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So this lawyer walks into a classroom ...
Program aims to keep school jokes from going nasty
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Anyone who's ever attended elementary school knows that children love to tell jokes. Knock-knock jokes, in particular, are a favorite among the 11-and-under crowd, along with those that make a silly play on words.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Kindergartner Cody Hunter raises his arms to answer a question yesterday during the Allegheny County Bar Association's program, "This is a Joke -- Making Fun of Others is Not," at Homeville Elementary School in West Mifflin. At left is Caitlyn Cherry.
Click photo for larger image.

To learn more
For more information about the program, call 412-402-6620 or visit www.acba.org and search under "For the Kids."

Q: Why did SpongeBob put a clock on the stove? A: He wanted to see time fry.

At a certain age, though, innocent joke-telling has a way of developing into making fun of others. A funny haircut, a few extra pounds on the belly, an unusual accent or unfamiliar religious beliefs -- it's all fodder for the grade-school joke machine.

Yet teach them early, in an entertaining way, the difference between funny jokes and painful teasing, and you might help prevent some bad childhood memories.

That's the idea behind a new educational initiative being offered by the Allegheny County Bar Association to students in grades K-5. The program, called "This is a Joke -- Making Fun of Others is Not," aims to teach kids the difference between a "good" joke and a "bad" joke.

Presented in an interactive format by volunteer attorneys, the hour-long program -- which encourages students to offer up their own jokes for discussion -- relies on humor and personal experience and to drive the point home.

That lawyers would be the first to come up with such a program makes sense, they say. Thanks to enduring negative stereotypes, lawyers are the probably the butt of more jokes than any other profession. Countless books and Web sites, in fact, are devoted to the subject.

Q: What do you call 1,000 attorneys on the bottom of the ocean? A: A good start.

"So who better to talk about jokes than attorneys?" asked Tom Luftus, the bar association's director of media relations.

And often, because of their jobs, lawyers sometimes see first-hand how an innocent joke can escalate into something serious, said Luftus.

"We thought we could make a difference by sharing our stories."

Educators and parents agreed.

"With all the bullying going on, it seemed like a good thing to try to teach kids," said Homeville Elementary School PTA Vice President Lori Dzuka, who heard about the free program at Kidapalooza earlier this year. "It seemed like fun."

At Homeville Elementary in West Mifflin last week, Luftus began the session by handing 6-year-old Matthew Cubakovic a pair of scissors and asking the kindergartner to help him cut off the bottom of his tie "so I don't look so serious."

"This was a $60 tie," he told the 300 or so kindergartners through second-graders who had assembled in the auditorium, as Matthew giggled and snipped away at the gold material. "Do you know how much it's worth now?"

Holding up the shorn piece of material a few minutes later, he quipped: "$30," and the crowd dissolved in giggles.

The program took on a more serious tone, though, when Luftus immediately launched into a story about a "bad" joke. When he was a kid, he said, he and his friends used to make fun of a boy who was walked to school every day by his mother, even though he was old enough to walk by himself.

"Then guess what?" he told the youngsters. "In high school, I found out his brother had been killed in the Vietnam War. So that's why his mom walked him" -- so he wouldn't get hurt, too.

The Homeville students agreed the teasing undoubtedly made the boy feel bad. Luftus confessed: "Even though I'm grown up now, I still feel sad and bad because I joined in. Learn from me.

"You'll remember how they feel years from now," he said, before turning the program over to Jane Charlton, special counsel with Thomson, Rhodes & Cowie P.C., who lead a discussion on what made jokes funny.

The lawyers' group originally considered limiting the program to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Psychology professors at Duquesne University, however, who reviewed the lesson plans, said younger kids would also benefit from the sessions. So organizers expanded it to include kindergarten through second grade.

While Homeville presented the program several classes at one time, it usually is presented to groups of 20 to 30 kids to allow for more interaction.

Though the program, which kicked off last month at Ss. Simon & Jude School in Scott, is still in the pilot stage, word of mouth has led to programs at five schools in the last couple of weeks. And at least eight more school districts plan to offer it by the end of the year, including Edgeworth Elementary in Woodland Hills on Friday and J.H. Brooks and Hyde elementary schools in Moon in early May.

"We're more than ready to roll it out to whatever school wants it," said Loftus.

By September, he added, the association hopes to have enough volunteers in place to accommodate all requests it receives throughout the area, including city schools. Loftus said they are also soliciting celebrities and sports figures for their favorite jokes to use in the lesson plan.

"Kids love to tell jokes," he says, "which makes it fun and easier to pass on the message."

First published on April 20, 2004 at 12:00 am
Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.
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