Reflective writing: add a little humour

Reflective writing: add a little humour

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an English teacher in possession of a pile of reflective writing assignments must eventually encounter the phrase ‘silence and darkness’.

For some reason, when it comes to reflective writing, students often think that because a task is assessed, it has to be SERIOUS — all-caps-underlined-bold serious, earnest-musings-about-life-and-death serious. Of course, we all want our students to take their assessment tasks seriously, but that doesn’t necessarily require writing something ‘serious’. Never underestimate the power of a funny story or a wry eyebrow raise in the exploration of human foibles and social issues. Everyone experiences pivotal, eye-opening moments that help to broaden their understanding of the world; many of them are produced by mishaps or embarrassment. Adolescence is usually full of them.

Laugh-out-loud comedy is difficult to write well, but encouraging humour in reflective writing can help students engage with it, particularly resistant ‘reflectors’. A lot of comic language techniques also come quite naturally to teenagers: irony, sarcasm and understatement, to name a few. Most importantly, though, comical stories can convey a potent message and offer serious reflections without sounding didactic or resorting to the contrived introspection of ‘silence and darkness’.

This week’s resource is the podcast of a Sydney storytelling event, Story Club, run by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge (who write and perform on ABC’s The Checkout) and produced by The Chaser’s Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel at Giant Dwarf Theatre. The three stories I’ve focused on demonstrate a range of storytelling techniques and narrative structures. Tommy Dassalo’s story of featuring in a failed advertising campaign for a bank – ‘A Menagerie of Warthogs’ – uses self-deprecation, repetition and a substantial dose of absurdity. Kate Browne’s ‘No, Roy. No.’ explores an unusual event, caring for wild animals in the South American jungle, creating humour through schadenfreude and detailing absurdly dangerous situations. Finally, David Marr’s anecdote ‘The Last Taboo’ deploys deftly constructed euphemisms and creates humour through the mismatch of his sophisticated language with the very lowbrow issue of ‘personal aroma’.

These stories are longer than students would write, but they are still good models for teaching humorous reflective writing from Years 10 to 12. They might also be useful supplementary material for Context writing or listening tasks for EAL classes. Story Club is comedy for adults, so you need to be careful which stories you share with classes; the ones I have chosen have limited or no swearing and don’t deal with anything really confronting. Other stories in the series have quite a lot of coarse language or might explore issues that are not a good fit for your students or school.

Scroll down for a content breakdown that will help you to assess if these resources are right for your school context or class, and for a free downloadable PDF of guiding questions and writing tasks. Please note that all links below and in the PDF will take you to third-party sites.

Best wishes and happy teaching.

Sandra Duncanson
Senior Editor

The resource

Story Club by Giant Dwarf or

Source: Giant Dwarf
audio podcast
Length: most stories run for approx. 8–15 minutes
Presented by: Story Club is run by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge and produced by Julian Morrow and Craig Reucassel
Content: The linked PDF of activities and questions relates to three stories.

General content warning: The three stories addressed in this post would be appropriate for most Year 10–12 classes (especially the two stories with little/no coarse language). However, the subject matter and language used in this podcast’s episodes vary enormously from story to story – for example, some use more coarse language than others, and some refer to issues such abortion or suicide. Please listen to a story in full before you direct students to it.

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Download includes content for:

  • Year 11 Reading and creating texts: humorous reflective and imaginative writing, especially looking at how comedy techniques can be used to position an audience and convey an idea.
  • Year 11 EAL: Listening to texts, as preparation for Year 12 – Area of Study 3: Listening to texts.
  • Year 10: analysing the effectiveness of different sentence structures in creating specific effects, including to develop complex ideas through language features such as clause combinations and abstractions; ways to select vocabulary to create specific effects on an audience; examining how the structure of a narrative influences audience response in comedy texts; exploring the use of voice, viewpoint and characterisation help to create humour; listening to texts for comprehension and to examine language features that help to position an audience.
  • Year 12 Contexts: humorous reflective and imaginative writing, especially looking at how comedy techniques can be used to position an audience and convey an idea.

Suitability and relevance

The stories are listed in reverse chronological order.

Kate Browne: ‘No, Roy. No.’

Posted: 26 Jan 2016
Central ideas: recounts a month working with her husband in the Bolivian jungle at a refuge for temperamental and very dangerous wild animals that is governed by somewhat cavalier safety procedures … and jungle-cat hilarity ensues.
Length: 13:46
Content warnings: contains coarse language throughout (‘p*ss’: 2:46, 11:02, 12:43; ‘the f*ing thing’: 7:06; ‘bl*dy cats’: 7:32, 13:16; ‘bullsh*t’: 11:25)

David Marr: ‘The Last Taboo’

Posted: 13 January 2016
Central ideas: describes the awkwardness of being asked to speak to a house-mate about his body odour … and wry amusement ensues.
Length: 8:44
Cross references: you might need to provide some context for the places in Sydney he mentions. For example:

  • Glebe Point Road: a shopping strip and main road through inner-west Sydney near the University of Sydney with a lot of relatively cheap cafes and restaurants – a bit like Sydney Road or Lygon Street near Melbourne Uni. Like Carlton or Brunswick, the area is now far more gentrified than when Marr describes living there.
  • Pymble: an affluent, leafy Sydney suburb, demographically a bit like Kew or Balwyn in Melbourne.
  • You might also need to explain what ‘Palmolive Gold’ is.

Content warnings: contains the phrase ‘p*ssed off’ at 3:12, but the central story begins at 3:50 so you could listen to this story as a five-minute shortened version to avoid that. He also mentions the controversy surrounding Bill Henson’s topless photograph of a 13-year-old girl (1:55) as an example of a taboo; again, avoided if you start at 3:50.

Tommy Dassalo: ‘A Menagerie of Warthogs’

Posted: 1 July 2015
Central ideas: tells the story of being employed to act in a failed online marketing campaign for a bank … and a terrible PR disaster ensues.
Length: 10:36
Content warnings: none

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