In one of her posts not so long ago, Hattie outlined a case for teaching a modern satire piece–a riff on the infamous A Modest Proposal. In her piece, she argues that there are three reasons the piece was worth examining in class alongside the original. I’d like to revisit two of those today as I consider the mentor texts for my own upcoming satire unit. Here’s what Hattie said about the text she selected:
- It’s current. It sharply targets recent calls to arm teachers. Even my least aware students know about the proposal to arm teachers.
- It’s accessible. It is short enough that my students will engage quickly. The list formatting appeals to readers with low stamina.
My English 11 class is a really challenging (I use that as a positive adjective here) collection of students whose reading and writing abilities range from a recently-mainstreamed ELL student to several students currently taking incredibly challenging writing courses like AP Seminar. In any given unit, I like to explore a variety of texts that stretch their reading comprehension skills while also giving them strong writing models to look to when they shift into author mode (or satirist mode, in this case).
Hattie’s two reasons for selecting a modern piece are fantastic guidelines for satire selection in particular, and at least for some of your course content, as mentor text selection guidelines in general.
The Context Gap
We don’t always have enormous windows of time in a given unit to help students get up to speed on the needed context to understand a text–in fact, if you’re dedicating the right amount of time to your writing workshop, then you might feel like I do. I don’t have much of ANY time to spend giving kids history and civics lessons to help fill gaps in their understanding!
Without such background, of course, students often struggle to pull genuine meaning from texts that to us seem highly readable. For example, ask the average junior to explain how a criminal trial works and I’ll bet good money the answer you get is closer to the plot of an Adam Sandler movie than actual reality. We shouldn’t blame them for this, but we also have to take it into consideration when selecting texts.
By selecting texts that invite students to access areas of deep and thorough prior knowledge, we can make them feel like experts AND help them to see why broadening their contextual pools of knowledge is inherently important (who doesn’t want to feel like they’re “in the know” as often as possible?).
For our opening satire example this year, my PLC is using a Saturday Night Live sketch from April of 2017. I know. Sounds a bit dated, eh? But here’s the thing : The kids understand multiple layers of context INSTANTLY. The sketch is a response to a Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner that was so tone deaf that everyone involved apologized for it and Pepsi removed it less than 24 hours after its release. The kids recognize in the original commercial the imagery of various marches–most notably Black Lives Matter and the subtle threat of police violence the ad claims an ice cold pop could prevent. They recognize the vapid nature of the celebrity presence AND they see faces and cultural images they recognize (and don’t necessarily approve of–as the SNL sketch addresses).
Consider how this piece meets Hattie’s second criterion, then. The target of the satire is clear to them because they understand the underlying content–while students are sometimes clumsy at understanding a satire’s targets explicitly, here they can apply all of their contextual knowledge to recognize immediately that this isn’t just a joke about Jenner or about greedy companies–it’s also about white privilege and appropriation. Whether they can put those names to those concepts is less important than that they can, in their own words, explain the satire’s criticism.
Sophisticated Writing from Simplified Models
Since harsh criticism of an intentional target is the core of satire…and since I absolutely turn my students into amateur satirists as the writing assignment for this unit…it makes the best sense to populate my unit with models like this one that draw on THEIR contextual pool and allow them to access the meaning of the piece via familiar structures and genres (we also look at a lot of Onion pieces, for example, which are easy for them to parse since we’ve just wrapped up a unit on Narrative Journalism).
These traits (familiarity and shared context) make the satire pieces I choose much more useful as writing mentors than if I handed them things like the original Modest Proposal or some of the sonnets that were often used to lob veiled criticisms at French aristocracy (I think I might have made that up, but it’s a satire unto itself that it sounds like it’s probably a real thing).
Kids are most likely to engage in mimicry and experimentation when they like or are impressed by the source material.
Of course, calling an Onion article or SNL sketch “simplified” isn’t really accurate–you could easily spend a couple class periods parsing all the gags in the sketch above (like the tone-deafness of the director who asks whoever is on the phone to find a neighbor who’s black–one more moment of privilege!). Rather, they are simple in the sense of fulfilling Hattie’s guidelines for accessible texts (I’d capitalize that whole phrase, but I’m afraid she’ll copyright it and start charging me).
The downfall of most young writers trying their hand at satire is that they default to things that are much too literal. We examine various tools of a satirist during the unit–with special focus on exaggeration, parody, and irony, but as the Twitter joke these days goes, “satire is dead” because sometimes it’s hard to exaggerate things that have already become baldly absurd.
As a result, kids struggle to see where to “go with the joke” and subsequently, the messaging. They tend to write scripts for sketches that are mostly just literal, or on-the-nose “exaggerations” of the behavior they hope to change. Satires about school dress code become extended sequences of hall monitors telling students their clothes are inappropriate, tardy policy satires portray, you guessed it, students getting lots of tardies.
In other words, the creative side of the endeavor gets lost on them because they zero in too literally and exclusively on the target. Mentor texts like the SNL sketch help remedy this–they see something that certainly puts to use elements of exaggeration and parody, but also engages with something else: Pure creative storytelling. The writers didn’t start with “okay so it has to be a parody of the ad.” They started with a question: “So what really went wrong here and who’s to blame?” Even the fact that the sketch doesn’t immediately blame Jenner and Pepsi is a flash of nuance kids can recognize and learn from as writers.
While we celebrate the cleverness of the satirical side of a work when examining it as a text, it’s the creative cleverness that I emphasize to them when we revisit some of our accessible mentor texts during Writers Workshop. It helps them to remember that a satirist is still a creative writer (and often a storyteller) first and foremost–the messaging is a product of that.
Students should face down some classical and more challenging texts that stretch them as well. My students love Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” even as we all admit that it’s a helluva text to try and make complete sense of (go read some expert takes–there’s more there than it initially lets on). And Animal Farm continues to make for a stellar closure to our unit and school year--it combines the intellectual cleverness of an important 20th century voice with incredibly high contextual knowledge from students, thanks to their World History classes.
Having examined and composed some satires that makes sense for the world they currently exist in as students and citizens, they’re more prepared for the challenge of stepping into a foreign world (of talking, intelligent animals–and Boxer) and unfamiliar time (the chaotic fall of Russia into the hands of Stalin). The unit finally comes full circle for most of my students at the end: Contextually familiar and accessible texts beget student created satires based on the mentors they discover which in turn prepare them to see Orwell’s classic through the eyes of a satirist and to make sense of all the nuance and subtlety of it by synthesizing their own growing context of history. It’s a beautiful thing, satire. Who knew teaching kids to be more cynical about the world could be so much fun?