African Migrants – Motivation

Globe and Mail writer, Doug Saunder’s article “The real reasons why migrants risk everything for a new life elsewhere” is a great challenging read for senior students. It addresses stereotypes, requires critical thinking about the voices not heard in most news reporting and encourages further curiosity and research.

I find students respond really well to ideas that challenge conventional wisdom. This article encourages its readers to rethink what they “know” about migrants from African nations trying to reach Europe.  This Google Docs version of the article includes some response / analysis prompts: close reading task.

Paper Towns – By John Green

I’ve read three of John Green’s books now. Rather than worry that I have the literary tastes of an adolescent girl, I’ve decided that they’re a connection to my daughter who’s growing up so fast. They’re also an insight into the hopes and dreams and fears of my adolescent students. In Paper Towns Green tells a terrific story that feels very real as his characters peel away layers of identity that they have applied to themselves and to their friends.

Things I really liked about Paper Towns and why it belongs in English courses:

  • There’s a mystery. The plot works. The adventures feel genuine.
  • There are great literary connections. Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” plays a central role in the novel. Holden Caufield doesn’t appear, but an essay comparing him to central character Margo Ross Spiegelman is an obvious task. Canadians might draw contrasts to Hagar Shipley or even Susanna Moodie.
  • John Green does so much work for teachers with his thoughtful FAQs. In discussing Paper Towns he provides rich content for book circles. He addresses the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl“,  his relationship as an author with his readers and the importance of ambiguity in novels, and other authorial tidbits like this one:

Q. What titles did you consider before coming up with “Paper Towns”?
A. More Light Than Heat. I was really in love with that one for a long time. (Shakespeare)
Love Loves to Love Love. I thought that one was a hot slice of clever. (Joyce)
The Life and Hard Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman.
Chasing Margo. This ended up being the German title.
Margo Roth Spiegelman: An Incomplete Life 
etc.
They were all more pretentious than Paper Towns. I come up with like 1,000 titles, and then Sarah and Julie laugh at me for my pretentiousness and we try to settle on the least pretentious title. I don’t know how I ever got The Fault in Our Stars past their pretention detectors. 

  • And lastly, there’s a film coming out. That opens up all sorts of media analysis possibilities ranging from discussions of casting, to the changes in the plot, to responses to reviews, to analysis of the marketing.

The New World of Citizen Journalism

I had the opportunity to visit Mohawk College’s Journalism program recently. It’s very impressive.  I learned that the job of “reporter” has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years. A reporter for a newspaper is no-longer primarily a writer. A reporter is expected to be a one person multimedia producing, cross-platform writing,  social networker. It’s very exciting and the students at Mohawk were learning every aspect of the business. Which leads me, funnily enough, to the debate over vaccines. 

On  February 5th, The Toronto Star’s front page cried out, “A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side”. What followed was a long story that as The Star’s publisher was subsequently forced to admit, “led many readers to conclude The Star believed its investigation had uncovered a direct connection between a large variety of ailments and the vaccine”. That quote is from the disclaimer that now appears on The Star’s website where the article used to be found. The Star has “unpublished” the original story.

The flaws in the original story were laid out in an LA Times report on the controversy: “How A Major Newspaper Bungled A Vaccine Story and Then Smeared Its Critics“.

 

In Our Classes

From an English class point of view this is rich material. 

  1. What a great opportunity to discuss research and bias. This blog post by Dr. Jen Gunter –Autopsy of Toronto Star HPV article and the real dark side of Gardasil they missed –is a terrific example of a persuasive research based essay. It’s a masterful example of effective organization and word choice. I especially like her title and its invitation to readers to discover the “real dark side”.
  2. The controversy is a terrific opportunity for students to examine the specific curriculum expectations of “critical literacy” and “production perspectives”. Gunter’s blog post highlights the need for readers to consider motivation and conflicts of interest when reading. This idea for a “Two Sides to the Story?” – research assignment uses the issue of “false balance” to teach the curriculum expectations of critical literacy and production perspectives.
  3. Finally, back to the students at Mohawk College. This story is a fascinating example of the shift in power caused by the Internet. 10 years ago the front page story written by The Star’s professional journalists might have been challenged by a few letters to the editor, perhaps The Star would have chosen to publish this rebuttal – “Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side” –by Canadian scientists. But the debate would have happened entirely within the newspaper and would have been controlled by the newspaper.  As the publisher’s very defensive retraction proves, The Star does not back down easily. Today, the Internet provides a platform that democratizes voices. This story is a great opportunity to challenge students to consider these curriculum based issues:
    1. Confirmation bias;
    2. How to corroborate sources;
    3. Why we site sources in our research;
    4. Language usage – is Dr. Gunter’s critique of the language used in The Star’s retraction fair?
    5. False Balance” in news reporting (as comically represented by John Oliver as it relates to Climate Change – warning PG-13 for language – start at 1:08 to avoid profanity).

Stream of Consciousness on Racism in Canada

Watching an old movie with my daughter led me down a stream of consciousness about race and culture and prejudice that reminded me of some texts that could be useful in the teaching of character analysis or persuasive writing.
I was watching the old John Grisham film A Time To Kill with my daughter. In the film, newly minted Klu Klux Klan followers plant a burning cross on the lawn of a lawyer defending a black man. My daughter asked a very sensible question, that I’d never processed before, she wondered how a burning cross became a symbol for white power.

This led to a Google search which led to a Wikipedia article and the uncomfortable discovery that the most recent example of a racist cross burning mentioned in Wikipedia happened in Nova Scotia in 2010.

That story reminded me of a terrific Radio Lab podcast about a young woman who rejected her family’s imposed identity (her mother’s birth certificate listed her as “negro”) and adopted a new identity for herself as a white woman in a high school full of racial tension.
And finally, that story reminded me of a pair of articles from last month about racism in Winnipeg.
None of these texts are particularly uplifting, but all challenge us to confront our stereotypes and prejudices.

As part of an examination of the depiction of character traits or an analysis of the inner conflicts faced by characters in short stories or novels I wonder if these stories / articles might provide some interesting fodder for discussion.

Ally’s Choice – Radio Lab podcast about racial divides in a family. The Radio Lab podcast challenges the scientific validity of the concept of race.

These two articles consider the reality of prejudice and injustice in Canada towards First Nations people: Winnipeg the Most Racist City in Canada and a rebuttal, Is Our City the Most Racist In Canada?

These could also be useful as part of a study of persuasive writing. Students could consider the reporters’ attempts to create a convincing arguments to support ideas.

Goal Setting – "15 High Performance Habits"

We’re past the “New Year’s Resolution” time of the year, but isn’t a new semester an equally appropriate time to offer students a chance to “reboot” their approach to school?  This article and activity is intended to foster those conversations:

Lesson Plan Idea & Article

“A New Semester – How Will You Make It Your Best One Ever?” –  http://goo.gl/HVqCtP the activity asks the students to read and reflect on the article:  “15 High Performance Habits That Will Make You Successful” – from Lifehack.org

Classroom Community Building & News Report Writing

The start of a new semester is a time to think hard about the classroom communities we’re building for our students. The following activity uses a list of 50 questions to get to know someone by Andrew Tarvin as an excuse to bring students together for conversations. I think it’s fun, because not only do they have a chance to talk about themselves (generally an opportunity adolescents embrace) but also we can use the list to think about the kinds of questions that are appropriate in different situations.

Character Analysis

Later in the term, these questions can be revisited as we consider characters in texts and perhaps analyze how fully realized a fictional character is based on how well we could answer these questions about a character from a short story or novel.

Small Talk & OSSLT Prep

Also, as an option for grade 9 / 10 classes, the task branches off into New Report writing as a prelude to instruction for the OSSLT.

Lesson Plan & Worksheets

Building Classroom Community – Rapid Interviews

50 Questions & News Writing Worksheet

This is interesting… – organizer

PuppySwap – The Puppy Subscription Service

This clever video is a great example of “selling the problem” — and it’s horrifying.  People are abandoning dogs as puppies outgrow their cute stage and become a nuisance… so let’s create “PuppySwap”.  The viewer is left to wonder where is the man taking the older dog?  What’s going to happen to the dog?

This could lead to some great critical thinking.  Possible prompts:

1. At some point did you start to doubt the authenticity of the ad?

2. Why do we consider the idea for this service to be morally unacceptable? Do dogs have rights?

3. How big a problem is pet abandonment? How could we find accurate information about this issue?

It might be mean, but I’d be inclined to pause the video just before the title comes up at the end and ask the students to react and comment prior to revealing the true purpose of the ad.

Character Analysis – Introvert Island

Gemma Correll’s The Introvert’s Heart

Novel discussion groups can become formulaic without the injection of new material to spark interesting debate. This terrific graphic by Gemma Correll provides excellent fodder for character analysis. Use the graphic as a standalone discussion starter or consider using it alongside Susan Cain’s excellent TED Talk “The Power of Introverts“.
This assignment page could be used as a follow-up task:  Character Analysis – The Power of Introverts

Getting Lost: "The Last Days of Peter Bergmann"

What does it mean to get lost in our social media saturated, closed circuit tv monitored, and Googlable world? This poor man, whose name wasn’t really Peter Bergmann, decided to lose himself in a small Irish town. His final days are documented in this haunting short film:

//player.vimeo.com/video/78337126?byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff
The Last Days of Peter Bergmann Trailer from Fastnet Films on Vimeo.

The full 19 minute long film can be watcher here at Aeon Video: The Last Days of Peter Bergmann.
The film explores how unsettling we find the idea of a lack of identify, and deliberate efforts of a man to leave this world anonymously. Randall Sullivan’s article from WIRED tells the fascinating story of a modern bounty hunter: “The World’s Best Bounty Hunter is 4’11” – Here’s How She Hunts” — in it we follow the hunt for criminals trying desperately to stay off the grid and out of prison. These are people who would love to gain the anonymity of Peter Bergmann. Contrast these present day stories with the heartbreaking documentary “No Place on Earth” and the efforts of a group of Ukrainian Jews fleeting nazi troops and disappearing into a cave for over a year.

//player.vimeo.com/video/61687673?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff
NO PLACE ON EARTH TRAILER YOUTUBE 5D from Janet Tobias on Vimeo.

Each of these texts examines how deeply rooted in our societies we are and how difficult it is for individuals to vanish.

Additional resources:  Interview with Ciaran Cassidy (writer/director of “The Last Days of Peter Bergmann”)

MTV’s Teen Mom Is Good For You?

Few things push my moral outrage button harder than Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Bachelor or 16 and Pregnant. It’s so satisfying to pontificate about these exploitive messes, while quite enjoying other reality tv programs such as Dirty Jobs or Ace of Cakes.
Now I’m faced with this article from the Aspen Journal of Ideas that declares that Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant have been causally linked to declines in teen pregnancies in the US. Should educators be showing episodes of Teen Moms in health classes?

This assignment tasks students with reading the Teen Moms article and to think about the history of reality tv programs and also to consider how they celebrate / exploit the skills and behaviours of their stars.

Another useful Reality TV reference:

Tiki-Toki – Timeline of Reality TV