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Study lays out benefits of using sarcasm in urban high school classrooms

Study lays out benefits of using sarcasm in high school classrooms
Sarcasm could support learning and rapport among students and teachers, researchers find

 The use of sarcasm in urban high school classes can be met with laughter or with confusion among a diverse classroom of students. But, 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, which appears in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, sheds light on the use of sarcasm in building and sustaining positive rapport with students, including English as a New Language (ENL) 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, N.Y.

“Sarcasm, as an ironic speech act, promotes critical language awareness and thinking instead of conditioned response, which is common in high schools,” the coauthors of the article, titled “Sarcasm as Pedagogy of Love: Exploring Ironic Speech Acts in an Urban High School English Classroom,” found.

The study was led by a professor and researcher from the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, Joanne Larson, and two co-teachers—Timothy Morris, an English teacher, and Kristen Shaw '10W (MS), an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher—from East Upper & Lower Schools (Rochester, N.Y.) who participated as research participants and coauthors.

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. The data were pulled from an ongoing study that involves an ethnography of East, a Rochester school that’s been transformed through a unique partnership—called an educational partnership organization (EPO)—developed by the Rochester City School District and the University of Rochester. East, once a persistently failing school, faced being closed in 2014, prior to the EPO, by the New York 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 that the use of sarcasm can promote positive relationships and teachable language moments with students, especially ENLs, with 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 that these teachable moments are best supported by and successful with a push-in coteaching 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 also suggests that the use of sarcasm to construct a sense of belonging and to 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 coauthors 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 being undertaken by the Center for Urban Education Success (CUES) 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. Learn more about CUES. Learn more about the UR-East EPO partnership.