Inspired by Irony

By Paul Wright

Are you a fan of irony? I don’t mean fake hipster irony like buying a “vintage” Cap’n Crunch t-shirt at Old Navy even though you weren’t allowed to and don’t eat sugar cereals now. I mean real, life-puts-it- in-front-of-you-and-begs-you-to-make-sense-of-it irony. For example, on Wednesday, May 22nd, the top headline of the Philadelphia Inquirer read: “A more perfect union to display Bill of Rights“.

The article describes the 10-year negotiation to get what might have been Pennsylvania’s original copy of the Bill of Rights back here from New York to display at the National Constitution Center. It’s a very compelling tale, and speaks to the power of the founding documents still today.
inspired by irony
Below the fold on that same front page is another article, Phila.voters yawn at primary election.

“One thing missing: The [sic] voters,” which described the paltry turnout in the city for the previous day’s primaries. We elevate our founding fathers, we argue today over a document which many of them would be surprised to see still in existence, we have a Supreme Court which interprets those documents on a daily basis, sometimes to cause systemic change on a grand scale, and yet it’s almost an expectation that primaries draw paltry numbers throughout the country.

THAT’S the sort of irony I’m talking about–the kind that has me holding onto this front page with plans of displaying it on the first day of my freshman Government and Economics course in September.

Quick aside: Irony can be really hard to define. O Henry did it beautifully in “The Gift of the Magi,” and it’s a common term in many an English class. I find (mostly because it’s a pet peeve of mine) that many people loosely apply the term, and frustratingly so. I often ask Carl, my teaching partner to check on whether something is or isn’t ironic, and for kids to see. Want a quick example for kids? This DHL commercial is beautiful, and 30 seconds long.

Life and history are full of these conundrums, these legitimate ironies, and in my experience I have found that kids eat them up. Double takes like this allow engagement at a core level—the “what’s up with this?” look that all teenagers brandish reflexively.

Here’s one I’ve been using for years as a midterm short answer question in Western Civ (which the new Gov class is replacing): ‘A substitute teacher replaces me for a day, and tell you that no matter how we’ve studied it, the Bubonic plague was a good thing for Europe. You may not believe him, but prove him right anyway.” Of course a disease that killed millions upon millions cannot be seen as a “good thing.”

When kids study the causes for the Renaissance, though, they realize that when resources go from too few to more than enough, and when doubt in the Catholic church drives people to begin to think for themselves, the results of an otherwise horrific era have moved history along. That information resides in the gray area in which real intellectual work takes place.

Essential questions are another way in which these gray areas can be plumbed. A favorite of my department’s for years has been: Who has power, and how do they keep it? This compelling question meets one of my rules of thumb for any good essential question: Can it be used in my class AND in the cafeteria? There again, kids raise their eyebrows at the cafeteria rule until I ask them: How many 9th graders sit by the windows in the cafeteria? to which they answer, “Uh, none, Wright, you know that.” Yes I do, but why? Is there anything posted in the café that says where you can and cannot sit? “No.” So why don’t you sit by the windows? “That’s where the seniors sit.” Oh, I see. Who says? “Well …”, pause, “no one … that’s just where they sit.” Oh, ok. How do they keep those seats? “Well …” Pause … shrug, then … smile, then … gotcha! That shrug is as good starting place as there is for any great lesson. Just like the ironic twist that really hooks kids.

It doesn’t take much to find these questions, and they don’t require adding more work to your already too full lesson plans. For many older kids, The Daily Show or The Colbert Report take the place of serious news, but while that may make some adults cringe, these same kids are remarkably well informed because of viewing those shows. But there too comes another opportunity for a teachable moment: what makes those shows ironic? What is the spin or attitude that turns straight delivery into irony? Think of your favorite joke. Chances are it’s the irony of the punchline that makes you laugh. Those things become second nature to us through experience. An experience, like, say, a teacher asking us a crazy question when we were a student.

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