In-joke: an esoteric joke that is humorous only to those who are aware of the circumstances behind it; cryptic allusions to shared common ground that act as triggers; only those who have shared the common ground provide an appropriate response. (source: Wikipedia)


In-jokes (aka inside jokes) are an incredibly powerful way of bringing us closer to our students, and our students closer to each other. But here’s the catch: they result from authentic communication with students. We cannot plan or predict what they will be.

To be sure, in-jokes can also work to divide. This happens if one or more individuals doesn’t feel included or doesn’t get why others are laughing. We shouldn’t let that happen if we can help it. We can’t feel proud of perpetuating a joke that is aimed at any student or group. But if the humor is experienced positively by all, either because they were present for its inception or because they identify enough with the group, well, that’s about as good as it gets for community building and dopamine boosting.

As I think back on classes I’ve had in past years, I can usually remember what consistently made us laugh together. We get tens, even hundreds, of repetitions of any given in-joke over the course of a year. They’re like little smile jukeboxes. Someone inserts the word or phrase into the dialogue, and everybody cracks a smile and regains a positive common focus. It’s almost Pavlovian.

An example that comes to mind in one class this year is Kimmy. Or Meow Mix. Either one of these will conjure up the same pleasant memory for all. Smiles and giggles will follow. Kimmy is the name of a student’s cat. And Meow Mix is what Kimmy eats. (Meow Mix, by the way, being the first accepted story detail of the school year for this class, making it all the more special.)

Because it was the first story of the year, we were all in that honeymoon period during which I could tell the lamest story ever and they’d appreciate it; they’d smile and maybe even laugh. It’s all so novel at this time. These early moments together are when a good number of in-jokes are born in my classes.

Back to Kimmy and Meow Mix. So this student played along well. It was all the better because he was a football player, with a pet cat named Kimmy. He told us more about this cat as I asked questions. He shared that she’s skinny, and that she lives outside. It turns out that she’s skinny because, well, this boy eats all of her cat food! (Ohhhhhh! wink wink) The name of the cat food? Yes, Meow Mix.

(And you bet I had to wait for that one, while I patiently considered a few less-than-exciting suggestions like ‘Kibbles and Bits’. They didn’t know how to play the game yet. I waited for what seemed an eternity, me starting to get a bit nervous, them confused yet curious no doubt… Would they figure out what I was asking them to do?! … when finally a student in the corner chimes in quietly with “Meow Mix”, and that was that.)

Now, anytime I am looking for a conversation topic or a smile from the class, I can turn to this student and ask him a question or two about his cat Kimmy. Or maybe a character in our story wants to eat some… Meow Mix? It’s the simplest of things. Nobody else would find this cat’s name, or her silly made-up cat food, perpetually humorous. But for us, our shared appreciation of this cat’s existence and her story is, I dare say, the cat’s meow. It never fails to amuse.

Other examples of in-jokes range from unique (approved!) nicknames donned on students (Willy becomes “Veely” as I pronounce it in a non-sensical effort at a Scandinavian accent), silly characters we’ve dreamed up together, all the way to how we pronounce or react to a given word (think exaggerated throaty pronunciation of “reloj”).

It’s as if the class graciously gifts me a big nugget of gold early on, and several more throughout the year if I pan in the right places and work hard to keep their trust. For the rest of the year, students and I can chip off flakes from these nuggets to add a little sparkle to the room. They bring us closer together.

Jim Tripp has been teaching Spanish in Spring Grove, MN for the last 8 years and is excited to start working in his home state of Iowa at MFL MarMac Public School this coming school year. He writes story scripts that he hopes will translate into greater joy and engagement in the classroom for both the teacher and student. You can find Jim’s stories, opinions, and reflections at

Author’s note:

Originally I gave an example of an “in-joke” that was created during class. It came as a lighthearted suggestion for a story detail from a student. Thanks to feedback from my colleagues, I understand that the made-up swear word “Wing ding ling!” can be taken as culturally insensitive and potentially inappropriate in certain contexts. I asked that it be removed because it is not a positive example of what I was trying to communicate in the post… namely, that spontaneous ideas that spark smiles and laughter in our students can be brought up again and again as tokens of humor and goodwill among the members of the classroom community.

-Jim Tripp

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