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.

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.

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

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

The Strange & Curious Tale of The Last True Hermit

Michael Finkel’s story in GQ The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit is a great read. Finkel tells the story of Christopher Knight – a recluse who managed to craft a life of isolation living in the woods of Maine for nearly thirty years. Knight opens up to Finkel — to a point and reveals a complicated set of interests and tastes. Knight describes his difficulty returning to society and his experience in prison, “I am retreating into silence as a defensive move,” he wrote. Soon he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. “I am surprised by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates, puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable”.
The article connects with Into the Wild, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Glass Castle and any other text about escape, independence, mental illness or isolation.
Here’s a version of the article with a few study questions added at the end:  The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit.

Keeping Book Club Discussions Fresh

Books clubs, novel discussion groups, literary analysis seminars, literature circles or whatever we call sitting down with students to thoughtfully and purposefully discuss a text they’re reading is my preferred way to study a novel, but like any instructional approach repetition can feel monotonous. One way to maintain student interest in the conversations is through the introduction of a second short text to the discussion. Provide the short text to the students just prior to the discussion and challenge them to interpret their novel in response to the new text.

Here are a few short articles / poems that might help:

  1. Character Analysis: Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset
  2. Character Analysis: How To Get Out of A Bad Mood
  3. Character Analysis: The Difference Between External and Internal Focus
  4. Plot Analysis: The Storytelling Animal
  5. Figurative Language Analysis: author John Green on his novel Fault in our Stars
  6. Thematic Analysis: Ozymandias and Arrogance 
  7. Thematic Analysis: A Dream Deferred

Fingerprint Words

Matthew J.X. Malady has written a terrific essay about word choice for Slate. It’s a great exploration of how our vocabulary defines us. It’s a thoughtful and complicated text that would be a great close read for a senior class… or could be cut down for a junior class.  You might consider using it as a prompt prior to a novel discussion group meeting. Senior students could read the article and then apply the thinking to the choices the author of their book made in creating the text’s characters. Junior students could read an edited version of the article and identify the “fingerprint words” of some of the main characters in the text.

In a Writer’s Craft class, I think this article could be a great launching pad for some narrative writing.

Fingerprint Words from Slate.com

P.S. – Isn’t J.X. Malady a great name for a fictional villain?  Students could create a list of great character names and the “fingerprint words” that would define them.

What Are The Four Words?

I’m late to the game reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian… and now I know what all the fuss is about. It’s wonderful.  This passage will put a lump in the throat of any teacher…

“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.”

I’m sure you guessed.  The four words are: “you can do it”. Despite sentiment like this, the book’s been banned in a few places in the U.S. — probably for laugh out loud moments like this one when the narrator says to one of his teachers:

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,’ I said. ‘By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.” 

There is also some sexual content that might offend some readers. Don’t be put off. As a story of resilience, bravery, and loyalty The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can’t be beat. In the place of or alongside Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies the novel would be a great addition to a group novel study unit. 

Why teens love dystopian stories…

Divergent won the box office race last weekend as teens raced to see the popular YA novel brought to life (my daughter saw it twice in three days).  Slate.com film critic Dana Stevens has a slightly snarky take on why teens find dystopian stories so appealing.

Why teens love dystopias” – article with study questions.

Her article is not an easy read, but might provide an example of how an engaging topic and strong prior knowledge can help students bridge vocabulary challenges.  The final paragraph of the article includes the words:  “realpolitik”, “allegorical”, “multitiered”, “affiliation”, “constrictively”, and “malevolent”. Rather than pre-teach the vocabulary, consider challenging the students to closely read the final paragraph and construct meaning using strategies they devise.