When the teacher is the class clown

By

Meghan Krein

Jeff Hall (MEd '10) says education has to change because the way kids are learning is changing. “This is not a popular thing to say, but there are a lot of educators who were great 10 years ago, but have a hard time connecting with kids today.” Hall is referencing technology. “Technology is second nature to kids,” he says. “Teachers were taught a certain way to teach and have been doing it that way, but now kids can go to YouTube and find a video of what was being taught in 45 minutes and learn it in three minutes. We have to reimagine the profession.”

Hall’s way of reimagining education? Stand-up comedy. Hall has a stand-up comedy show entitled, The Class Clown: Musings of a Teacher, which he performed at the Tempe Improv in Tempe, Arizona. Six of Hall’s students were his opening act — we’ll get to that part later.

Jeff Hall

Jeff Hall (MEd '10)

Hall first graduated from ASU with a degree in film studies back in 2003. “I wanted to be a filmmaker, but it wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. Hall and his wife wanted to have kids, “In order for that to happen I needed to get a real job, and a film studies degree doesn’t get you in the door to many jobs,” he says. An education degree was the next obvious choice, Hall says, before explaining, “I was an average student and the class clown, but had one teacher who honed in on my writing ability and validated my talent.”

Not one to shy away from self-deprecation, Hall says that when he first began teaching, “I had no idea what I was doing.” Hall’s first job was teaching eighth grade English, eventually landing at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona, a Title I school. A few years later, Hall began teaching creative writing.

“Naturally, I taught what I knew: comedy and music.” He introduced his students to comedic literature and showed them clips of stand-up comedy. “That first year, the kids just didn’t get it,” Hall says, adding, “I wouldn’t call it a rousing success. I had to struggle, but I did learn how to connect with kids.” Which some may say is a success in and of itself.

Connecting through storytelling

Hall began connecting with this students by opening up to them and telling stories about his life. Seeing and hearing that Hall was a real person created an environment that encouraged them to be more engaged. “I needed to get them to relate to me,” Hall says, “And the best way I found to do that was to talk to them and get to know their story.” This process was hastened by Hall opening up first.

While building a rapport with his students, Hall learned, “how to be sensitive to the kids who fell through the cracks, how to manage the overachievers.” Hall says he taught students who were homeless, hungry and neglected. “No wonder they weren’t learning — their basic needs weren’t being met.”

In his creative writing class, Hall said his students had trouble finding something to write about. “They never had a creative writing class before, nor had they been exposed to much literature or life experience.” Hall says, “They kept turning in the same kind of poem about drugs and every story was about falling in love and getting a broken heart.” Hall knew it was time to shake things up.

He went to the school’s principal and asked to implement a humanities class. His wish was granted and together, the kids and Hall studied storytelling. They learned how to tell their own stories and last year the class wrote a full feature-length film, sent it to the school’s production department and this year the students are in the editing process. Hall does see the irony. “I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker and the only film I’ve produced and been involved with has been the one with my students.”

What is stand-up teaching kids?

Still wanting to continue his intraprenuerial teaching methods, but yearning to try something on a smaller scope, Hall settled on stand-up comedy. He converted his classroom into a comedy club and coffee house atmosphere, equipped with a stage, lights and brick wall. He also wrote a one-hour special and performed it for his students and principal. “The cool thing is that several of my students have become my writers. They critique me and give me jokes. We are a team.” Hall says that he learned comedy alongside his students, “It’s the best way to teach. When they get frustrated, I’m like, I get it. We understand each other.” Ultimately, his students opened his show for him. “Their parents are supportive, the content is PG-13 and I talk about the realities of the classroom and issues that we are having in education right now.”

Stand-up teaches kids “a lot,” Hall says. And then he offers two explanations: “Stand-up teaches them they have a voice they need to develop in order to learn who they are and hone the skills to present it in a way people can understand. Secondly, it teaches them to be open to new ideas and not be judgmental.”  

Hall tells the story of a student he taught who was living in a group home. “His parents kicked him out and he’d been there for a year. It was Christmas time and he got up and shared his story. It was heart-wrenching, yet he did it in a way that made everyone laugh. He didn’t make himself the victim.” Hall says the next day an international student from Vietnam brought the student a gift, while two other classmates invited him to their homes for dinner. “That’s humanity,” Hall says. “The kids saw someone in need and offered comfort. I did my job.”

Watch a snippet of Hall’s stand-up comedy show at the Tempe Improv:

If you already have a bachelor's degree and are interested in teaching middle or high school students, find out how you can make that possible here.