Discussing Special Topics in Calamity Physics with teenagers 1

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsI facilitate a book club with the high school students at work. We started with Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell over their winter break. And we when finished it in Feb., I brought in several books for them to choose from for what we would read next. The consensus was Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.

The book is a fantastic first-person recounting of the narrator’s, Blue van Meer, senior year in high school on the U.S. east coast. It’s an interesting choice for the kids I work with, because there will be little common experience. Most of the students have lived their whole lives in the city and have little experience with life outside of Southern California or Mexico.

Blue also tends to explain herself through allusions to everything from literature to dogs to natural history to pop culture references from the 1980s. So I told them at the beginning to take what they can from the references, look up the ones they are most interested in, and set aside the ones that frustrate them. In an effort to help them with the chapter title connections (since each chapter is titled after a work of literature), I’ve started writing up paragraph synopses of the reference work.  Some of the students want them before they read, but most of them want them after they’ve done the reading.

We had our first discussion on Wed. and it went pretty well. The story is just getting started, so we spent most of our time talking about what we learned about Blue and her dad. We also talked a little about Pessl’s writing style and what worked for them and what was more difficult for them to follow. In the next meeting I’m going to ask for them to write some of their predictions about what will happen in the story. We write at the beginning for around 5 minutes because they all want to get better at writing, which is why we’re reading. It also helps me see where they are in their understanding of the story.

So, if you’re interested, I’m going to be keeping a journal here, because it will be a good way for me to track our progress as a group. And I have some friends who love the book, and perhaps you can chime in here, especially as the students begin to further develop their ideas about the story. If you haven’t read the novel, I recommend it. When we get to the end, I’ll let you know how many of the students would recommend it as well.

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