In this guide, students will be introduced to different literary devices that are used to convey humour and subsequently, also learn to understand the motivations of a self-aware narrator, and articulate their own personal responses towards a vulnerable animal character.
This educator's guide is created alongside the little red comma microsite series for English language and literature educators looking to explore the intersections of place, history and society through adaptations of Singapore literature using digital media.
Each guide comprises three to four suggested lesson activities and handouts you can consider enacting with your students in the Literature or Language Arts classroom across one to two 50-70 minute lesson periods.
This educator’s guide presumes the availability of Personal Learning Devices (PLDs) in the classroom, or any other devices that afford individual students direct access to the little red comma microsite during the activity in class.
By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:
1. Understand and communicate the effects of the writer’s use of humour in five forms: satire, bathos, incongruity, self-deprecating humour, hyperbole and understatement
2. Understand how a narrator / character may look to create particular impressions of themselves
3. Articulate their own feelings and personal responses to a vulnerable character, with textual evidence
Understanding our enjoyment of humour
In this pre-reading activity, teachers can introduce the topic of humour in storytelling—to have a better understanding beyond what funny stories we like, but how the comedy works to create a strong effect on us.
Teachers can start by asking the class the following two questions in whole-class discussion:
1. Have you ever wondered what makes a story or a piece of content funny? Teachers may want to limit students to brief summaries of examples so as not to take up too much time recounting these stories.
2. From our collective experiences of laughing and experiencing humour, what kinds of humour can you think of? Teachers may want to limit students to brief summaries of examples so as not to take up too much time recounting these stories.
After taking several responses, teachers can review the long list* of different types of humour with students.
*Refer to the lesson plan available for download at the end of this article.
Teachers can share the following explanatory notes from the creators of the microsite before sending students off to read the short story for the main class:
Notes from The Ostrich of Kampong Glam microsite creators
1. For this microsite, the story requires that you interact with various ‘buttons’ that help unfold the story along use of Google Street View, drawings and animations.
2. Viewers cannot go back and re-read a page.
3. While the microsite does present the original story in full, it is recommended that teachers borrow a copy of the original anthology this is how you walk on the moon: an anthology of anti-realist fiction from NLB and distribute a copy of the short story to the class after students have completed the experience on the site. It is also available at Ethos Books.
Apart from amusing, entertaining readers and drawing their attention, humour also helps to forge deeper connections to a story’s characters, and to even push readers to reflect or even shift how they think about others and the world.
In this story, the self-aware narrator reconstructs his own account of Ostrich 12B’s escape through Kampong Glam by a combination of investigative journalism and his own imagination of the ostrich’s perspective. Often, this is done in a very light-hearted and humorous manner. But rarely do we discuss how humour is created and the effects it has on us as readers of Literature.
Thus, we explore five uses of humour in this story and its effects:
When a writer, narrator or character uses a serious tone to raise a ridiculous or absurd subject, there is a form of satire at work. Often, satire also consists of the use of exaggeration, irony, or ridicule to criticise and expose flaws in human nature and behaviour.
Question 1: Read the passage below from the start of the story that shows the official reports of the first ostrich’s death.
a. How does the writer use satire with the narrator in this passage?
b. What does the satire imply about the circumstances surrounding the death of the first ostrich?
The first male ostrich:
“It was a replacement for a male ostrich that had died in his sleep at the Singapore Zoo. No one knew why it had passed away. There was talk that the bird despised his keepers, Singaporeans, foreigners, and its caged existence. It died of a self-induced heart attack. That was what the report said, so I am inclined to believe there is some truth to it.”
2. Bathos (anticlimax)
Bathos occurs in a situation where a serious, emotional and/or heartfelt story full of feeling, emotion (and even insight) is first set up, but suddenly subverts it to something trivial, insignificant or everyday. It can turn a dramatic moment into something humorous in the anticlimactic surprise, and may even hint at a commentary on the larger narrative at play.
Question 2: The author often punctuates his recount of Ostrich 12B’s escape with bathetic / anticlimactic comments that refer to the subjective nature of his recount. In the following examples of bathos below, can you explain how these moments can be considered bathetic or anticlimactic?
“There was even the odd Glam tree, which once bestowed the area its name, a symbol of a once-prominent fishing village at the mouth of the Rochor river. But of course, the ostrich didn’t know that.”
"His nest soon took shape as an oval portal. He was meticulous; he enjoyed every detail; it was a masterpiece. I am assuming all of these things, of course, I cannot delve into the mind of an ostrich. If one were able to do just that, I am sure this account would be very different.”
The juxtaposition of two unrelated ideas, objects, persons or entities. It can also refer to something that is out of harmony, and inconsistent with expectations or surroundings. The humour is usually generated from the surprising or unexpected juxtaposition.
Question 3: On the final two pages of the original, the story ends with the juxtaposition of the “ostrichless story of [Khairul’s] recovery” and the following image “Fig. 3: How I remember him” of Ostrich 12b. What is incongruous about closing the story these two ideas?
4. Self-deprecating humour
When the speaker or character makes fun of himself or herself, the character is made vulnerable to the readers because their flaws or errors of judgement may be exposed to them. Nonetheless, it can also connect readers to characters if the point of the self-deprecating remark is relatable.
Question 4: Read the passage below.
a. Identify the lines that reflect the presence of self-deprecating humour.
b. What do these lines of self-deprecation suggest about the narrator’s reflection about Ostrich 12B’s behaviour?
“I have often thought about this moment during sleepless nights and stuttering MRT rides. Why did he regard them with distaste? Perhaps it was because pigeons were free, yet they chose to remain tied down and urbanised. I am sure an even more salient question emerged in his mind: why were they not wild and untethered? But then again I am no Professor Chatterjee. Perhaps this is simply my imagination running away with me.”
5. Hyperbole and Understatement
Hyperbole – also known as exaggeration, or overstatement. In short, to present something or someone as greater than it is for emphasis and effect, and often not to be taken literally.
Understatement – An expression that uses an obviously lesser emphasis than is expected, usually to downplay a situation or reaction, and often used in an ironic manner. The key is that the reader can understand the full extent of the actual situation and is aware of the ridiculous understatement at play.
Question 5. Read the following passage below.
a. Identify lines and/or phrases that can be considered hyperbole. Explain why.
b. Identify lines and/or phrases that can be considered understatements. Explain why.
c. What could the author be highlighting with this contrasting use of hyperbole and understatement?
“Twelve days later, a medical report came back. The slew of tranquilisers had caused a surge of etorphine and cyclohexylamine to course through 12B’s bloodstream. It was a deadly concoction, a veterinary calamity. We had fired too quickly, too much, without thought. 12B’s heart had collapsed in twenty-two seconds.
The official reports were sent a month later after timelines had been affirmed. It was delivered to a select panel of government officials. It was dubbed “a series of anomalous accidents”. 2001 came and went.”
[OPTIONAL] EXTENSION ACTIVITY: Parody in the Microsite Creator’s Design
You may have noticed that the creators of the microsite have chosen to create an “crime investigation” theme in the design of this microsite experience. This can be seen as a parody of the serious genre of crime investigations.
Question 6: How is the “crime investigation” theme in the microsite’s design a form of parody?
“I am assuming all of these things, of course. I cannot delve into the mind of an ostrich. If one were able to do just that, I am sure this account would be very different.”
In this story, the narrator often imagines the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of Ostrich 12B as it escaped from the van it was transported in, all the way to the fateful moment of its demise at the hands of the animal control team. It is important to note that our experience of Ostrich 12B’s perspective is always coloured by the narrator, who is the one who attempts to imagine and reconstruct the truth of Ostrich 12B’s last moments.
Question 1: From the Microsite Creator’s Perspective
Having read the story on the microsite, how do you think the creators of the microsite have distinguished the point of view of the narrator and Ostrich 12B throughout the story?
Optional: If you have the original printed text of the story, you can further consider how the microsite creators and the author distinguish between these two points of view.
Question 2: Narrator
After reading the story on the microsite, answer the following questions about the narrator:
a. Who is the narrator? Support your answer with evidence from the story.
b. Why do you think the narrator wrote this story? Support your response with at least two pieces of evidence.
c. Pick two examples of the narrator’s self-aware reflections on reconstructing this account of Ostrich 12B. What kind of impression is the narrator trying to create of himself to the reader?
Tip: Pay attention to the narrator’s personal commentary throughout his reimagination of Ostrich 12B’s escape, and his own reflections about his role in its death and the aftermath.
Question 3: Ostrich 12B
After reading the story on the microsite, answer the following questions about Ostrich 12B:
a. How do your feelings for Ostrich 12B change over the course of the story? Explain why you feel that way. Offer at least two to three points and support them with evidence.
Nah Dominic is currently a PhD candidate at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, at the English Language and Literature Academic Group. His doctoral research draws from classroom data in Singapore mainstream secondary schools to examine how students respond to ethically oriented Literature pedagogies in receptive and resistant ways. He is the co-author of Teachers’ Guide to Sense and Sensitivity (2019) and the study companion (2023) to the latest O-Level Singapore short story collection How We Live Now: Stories of Daily Living by Ethos Books.