Penn GSE Student Uses Humor to Create Change

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820April 2, 2012

David Low is a funny guy. As a teacher in Arizona, he had funny students, and he is convinced they helped get rid of an unnecessary test.

Low, a Ph.D. student in the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, told the story at a recent meeting for teachers and prospective teachers in suburban Philadelphia.

He was teaching English at a high school in Tucson, and was required to administer a quarterly test intended to predict how well the students would do on another “presumably more important test,” Low says. 

“The funny and sad thing was that my 11th-grade students had already taken and passed the ‘more important test’ as 10th graders.  Yet, they were still being mandated to take the predictive test to see how well they’d do.”

Low, 30, reports that nearly 40 of his students took a cue from him by using humor as an innovative act of resistance that contributed to changes to school policy.

“In the test’s margins, they doodled, wrote tiny editorials to the testing administrators and tried to force a dialogue,” Low says.  “Taken as a whole, many of my students used humor as a deliberate act of critical thinking, imagination and social consciousness, which were exactly the qualities the predictive test was not evaluating.”

Eventually, the district stopped giving these predictive tests. 

“I like to think that my students, in resisting, played some role in the decision,” he says.

At the suburban meeting arranged by TED, a non-profit organization that spreads worthy ideas, and the Chester County Intermediate Unit’s Teacher Academy, Low discussed using humor as a “mighty weapon” and how it can demonstrate critical thinking and integrity -– despite the fact that students who employ humor critically are often hastily punished and criminalized for questioning the system.

“I talked about the risk involved when students use humor politically to question status quos,” Low explains.  “Teens are often branded as troublemakers and effectively criminalized.  But, I say that humor is a radical means for reading and deconstructing the world and for writing a better, more equitable one.”

Low earned his M.A. in English education from New York University and his bachelor’s in education, English and history from the University of Arizona, where he was a cartoonist for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the student newspaper.

“I’ve been doodling my whole life,” he says. 

While it was mainly drawing monsters and superheroes as a kid, by the time he was 15, Low was creating single-panel comics.  For him, cartooning became a way to make sense of complex ideas that were sometimes dissimilar, putting a funny spin on them.

Low takes his hobby out into the community by facilitating a weekly comics workshop with elementary school students in South Philadelphia. 

As a part of his research, he meets with fifth-graders to “talk about, read, write, draw and theorize with a room full of incredible connoisseurs,” he says. “In these workshops, we mostly create multi-panel stories.  It’s a great space for seeing kids’ literacies -- visual, textual, multimodal and social -- come to life.”

He takes a break from his studies once in a while to draw and, when he comes up with some great cartoons, he sends them along to magazines.  Although his work has been published in Z Magazine and Funny Times, Low still is holding out hope for The New Yorker one day.

He expects to earn his Ph.D. from Penn GSE by 2015.

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