English Language Arts, Composition and Rhetoric
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Grade 12 ELA
  • Juvenal
  • Satire
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    Defining Satire

    Defining Satire


    In this lesson, students will define satire and look at examples of it in modern media. What makes it satire? Did students know that it was criticizing society when they saw it? What makes people like satire so much?

    What Is Satire?

    • Give students about 3 minutes to compose a written definition of what they understand satire to be in a single sentence. The intent here is to allow the students to have a general sense of the genre, which will help them navigate the first several tasks. Later, students will synthesize what they learned from the first several tasks to generate a comprehensive definition of satire.
      • SWD: Allow SWDs additional time to come up with the definition, and encourage them to work in pairs if necessary. Dictionaries should be allowed throughout the class, but especially in this section.
    • Techniques employed by the satirist: The weapons of satire include hyperbole, understatement, sarcasm, irony, caricature, burlesque, mockery, travesty, and parody.
    • Important information about satire:
      • ✓ The satirist may be bitter and cynical or bemused and playful, depending on the nature of the vice he is attacking and his attitude toward that evil.
      • ✓ The satirist’s aim or intention may be instructive—he may call attention to the need for social change or reform; it may be an attempt to hold a mirror up to the reader; it may be psychological in nature. Is he making a larger comment about the nature of man?
      • ✓ The satirist’s goal may be to shock his readers out of complacency by using exaggeration, sarcasm, understatement, or irony to ridicule the topic of satire.
      • ✓ Writers may create a fantastical, satirical world to safely challenge the status quo that exists in their own day, as seen in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
      • ✓ Writers may attempt to protect their own security and status in their communities by gently and playfully mocking popular social norms and conventions, as seen in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.”
      • ✓ The bitter satirist may use biting, caustic wit to highlight the evil he sees in man and his institutions, as seen in Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
    • Invite students to share ideas, record correct aspects of definitions, and compose a concrete, general definition for them to start this unit with.
    • Discuss the relevance of satire. What makes this genre universally and timelessly relevant? Invite students to share ideas. It will be helpful to point out to students that satire began in the classical world and has continued to the present, assuming modern forms through film and television.
      • ELL: Encourage students to use the academic vocabulary they learned. As they participate in the discussion, be sure to monitor for knowledge of the topic. Stay alert to follow up on interventions that seem unclear or ambiguous.


    What is satire?

    • Define the term in a single sentence.
    • Why is satire culturally relevant?

    Open Notebook

    Examples of Satire

    • Some students will be able to compile a list fairly quickly; others may struggle. Use the list below at your discretion to suggest possibilities to students who are struggling. Also be aware that some students may not be avid television watchers. These students may be encouraged to examine a modern satire in the form of writing or art (examples would be from The Onion or The New Yorker cartoons). In the rare instance that a student is completely stuck, allow him or her to work with a strong partner for this particular activity.
    • Resource list:
      • ✓ “The Simpsons”
      • ✓ “Parks and Recreation”
      • ✓ “Saturday Night Live”
      • ✓ “The Daily Show”
      • ✓ “Talk Soup”

    Work Time

    Brainstorm a list of modern television shows that you believe qualify as satire. Share your list with a partner or group and accept feedback on your choices. Offer your response to your classmates’ lists as well. Which examples are strong? Which are not?

    Select a choice from your list and consider the following questions.

    • What makes it satire?
    • Did you know that it was criticizing society when you watched it?
    • What makes people like the show so much?

    Open Notebook

    Your Satirical Show

    • Give students time to write their responses and find a clip of their show on their tablets.
    • Have students queue the clip up so they can share it in small or large groups.
      • SWD: In responding to these questions, consider providing sentence frames to support students in providing full answers. Monitor that all students fully understand the meaning of all the questions.

    Work Time

    Respond to the following questions about your satirical show.

    • What do you know about your show? If you watch it regularly, why? What do you like best? Have you considered it satirical in the past or are you looking at it in a whole new way now?
    • Find a specific example of satire in action from your show online. Note the details. What topic is being presented in a satirical way? Why? What do you believe is the intention of the show’s creators?

    Open Notebook

    Video Clips of Satire

    • Many students in your class will likely be regular viewers of some satirical programming. These students will be your best resources in this initial conversation.
    • Students will likely focus on the humorous aspect of their shows first. You can begin to lead them to satire by asking what specifically makes the show funny. What parts of life or people does it target?
    • As the conversation proceeds, you can ask your students to jot down notes aiming to synthesize from the discussion how you might define satire.
    • Allow students to view at least three different video clips.
    • View the clips twice. Because part of the idea of satire is that it’s enjoyable (partly why it’s so persuasive), it’s good to let your students relax and take pleasure in it. It would be great to make that clear to the students.
    • The harder work begins with the second viewing. Before you view the clip again, you might remind students that this is when the wheels start turning: what in society is being criticized in the clip?

    Work Time

    Be prepared to show your clip or to respond to selections from your classmates. If you are chosen to introduce your clip, explain the show’s premise and what the particular clip is about.

    After viewing the clips, answer the following for each.

    • What is being satirized? Is this issue successfully rendered by the show? Explain your view and support with specific details.

    Open Notebook

    The Tools of Satire

    • Invite students to share their findings. Compile a list with the class to help guide your future discussions of this genre. Your list should include but not necessarily be limited to:
      • ✓ Exaggeration
      • ✓ Incongruity
      • ✓ Reversal
      • ✓ Parody
      • ELL: When calling on students, be sure to call on ELLs and to encourage them to participate as actively as their native counterparts, even if their pace might be slower, or they might be more reluctant to volunteer due to their weaker command of the language. If they explain a “tool of satire” but cannot find a word that defines it (they are able to explain exaggeration, but they can’t say the word “exaggeration”), support them by proving the word that they are trying to use, if you can.
    • It is important to note examples of each element during this discussion. It will also be especially beneficial to students to have more than one example from their video clip sharing to illustrate these elements in action.

    Work Time

    Now that you have seen several examples of satire at work, team up with a partner or small group to figure out the tools of satire.

    • What do you see consistently used, even in different shows about different topics?
    • Brainstorm a list titled “The Elements of Satire.”

    Open Notebook

    Be prepared to share your list with the class.

    The Simpsons

    • The purpose of this reading is to get students thinking about the wide possibilities satire offers. It’s also to help them see that satire is an important part of their lives already.
    • This article traces the history of “The Simpsons.” It’s aimed at an adult audience.
    • You might let students who are more capable read the article alone; a class that’s less capable might need a Guided Reading. A class with struggling readers could be led through just the first two paragraphs in order to answer the questions.
    • Your class discussion doesn’t need to deal with each question for very long since students will have gotten the information themselves from the article.
    • Your main goal is to pull out of their responses a good working definition of satire, which is a genre that criticizes human or societal behavior using humor or irony.
    • Try to begin to get at tone here. You might ask students to imagine the tone of voice you’d have if you were Bart criticizing education, for example. On the other hand, what kind of tone would Bart use to criticize Homer?

    Work Time

    Read, with your class, the article on “The Simpsons” from the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

    Annotate and consider the following questions as you read. Then write your responses to the questions.

    • Why did one critic call it “the most radical show on primetime”? What’s an example of something in the article that you could use as evidence that “The Simpsons” is “radical”?
    • Why is it, nonetheless, incredibly popular? And what’s a statistic or detail from the article that you could use to prove its popularity?
    • What makes it satire?

    Open Notebook

    Talk about your responses with your classmates.

    "About the lies a society tells itself"

    • This Quick Write serves to pull together a lot of thinking from today.
    • You might use several of the responses to begin the next class. Choose one that paraphrases the quotation well and then several that make interesting points.
      • ELL: Allow some additional time for ELLs to discuss with a partner before writing to help them organize their thoughts. Allow ELLs who share the same primary language to discuss in that language if they so wish, and to use a dictionary (or dictionaries).


    One idea you’ll be thinking a lot about in this unit is, why satire? What makes this writing style so effective? “Boondocks” cartoonist Aaron McGruder said in an interview that satire is “about the lies a society tells itself.”

    • What do you think that means, and how does it connect with what you talked about today? Why might a society tell itself lies?

    Open Notebook

    Try Setting a Good Example

    • Prompt students to look for what is modern in this ancient text. Think of “modern” as what we still see today regarding method and concepts.
    • Check in with students to see if they can draw any loose parallels immediately with familiar media they experience in their own reading and viewing.


    For the Gist, read and annotate a satire from an ancient Roman writer, Juvenal: Satire XIV, “Try Setting a Good Example,” lines 1–58.

    Answer these questions about the text.

    • What exactly is Juvenal criticizing?
    • Are there any lines that summarize his point?
    • What specific examples does he give to prove his point?

    Open Notebook