Using Humor in the Classroom
By Michael Mannix
I used to teach 7th grade English, and one of the best parts was that anything I read, watched on TV—anything—could be an artifact for the classroom. Some of these artifacts seemed more obvious—like a New York Times op-ed on the function of the word “like.” Some were less so—like a Taco Bell commercial students adapted as a promotional video for Spirit Day. And then some I just missed totally. One of these was The Onion, and, when I realized it, I wanted to try to make up for it. The result was Teaching with The Onion, a Facebook blog for teachers of all subjects.
Right now, the site publishes about one lesson a week based on parodies from around the internet. The standards and subjects these lessons address are diverse: There’s a lesson on teaching research skills in ELA, Social Studies and Science using an article called “It’s Called ‘Columbusing,’ And It’s The Latest Teen Craze That Has Kids Sailing The Globe In Search Of Spice”; a lesson on teaching public speaking skills with an Onion parody of a TED Talk (shout out to PVLEGS!); and another one designed for students to critique and develop conversational norms in the classroom using an article called “College Encourages Lively Exchange of Idea.”
Parody websites like The Onion, Clickhole, Reductress, McSweeney’s and countless others churn out these articles on a daily basis, and the possibilities for classroom use are endless. I hope that, as the page grows, teachers will contribute their own lessons while also adding feedback to others’. I also plan to expand the page’s purpose, such as posting education-related parody texts with ideas for use in teacher professional development.
At the same time, I realize there is resistance to using parody in the classroom, and, more broadly, even humor. In talking to teachers and even scholars of humor in education, I’ve been reminded of the stigmas—and dangers—of using particular texts in the classroom, particularly those perceived as being separate from “the canon,” or those too closely associated with pop culture. For various, often problematic reasons, some texts are given secure positions within schools, while others face instant skepticism.
Humorous texts pose their own challenges. For one, they aren’t always morally acceptable. When it comes to humor more broadly, there’s humor that punches down, humor that reinforces harmful stereotypes, and humor that just doesn’t fit with the decorum of particular spaces. In general, there can be an ambiguity about the effects of humor on other people, which poses particular risks for schools.
There are other obstacles for teachers, too. Currently, the battle against “fake news” has led to a renewed focus on the importance of teaching the evaluation of sources—but not necessarily the glorification of parody news. Further, in the last half century, influential reports and standards in education, from A Nation at Risk to No Child Left Behind, have pressured educators to focus on practices that look “serious” and focus directly on a particular set of skills, often at the expense of instruction that seems to be more…joyful. Michael Smith, Deborah Appleman, and Jeff Wilhelm, for example, attribute the rise of “zombie close-reading” practices to the Common Core State Standards. This approach to reading has students focus on the text at the expense of personal response and background knowledge; it also tends to exclude instructional practices like choice reading, book talks, and literature circles.
Finally, there’s the majority of Western philosophy’s take on humor, which has not been so kind. Plato, for example, called laughter a vice, suggesting we should avoid it if possible. Aristotle agreed—he equated wit, famously, with “educated insolence.” The Stoics were, of course, on board with all of this; one was admired by his followers for never laughing at all. He claimed it helped with self-control.
I bring up these sources of resistance to humor to acknowledge them as real obstacles, but also to offer alternative perspectives. Humor, after all, is often considered non-serious, and yet it has serious effects: provoking diverging thought, relieving stress, communicating persuasive messages, developing open-mindedness, building solidarity, engaging an audience, and the list goes on.
There are concrete benefits for instruction, too. For one, reading and writing parody requires all kinds of knowledge—of genre, content, and literacy skills in general. As creative writing professor Bev Hogue points out: “The elements that make humor effective—pace, timing, economy of expression, vivid language—also make other kinds of writing effective, so exercising these elements provides skills transferable to other tasks.”
Finally, there are ethical considerations with humor, but these obstacles can be reframed as opportunities: How, for example, do we know what effect our writing will have on others? How do we know what’s offensive? And, as satirists ask all the time, what needs a little offending?
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, then, I would argue that—even in these times—there’s a positive role for fake news in the classroom, both as a genre that can produce positive effects, and as a process that can generate benefits for students and classrooms.
My conviction originated in the classroom, when my students proposed an April Fools edition of the school newspaper. I admit: at first, I was nervous. Although an avid reader of parody news (*ahem*…and The New Yorker), I had never taught it before. I was also aware of how news about other people in the school—fake news—might not be okay with those individuals or even with the school administration. We would have to be careful, serious, rigorous.
This influenced our approach to everything: topics, headlines, word choice, images, even fact-checking. During the entire process, we gave as much attention to entertaining our audience as we did to ethical considerations. We talked about the writing for weeks—in the hallway, over Google docs, in class, even at recess. And our conversations about humor were often serious: What was appropriate to publish? What writing would actually be funny? And what would the writing’s impact be on the school community: a real-world audience of students, peers, teachers, and families? On the day of publication, some of the newspaper’s toughest critics were converted into fans, and the writers felt proud of the work they had done.
As a doctoral student now, I’m motivated to know more about what was going on with this experience. Using some of the research I’ve done on humor studies, education more broadly, and the eighty-two Clickhole articles I see every time I check my Newsfeed, I’ve continued to think of ways to support teachers in using humorous texts to teach reading and writing. In addition to managing Teaching with The Onion, I recently put together a curriculum for creating parody newspapers with students. It contains resources for taking students through a range of experiences, including brainstorming, drafting, revising, conferencing, and publishing.
There’s a lesson on creating what Onion writers call a “Tough Room”—a sort of writing workshop where the main currency is laughter; a lesson on using elements of humor theory to guide the revision of sentences; a lesson on co-constructing ethical guidelines with students, with ideas generated through reading articles about school administrators’ reactions to practical jokes; and a lesson on brainstorming multimodal companions to articles.
My hope is that, when students participate in the lessons, they have the chance to draw on diverse knowledge and literacies, and transform the way they think about writing. I also hope that, when teachers use the guide, they have the opportunity to think about the challenges and opportunities of using humor in the classroom. To support that process, I have included classroom anecdotes and integrated scholarship on humor whenever appropriate. I invite you to continue the conversation by posting work, questions, and experiences—around anything related to teaching humor and literacy—on Teaching with The Onion.
Michael Mannix is a former middle school English teacher and current doctoral student in Reading/Writing/Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. He works with the Philadelphia Writing Project on a number of programs, including the Philly School Media Network, an initiative to support student journalism. In his research, he is interested in humor studies, ethics, and literacy education.