"It Is More Than Just Laughing": Middle School Students Protect Characters during Talk

Article excerpt

Abstract. The purpose of this qualitative case study was to explore how five middle school students examined humor and characterization used in adolescent literature according to Louise Rosenblatt's (1995) reader response transactional theory. The study was conducted with a focus group of five 6th-grade students, three girls and two boys, from a public middle school language arts classroom in the Southwest region of the United States. The guiding question for the study was: In what ways do selected middle school students talk about the connections between humor and characterization in response to adolescent literature? Methods for data collection included semistructured interviews and transcripts of audiotaped and videotaped literature circle discussions. The students read the adolescent literature both efferently and aesthetically (Rosenblatt, 1995) as they attended to humor, thus setting conditions for engaging the humor. To begin, if the situation in the text was the result of superiority humor, where the focus group members could predict the targeted character would be hurt, disappointed, or promote a negative change in the character's development, then they would not engage in the humor. Additionally, if the humor was closely related to the students' world of understanding, then the humor was embraced only after careful deliberation. Finally, if the characters presented themselves as resilient and unaffected by the humor, then the students were willing to laugh at the characters.

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Cross-legged, legs tucked under them, students find a comfortable position as they settle in to hear more of Jack's Black Book (1997), an adventurous and humorous story written by Jack Gantos. With each passing event in the story, laughter erupts as students predict upcoming dilemmas, pranks, and consequences. Students are eager to discuss the absurdity of Jack's actions and also comment on Gantos' effective use of language.

Humor plays an important role in the classroom depicted in the aforementioned vignette. Sadly, not all classroom teachers spend time attending to humor in literature and examining it for its literary value. E.B. White (1977) contends "the world likes humor, but it treats it patronizingly.... It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious" (p. 244).

As a researcher and teacher, I have observed how humor affords students an opportunity to make intertextual and experiential connections. I have watched as their discussions of humor have helped them understand new and varied perspectives of texts. I have recorded the excitement in their voices as they use humor to become more familiar with language and wordplay, leading them to deeper understandings of literary experiences. Lastly, I have listened to students express the enjoyment they experience by attending to humor in their reading. In this article, I share how selected middle school students talk about the connections between characterization and humor in response to adolescent literature.

Theoretical Framework

Is it the humorous glimpses at serious matters, the command of language, or parodies that draw adolescents to humorous literature? What, if anything, does this genre offer for young readers? Nilsen and Nilsen (1982) suggest humor in adolescent literature goes beyond "simple amusement." In fact, "Humorous literature forces teenagers to be active instead of passive readers. As they mentally stretch, they are training themselves to become experts in the subtle manipulation of an amazing set of symbols" (p. 64).

It is from this vantage point of supporting active readers using humorous literature as a vehicle that I present the theoretical framework in two main components: 1) the role of humor in literature and 2) reader response theories supporting the concept of learning through talk.

The Role of Humor in Literature

While laughter might be readily defined, humor remains more elusive and ambiguous, often context specific and individualized. …