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When sarcasm in the classroom builds bridges

Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

If delivered in the right way, sarcasm has a constructive purpose in the classroom, according to a recent study from the University of Rochester.

Joanne Larson, a professor and researcher at the Warner School of Education, noticed while observing an English class at East High that teacher Timothy Morris used sarcasm to build positive relationships with his students.

"He has these one-liners that he says all the time,” Larson said. “When students are talking when he's trying to give instruction or something, he'll say, 'I hope you enjoy summer school.' "

“One teacher could say that in a mean way,” Larson explained, “but that wasn’t what he meant, and the students knew that.” 

That’s what intrigued the researcher to look further.

Morris’ co-teacher, Kristen Shaw, was even able to translate the subtleties of the sarcastic lines to her non-native English-speaking students so they understood the joke.

Larson said sarcasm has another role in school. It can be used to teach students language awareness and critical thinking.

"If they're reading a novel, or play, or a newspaper article, to go beyond the words to what else might be going on,” she said. “I thought that was important, given our political context today."

The key to making sarcasm work, Larson said, is for the teacher to understand the culture and language practices of their students and to never use sarcasm to shame or humiliate.

It’s also clear from Larson’s study that Morris spends time at the beginning of the school year building a rapport with students and helping them get to know him. She noted that on the first day, students learned that their teacher is married, has four children, and he has spent time teaching in nonsecure juvenile detention and jail.  He is also a Gemini and likes long walks on the beach.

The research article, titled Sarcasm as Pedagogy of Love: Exploring Ironic Speech Acts in an Urban High School English Classroom, was published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.