were like, “Are we supposed to be taking notes about the circus? I don’t understand. Is this going to be on the test?”

Eighth grade, M.S. 322, Washington Heights
Anything you learned today you wish you’d already known?
My first year, the second or third week, this really hyperactive kid—there are lockers in the back of the room, and he decided to hop in one of them and bang on the door. I didn’t know what to do. What I’m learning now could have helped me turn the situation into a joke instead of reacting out of anger.
The kids probably thought it was funny.
But you want them to laugh with you, not at you.

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Funny Math