Living in Our Satirical World: Anatomy of Satire

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SWBAT analyze an example of satire and identity the satirical techniques.

Big Idea

We live in a satirical world.

Teacher to Teacher: Time Frame and Lesson Overview

Today's lesson is the first in the unit on Satire and The Canterbury Tales. When teaching a classical work of literature that is satirical, I find students understand it better when I first introduce them to satire in a contemporary sense. We will spend three class periods working on this introduction to satire before moving on to the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales

Today I introduce students to satire with the following:

  • A satirical letter we discuss and analyze.
  • An overview of the major techniques of the satirist. 
  • An analysis of a satirical cartoon. 


Making Satire Relevant with a Satirical Letter to Seniors

15 minutes

When students arrive, I tell them I will be sharing information about changes in graduation with them. I also explain that I'm just the messenger and that I will give them time to respond to the letter and will help them craft a response. 

Next I hand out the letter and tell students to read it as I take roll. Graduation Letter.

To make the letter appear legitimate, I have copied it onto the school's letterhead. 

As I call the roll, I can sense the tension in one class and hear it in my other class. One student proclaims: "I'm not going." 

I hear another student proclaim: "Seniors pay for the All-Night Party with parking tickets. I know because I have 40." 

After taking attendance, I let the kids vent. Their responses are insightful and intelligent:

"If the priority is relationships, this contradicts that goal."

"It's unprofessional and insulting to say we're not smarter than fifth graders." 

"We're not suppose to know this, but our SATs are higher than Century's."

"I'm fair-minded and can handle not having the ceremony at Holt if it's too expensive, but why does Century still get to use it?"

Having only two speakers makes it "shorter and less painful." 

In their reactions, it's the absence of equity, the lack of fairness inherent in the letter that most bothered students. Next, they were upset that the letter seemingly limited the number of people who could attend their celebration. 

I don't let kids stew about the letter too long. The idea is to introduce them to satire, not to cause them pain! So I tell them early in the period that the letter is fake. One student had already asked, "Is this real?" 

This gives us a nice segue into the next part of the lesson, discussing how we know the letter is fake. 

How Do You Know It's Fake?: Analyzing the Letter

15 minutes

To facilitate their analysis of the letter, I give students a handout: Graduation Memo Worksheet.

I ask the students to turn and talk to one another about the letter and to spend a few minutes filling in the Graduation Memo: How do you know it is fake? portion of the handout. Analysis of Graduation Letter

Next, we talk about their responses:

Students mention the line "students top priority" and say they question this since the letter emphasizes the importance of national rankings and recognition. Student Graphic Organizer Showing Response to Graduation Letter

Another student mentions the line "voted and approved" for HHS and PHS but not CHS. The students know this is fake because they didn't have an opportunity to give input into the policy proposal. This led to a discussion about open meeting laws and the district's legal responsibility to advertise board meetings. Graduation Letter Graphic Organizer Student Work

Another student referenced the "we encourage you to ask" portion of the letter but noting how hard it is at times to get access to information. 

Still another student mentioned the "district can't afford the charges" and other claims about fees. The students know they pay a graduation fee at the beginning of the year and that their parents sponsor and pay for the All-Night Party.

That the students have so much knowledge about what goes into the graduation ceremony and the party empowered them to recognize the satirical nature of the letter, and I was able to tell them that knowing the issues is imperative to understanding satire. 

Importantly, the students ultimately realized that the letter satirizes the emphasis on national rankings in publications such as U.S. News and World Report and the absurdity of "reality" television shows such as "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"We were able to discuss the ways schools are evaluated based on data alone rather than on other criteria. 

From Geoffrey Chaucer to Jon Stewart: Understanding the Anatomy of Satire

15 minutes

To understand satire, students need to know the tools satirists use. Rather than attempting to master them all, I focus on the most important and most common ones. Satire, Age of Satire and Anatomy of Satire has a section titled "Anatomy of Satire" that gives the definitions of

  • exaggeration and hyperbole
  • understatement
  • incongruity
  • reversal
  • parody
  • irony

A brief overview of the terms will suffice, except for irony. This is because it's often misinterpreted. Thus, teachers need to help students understand that irony involves multiple layers of information and knowledge and that chance or fate play no role in irony. That is, irony has intent, and without intent, a situation most likely is reduced to fate/chance. Thus, while reading through the handout, I pause and discuss the terms with students. 

I remind students to take notes during discussion, which is something they don't like to do. 

As I move through this part of the handout with students, I ask them questions about the letter: What does the letter exaggerate? What in the letter is ironic? What incongruities can you find in the letter? These are the major techniques I employ in the fake graduation letter. 

Deconstructing a Satirical Cartoon

15 minutes

Although students have the No Child Left Behind cartoon on the handout. Satire, Age of Satire and Anatomy of Satire. Their version is not in color. Thus, I project the cartoon onto the screen so that students can see the color contrasts and the images more clearly. No Child Left Behind Cartoon. Also, this allows me to point to various parts of the cartoon as students discuss it. 

Even though the handout tells students to construct their analysis of the cartoon on a separate piece of paper, I tell them it's okay for them to write it to the right of the cartoon. This makes referencing the cartoon while writing easier. Student Analysis of the NCLB Cartoon

Students note the blinders kids in the cartoon are wearing. 

They mention the "black and white" classroom as a contrast to the colorful outdoor scene. 

Another student says the funnels look like kids are being "brain-washed." 

When I ask what the cartoon is critiquing, some of the students struggle but ultimately conclude that it targets "No Child Left Behind." I ask them to expand the target a little since we are now in the Race to the Top era of public education. Finally, they realize that the classroom culture that emphasizes standardized tests over the arts is what the cartoonist criticizes.

I ask students what reform the cartoonist wants to see. Again, it takes a few tries before they say, "Stop focusing on standardized testing and test preparation." 

Sadly, some students have become so immersed in the testing culture that they say, "I like listening only to lectures and taking a test after." Many have come to view education as what is poured into their minds rather than what they learn to think critically about via their studies.