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A Lesson in Grit and Humor

K-12 Education

A Lesson in Grit and Humor

Bob Mankoff says he submitted nearly 2,000 draft cartoons to The New Yorker magazine between 1974 and 1977 before his first one was finally published.

The experience gave Mankoff, who has been cartoon editor at The New Yorker since 1997, personal experience with the character skill now popularly known as “grit.” He shared thoughts on the power of grit — and another important character trait, humor — at Grit + Imagination: An Educator’s Summit, which was co-hosted by Character Lab, the Imagination Institute, and Relay Graduate School of Education. 

“One of my interests is what is going to be left for people to do 20 years from now?” he said. “Anything that can be done by an algorithm is going to be done by a computer. There will be a lot fewer jobs for what we now call white collar work, so you’d better start teaching children how to be creative.” 


“We’re often more creative after we laugh or we have fun.”


Mankoff predicted that today’s kids will be successful in the future if they can create — whether that means writing jokes or singing songs or painting pictures. Plus, he said, exposure to humor tends to improve students’ performance on standard cognitive measures. 

“It’s important — not to mock, but to be self-deprecating, to enjoy a laugh together, to understand that one of the things that humor does is it gives our minds a break,” he said. “We’re often more creative after we laugh or we have fun.”

To help kids succeed today — and to prepare them for a creative future — he said teachers should bring humor into their classrooms. They should also invite creative professionals to inspire students through improvisation sessions, sitcom writing, or even creating LOLcats or writing cartoon captions. 

“Let kids be funny,” he said. “Don’t shut them up.” 


Rhiannon Carabajal Killian, the senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep, was one of the nearly 200 educators from around the country who attended the summertime summit. 

With an ambitious goal of quadrupling the number of college-ready YES Prep graduates by 2020, Carabajal Killian and her colleagues are seeking science-backed approaches that will help the network of high-quality charter schools prepare students for success. 

“Grades or test scores will increase when students practice character skills that are rooted in science,” she explained. 

She said the summit sparked many ideas that she wants to put to use at YES Prep’s 16 public charter schools in Texas. For example, she said Mankoff’s session taught her that “humor is thinking on hyper-drive.” That is, comedy might seem like fun, but it actually requires high-level thinking that can prepare kids for college and help them to become more engaged and passionate in their studies. 

She also appreciated Mankoff’s take on grit. 

“He said most of the stuff that we do is crap. So, redo it. Don’t personalize it, just redo it,” she said. “That’s continuous learning — something that’s important for us to continue to message to students.” 

Videos and more from the event will be available over the coming months on the Character Lab and Relay websites.

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