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.

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.

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

Wanderers – spectacular / poetic short film narrated by Carl Sagan

Wanderers

Erik Wernquist edited excerpts of Carl Sagan’s audio recording of his book, Pale Blue Dot to create the narration of his short film “Wanders”.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 9.56.26 AM.png

Last year, the film Gravity and the novel The Martian highlighted the depressingly real dangers and loneliness inherent in the exploration of space. This year, the film Interstellar jumps beyond the possible into the fantastic. Space exploration becomes a desperate act only made possible by mystical intervention. Now, as a counterpoint to both, Erik Wernquist depicts the beauty and excitement of human space exploration with a look at what life on our nearest neighbours could realistically look like. 

Using Carl Sagan’s poetic musings on the forces that drive us to wander as his narration, Wernquist illustrates scientifically accurate worlds from our solar system and imagines how human occupants might work and play on these worlds. The result is spectacular.

Narration from “Wanders

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled. Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood. 

We invest far-off places with a certain romance. This appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game—none of them lasts forever. 

It is beyond our powers to predict the future. Catastrophic events have a way of sneaking up on us, of catching us unaware. Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few—drawn, by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand, to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

Herman Melville, in Moby Dick, spoke for wanderers in all epochs and meridians: “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas …”

Maybe it’s a little early. Maybe the time is not quite yet. But those other worlds—promising untold opportunities—beckon.

Silently, they orbit the Sun, waiting.


//player.vimeo.com/video/108650530?title=0&byline=0&portrait=0&color=ffffff
Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Possible Tasks / Lessons

Making Connections
1. Review the images from “Wanderers” in the gallery (http://www.erikwernquist.com/wanderers/gallery.html). Explain which of the images best connect with the following terms: “wanderers” / “adventurers” / “colonists”.

2. Read the narration for “Wanderers”. Find earth based images to illustrate Carl Sagan’s words. Find six images and justify how they connect to Sagan’s ideas.

3. Bring to life one of the moments illustrated in the film. Using the text form of your choice (short story, news report, blog entry, narrative poem) tell the story of one of the adventures depicted in the film. Use a phrase from the film’s narration as the title of your text.

Literary Elements
1. Carl Sagan was a scientist who wrote beautifully. Identify the most effective passage in text of his narration and explain how Sagan made use of figurative language to convey his ideas.

Media Literacy
1. Listen closely to Carl Sagan’s performance of his text. Identify three moments in the recording that demonstrate effective speaking techniques. Explain why they are effective.

Unintended Consequences

The European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet only 4 km in diameter after a 10 year journey covering 6.4 billion kilometers. It’s like shooting a bullet in Toronto to land on a balloon in Tokyo. Magic. 

Sadly, at the press conference to discuss the landing of the spacecraft, the lead scientist made a wardrobe choice that distracted much of the Internet’s attention away from his team’s accomplishments.  Mika McKinnon has written a very thoughtful, clever personal essay about the issue:  Thanks To That Shirt, We May Get a Shirt Celebrating Women In Science.

Unintended Consequences Assignment: McKinnon’s essay is a great opportunity to examine the idea of unintended consequences. This assignment challenges students to read and understand her text and to consider how she maintained a wonderful balance of anger, frustration, humour and purpose in her word choice and ideas to create just the right voice for her text.

Beyond that, students could explore other examples of unintended consequences and create their own blog entries detailing cautionary tales telling the story of a small decision that led to unexpected consequences with interesting links for further exploration.

Information vs Emotion in News Headlines

Much has been made in the last few days contrasting how the Canadian media reported on the shootings in Ottawa vs the coverage by the American media.  These two articles do a particularly good job of describing the difference between reporting with an agenda of providing information and reporting focused on creating an emotional response:

Canada Just Showed the US the Exact Right Way to Cover a Shooting

To US media Canadian Shooter Being Muslim Ends Investigation

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Thinking beyond how the media has covered violent sensational news to consider the underlying reasons for the decisions news reports and organizations make can be a great opportunity to provide instruction in inference, critical literacy and build a recognition of how the economics of the media influence the content of reporting. This assignment attempts to challenge students to think along these lines: Information vs Emotion in News Reporting.


Our Man in Tehran vs Argo

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 9.24.39 PM.pngThe films “Our Man in Tehran” and “Argo” both tell the story behind the smuggling of six American diplomats out of Iran in 1980.  One is a documentary that was featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and played on pay television, the other was also featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the Academy awards for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and editing.
It would be great to read the books these films are based and watch the resulting films with students and analyze the choices the filmmakers made in adapting them, but that would require a significant time investment… instead we could accomplish many of the same curriculum outcomes with the study of the trailers for the two films.  



For close reading, Slate article about the accuracy of “Argo”: “How Accurate is Argo?

Some key questions we could consider with students:

  1. Referring to specific details in the two trailers thoughtfully explain how the fictional version of the story (Argo) differs from the documentary version of the story (Our Man in Tehran).
  2. How might a Canadian audience respond differently from an American audience when watching these two versions of the events in Tehran? Refer to specific details in how the films are being promoted that you think might be perceived differently from the points of view of Canadians and Americans.
  3. The film Argo was a huge financial success. Identify the elements apparent in the trailer that you believe may have contributed to the film’s popularity?
  4. Why do you think documentary films are rarely presented at the local Cineplex?

And finally…


One of the most commercially successful documentaries was Bowling for Columbine.  It earned nearly $21 million.  Watch the trailer for it and explain why you think it was more popular than Our Man in Tehran.