Satire can be delightful for students with a sense of humor. It engages their creativity and holds their attention like few other genres. But for those who have had little exposure to it, it can be bewildering or offensive. When teaching satire, the key elements and purpose of satire should be identified and explained. Watching contemporary satire allows students to connect satire with current issues they are familiar with. Reading satire will make students more careful, informed readers. Finally, writing their own satires will be a fun way for students to demonstrate what they have learned.
Explain the Hallmarks of Satire
Begin by defining what satire is and is not. By introducing students to a handful of characteristics that distinguish satire, they can analyze how these characteristics work together to create a specific effect. Remind students that satire is a form of argument couched in ironic humor. Satirists write in order to reveal the absurdity, illogic, or inhumanity in society, hoping that these ills will be corrected. Therefore, satire should attempt to be constructive by posing a solution. Advise students to identify the subject of the satire (who needs to change?) and the solution the writer is posing (how should the subject change?).
Watch Contemporary Satire
Often watching satire is a great way to understand how this form of writing functions. When students experience tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language in conjunction with words, they have more clues to help them understand what they are experiencing. Contemporary satirists like Seth McFarlane (of Family Guy), Dave Chappelle or Steven Colbert address aspects of modern life that students are already familiar with. Since students are already familiar with the issues these satirists address, it is easier for them to see how satire presents issues in a humorous way, pointing out the illogic around us. Care should be taken, however, in choosing examples, as many satirists use language that could be offensive to a younger audience.
Read Satire as a Class
Studying written satire will increase students’ reading comprehension, as well as their attention to tone, voice and irony. Parodies of fairy tales and retellings of classic stories are accessible examples for middle or high school students, while older, more well-read students enjoy examples such as articles from The Onion or the work of Terry Pratchett or Douglass Adams. Older students will also benefit from reading literary masters such as Horace, Juvenal, Jonathan Swift or Voltaire. Such writers forged the rules of satire, creating writing that retains its wit and power despite its age.
Write a Satire
Allow students to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter by writing their own satire. Remind them of the defining characteristics of satire, that they will need a target for their satire (who needs to change?), and that their satire must have a goal (how should the subject change?). Reluctant writers will benefit from simple models and clear grading criteria, while more confident writers will enjoy choosing their own topics and reading their work to their classmates.
- Bryan Santin What is satire? [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Slideshare
- The Norton Introduction to Literature, 10th Edition; Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays.
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