How to teach students if humor is thought provoking or hurtful

One of the things I value the most about being a teacher is laughing with my Chicago Public Schools students.  Throughout the years, I’ve laughed at some pretty ridiculous things.  Like the time, not too long ago during a lunch period, when I ended up in the middle of a pull-up challenge with a bunch of 17 year old fellas who thought I couldn’t even do one.

“Hold my watch!” I said and slipped off my wedding ring. Yup.  I jumped up and grabbed the high door frame while the smack talking continued—I was guilty of it, too.

“Shorty can jump!” one of the smack takers yelled.

I pulled myself up one . . . two . . . three—five times.  I dropped and felt a pain in my right rib.  But I showed no pain!

“Let’s see whatchoo got!” I snapped at the guys.

The tallest, skinniest kid—the biggest smack talker—took on the challenge.  He didn’t have to jump up to grab the door frame.  He tried to pull himself up.  His long, skinny arms began to tremble.  All of us stared in silence watching the smack talker try to do a pull up and, they hoped, do more than me.

His lanky limbs began to shiver from the strain and, as he pulled himself off the floor a few inches, out of nowhere, in the silent anticipation to see if he’d do more than five pull ups,  he let out the strangest moan—a high-pitched peculiar combination of vowels, an odd noise of lamenting and strain, a noise no one expects a teenage guy to make.

The mob of fellas watching him—including me—exploded with cackles and hoots and hollers.  I almost hit the floor with laughter.

Minutes after we finally calmed down, caught our breath, and stopped mocking the noise that came out of the biggest smack talker, he came up to me and seriously said, “We will never speak of that again.”

I look at his serious face.  I could see the embarrassment in poor guy’s  expression.  I thought for a moment. Then I blurted, “Yes we will!”  And we all erupted in cackles again, mimicking the weird noise he made.

Maybe that humor was hurtful.  But in the context of this group of fellas that used to hang out in my empty classroom during their lunch period and mine, it became a bonding moment.  Despite the smack talking that regularly happened, we maintained the humor within that room during that period.  We never mentioned it outside of our lunch-hour context.

That’s the hard part of teaching humor to students.  As they develop their social skills, I want them to understand that the impact of humor changes depending on the context.  Not everything can be joked around with everyone.

When students say, “Hey, Salazar, look at this funny video,” I always ask if it’s hurtful.  “If it’s making fun of someone, I don’t want to see it.”

“But it’s funny,” they’ll say.

“Is it hurtful?” I question.

Usually, they drop the conversation there.

Today, so many people take pride in being sarcastic, but I teach my students sarcasm is the ugly humor we want to avoid.  Sarcasm is the humor that hurts people.

Satire, on the other hand, educates; it makes people think.  THIS is the humor we want to develop and encourage.  In “The Method and Purpose of Satire,” the author writes, “The purpose of satire is the correction or deterrence of vice, and its method is to attack hypocrisy through the ironic contrast between values and actions.”

I introduce our study of satire by looking at current comics from La Cucaracha and The Weeks weekly collection.

Students follow a simple process that’s proven to guide them to deep insights about the subtext buried in the satire, not in the sarcasm.  I’m thoughtful about the comics we examine.

First, they start with observation.  Students list what they see.

Second, they identify the apparent conflict using this structure: _____ wants ______ but _____ so ______

Third, students start thinking more deeply when they begin to identify the illogical thinking demonstrated in the comic.  To help them, we reviewed fallacies a few lessons prior to this.

Finally, students reveal the subtext buried in the comic by thinking about one of these questions:

  • Who or what is the satirist criticizing?
  • What is the status quo the satirist wants to change?
  • What message is the satirist communicating to the audience?

To articulate this, students use a structure for effective thesis statements I developed years ago so students do not write a rudimentary argument with reason one, reason two, and reason three.

Initially, one of the comics students struggled with was this one.

Many students focused on the literal interpretation and thought the comic was a criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency.

After I bluntly told them, “No, you’re wrong,” I guided them by saying, “The criticism in a comic is usually the opposite of what it appears to be.”

The light bulbs went on.  One student articulated the subtext like this:

To challenge them after a few of these exercises, I gave them three comics and asked them to analyze all three using the structure outlined above.

Then, they had to select the one comic that they think would be the most thought provoking to our community.  Here’s one response:

The big lesson here is this: if the subtext is hurtful or demeaning, we must judge the humor as sarcasm.

If the subtext challenges people to think and change the status quo, it’s satire—this is what we want to use and encourage in the world.

I realize that my pull-up challenge with the fellas was a classic example of toxic masculinity.  And while there was some poetic justice in the fact that the biggest smack talker got humbled, I try to be more thoughtful about the humor I engage in (especially after I hurt my rib).

Those rowdy fellas graduated and my empty room is much quieter during my lunch period.  But if they ever stop by to say hello, I’m sure one of us will bring up the pull-up challenge and we’ll bust out laughing at someone’s expense.

And if those 19 year olds challenge me again, I’ll probably get hooked into the toxic masculinity—and they better be ready—‘cuz this 43 year old is up to ten pull ups now without any pain! Whatchoo got, Fellas?!  Whatchoo got?

(I know. But it was hilarious last time.)

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