Three minutes into silent reading, someone farted. I have the band-aid colored desk-chair combos, which meant that one vibrating toot was magnified against the metal frame of the guilty student’s seat. The room stayed silent for half-a-minute and then erupted in laughter. The girls quietly chuckled, but there was no way the boys could settle back into their books, so we moved on to our minilesson and called it quits.
My boys can’t get enough of lowbrow humor. Their writer’s notebooks and fictional stories are full of crass humor—farts, sexual innuendo, embarrassing stories, and offensive humor. For years, I chalked up their obsession with these topics to immaturity. I love a good fart joke or sarcastic paper, but I never truly understand the point.
Newkirk argues that humor is a mode of exploration for students, particularly boys. Instead of chastising them for vulgar or lowbrow humor, teachers should capitalize on boys’ love for the weird, gross, and funny. He pointed out that classic literature is full of crass humor, citing Beowulf and Shakespeare as examples. Boys, he noted are inclined to read humorous literature and use these as mentors for their own writing.
Too often though, teachers either don’t understand boys’ humor or they fear that the silliness somehow undermines the assignment. This shouldn’t be the case. Just as we give girls the room to explore emotionally charged pieces about self-confidence or dating, we must also give boys the opportunity to investigate their own questions, which may very well include both humor and violence, as Shana discusses. In an excerpt Newkirk gave us from Boy Writers, author Ralph Fletcher notes that “some of the crass humor in their writing (burping, farting, dirty diapers) tries our patience, but many boys are simply making ‘text-to-text’ connections between their writing and the kind of humor they read in books.” These connections are invaluable when it comes to capturing the attention of our male students.
In turn, we must allow our boys a space to explore humor. Sometimes jokes are just funny, but other times, they soften heavy themes in literature. They open up deeper discussions that are otherwise inaccessible or uncomfortable. As Newkirk writes in Misreading Masculinity, “[Humor] provides a forum for negotiating and sustaining male friendships, and of making overtures to girls. It allows us all to laugh at the peculiarities of our bodies, as we escape, if only briefly, from our embarrassment at the sounds they involuntarily make and the smells they produce” (Newkirk 167). Will students toe the line between inappropriate and appropriate humor? Most likely. Will they take their jokes too far? Potentially. But learning is about testing our surroundings and studying voices to find our own. At the end of the day, I’d much rather my students explore their world through laughter than not, fart jokes and all.