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.

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”.

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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.


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.