The use of sarcasm in urban high school classes can be met with laughter or confusion among a diverse classroom of students. In either case, if used meaningfully and purposefully, teachers can build a trusting community for learning through sarcasm and humorous banter in the classroom.
New research appearing in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy sheds light on the use of sarcasm in building and sustaining positive rapport with students, including English as a new language students. The findings could provide educators with new ideas on how sarcasm can be used meaningfully to develop critical language understanding and positive relationships between teachers and students in high-poverty urban settings such as Rochester.
The co-authors of “Sarcasm as Pedagogy of Love: Exploring Ironic Speech Acts in an Urban High School English Classroom” found “sarcasm, as an ironic speech act, promotes critical language awareness and thinking instead of conditioned response, which is common in high schools.”
The study was led by Joanne Larson, a professor and researcher from the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, with English teacher Timothy Morris and English for speakers of other languages teacher Kristen Shaw from East Upper and Lower Schools in Rochester participating as research participants and co-authors.
The Rochester team sought to understand how the use of sarcasm in an urban high school English classroom fosters critical language awareness and positive relationships among a group of diverse students. Data were pulled from an ongoing study involving an ethnography of East, a school that’s been transformed through an educational partnership organization developed by the Rochester City School District and UR.
East, once a persistently failing school, faced closure in 2014 by the state Education Department due to years of poor academic performance. The study involved observation field notes, formal and informal interviews, and documents and photographs collected during the first year and a half of the EPO partnership.
The research shows how the co-teachers used sarcasm to construct a sense of belonging that supports building positive relationships and creating a more comfortable environment for student learning. The team found the use of sarcasm can promote positive relationships and teachable language moments with students, especially ENLs with the assistance of an ESOL co-teacher. For example, the ESOL teacher could further explain the multiple meanings and uses of various words or phrases used by another teacher’s sarcastic one-liner, such as “I’m so down in the hood, I’m in the sleeve.” This finding suggests these teachable moments are best supported by and successful with a push-in co-teaching approach, in which students see both teachers as equal partners and of equal value in the classroom.
The team also found that a purposeful and reflective use of sarcasm and humor can support students’ understanding and learning of a complex language, in addition to broadening ENL students’ vocabulary. The research suggests the use of sarcasm to construct a sense of belonging and build a positive relationship can, in turn, serve to lower the affective filters — an emotional response that can lock down the mental processes of learning a new language — among English language learners.
“We are not suggesting that all teachers should start being sarcastic in their classrooms,” the co-authors wrote. “We are suggesting that a purposeful and reflective use of sarcasm and humor can support learning complex language.”
The research is part of a larger effort of the Center for Urban Education Success at the Warner School to research and work to identify, address and improve systems, practices and culture at East. The center will continue to leverage the knowledge gained at East to impact K-12 urban education regionally, nationally and globally.