The true definition of irony eludes many students, but by using examples to which they can relate or easily understand, an instructor can demystify this concept for them and impart lasting learning outcomes that will more effectively equip students for standardized testing.
Begin your lesson by asking your students if anyone knows the definition of “irony,” or perhaps if anyone can give an example of something “ironic.”
Here, students likely will respond with incorrect answers, most often basing their definitions of irony on lyrics within Alanis Morissette’s hit pop song, “Ironic.”
Activity: Play Alanis Morissette’s song, “Ironic.” Have your students jot down lyrics as the song plays.
When the song is finished, ask your students for examples from their notes. You might hear lyrical references to the song, such as:
“Is it like a black fly in your chardonnay?”
“Or like a death row pardon two minutes too late?”
“Like rain on your wedding day?”
After a few examples from their notes, reveal to them that although Ms. Morissette’s song is called “Ironic,” the lyrics contain little or no true irony. Emphasize that most of what Ms. Morissette sings about is merely a “bummer.” A “bummer” is not necessarily ironic.
Activity: Have your students write down the word “bummer” in their notes as an important vocabulary term. Note: English instructors in the United Kingdom or its territories should disregard this activity.
Reveal the appropriate definition of irony before proceeding. Here are two from different dictionaries. Choose the one most appropriate to your class materials.
Irony: “an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.” (Dictionary.com)
Irony: “(1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity” (Merriam-Webster.com)
Once equipped with a proper definition, gifted students might draw connections and point out that the actual irony of Ms. Morissette’s song is that there is nothing ironic within the lyrics. Consider awarding those students bonus points for being smarty two-shoes pantses.
At this point in the lesson, you should dramatically transition from Ms. Morissette’s song. Consider smashing her album with a ball peen hammer. This dramatic moment might inspire your students to cheer or clap. Remind them to stay seated for the rest of the lesson and not to get too rowdy.
From there, introduce the tragic death of action star Paul Walker as a better case study in irony.
Consider using media coverage of the day to supplement learning and provide multimodal examples. If you are working with less talented students, you might consider showing entire The Fast and The Furious film series and spending two weeks talking about cars that go vroom.
Establish the context of the lesson vis-à-vis Mr. Walker. Ask your students for examples of irony based on the events of Mr. Walker’s tragic death.
Your students might provide the following incorrect examples of irony:
a) That Mr. Walker died.
b) That Mr. Walker died in a car accident.
c) That Mr. Walker died in a car accident caused by excessive speed.
d) That Mr. Walker died in a car accident caused by excessive speed in a sports car.
Students may insist that these latter examples are, in fact, ironic, because Mr. Walker drove fast cars that go vroom in movies that go kaboom. Remind students that Mr. Walker built his career driving fast cars in movies, so we can expect Mr. Walker to drive fast cars or at least have an interest in them in his daily life.
Emphasize that irony is about unexpected outcomes. This disqualifies the above examples from serving as examples of irony. Point out the truly ironic circumstances below to help your students more clearly understand and retain a clear definition.
a) When a man named Walker dies in a car.
b) When a man named Walker, star of multiple action-packed driving movies, dies in the passenger seat of a car.
c) When a man named Walker, star of multiple action-packed driving movies with complicated stunts, dies in the passenger seat of a car that hits a tree.
d) When a man named Walker, star of multiple action-packed driving movies with complicated stunts and a complete lack of irony, effectively demonstrates multiple examples of irony by his tragic death.
e) When a man named Walker, star of multiple action-packed driving movies with complicated stunts and a complete lack of irony (but marketed to moviegoers who tend not to critically analyze movies, which is fine), effectively demonstrates multiple examples of irony by his tragic death and helps English teachers everywhere.
With each one, pause and reinforce to your students that expectation and the reversal of expectation are key to understanding irony.
Conclude strongly with a statement about how Mr. Walker’s death is tragic, but the tragedy leaves us with an important lesson — and not just on the merits of safe driving. We can learn much about irony from Mr. Walker’s death, and for that we can be most thankful.
Assignment: Have your students write a short theme paper relating the concept of irony to an instance in their lives. Remind them to use clear examples and specific details. Require them to write the two operative definitions of irony from this lesson at the top of their theme papers. Give these theme papers to your teacher’s aide for grading.
Fun Bonus: Announce a “pop quiz tomorrow.” Consider awarding bonus points to gifted students who catch this irony. Do not actually give a pop quiz on the day, thereby creating yet another teachable moment.
Next Lesson: “Literally”
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