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College Read 2018-19: The Moth Presents All These Wonders

How to Listen to the Moth

Across the Curriculum at BC

This year’s College Read selection can be used in many ways by professors across disciplines. Faculty don’t have to read the whole book to use one or more of the individual presentations to enhance learning outcomes in classes. 

Professors of history or political science will be particularly interested in the “witness to history” theme which includes pieces by a Holocaust survivor, a woman who served as a spy in World War II, and the daughter of a refugee from Afghanistan.

Professors of biology or chemistry might offer extra credit for a discussion post on “God, Death and Francis Crick,” which discusses DNA, or “Kidneys and Commitment,” about a kidney transplant patient. “On Approach to Pluto” gives an inside look by a planetary scientist at NASA.

“The Moon and Stars Talks” by Tara Clancy (page 3)

Has there been someone in your life who opened you up to new possibilities? A coach, a teacher, someone who advised you about college? Or is there someone in your life you can coach in this way?

“The Girl from Beckenham” by Suzi Ronson (page 33)

 If you could pick an artist to go on the road with, who would it be? And what would do you?

 “Jenny” by Samuel James (page 106)

 Jenny's dad does a remarkable thing to help the narrator - but what's missing from this piece is what Jenny said to convince her dad to make the phone call. What would you say if you were in her position?

“Who Can You Trust?” by Mary-Claire King (Page 161)

If you were in this situation and a celebrity approached you, would you agree? Or which celebrity would you trust?

“A New Home” by Dori Samadzai Bonner (page 168)

 In this essay, Bonner's father has done something wrong for the right reason - he has entered the United States on forged papers. Do you agree that he and his family should be deported because of this? Or do you agree with the judge, who heard all the reasons why Bonner's father had to leave Iran? 

 “Prom” (page 229) by Hasan Minhaj

Minhaj ends the essay still unsure whether he would forgive Bethany or not. Would you? Why or why not?


Active Reading

Make sure that students have a pen or pencil and a piece of paper handy. Have them read along in the book with an audio essay, and make note of any words or phrases that are unfamiliar. Collect those and pick one or more at random to model an active reading strategy, such as understanding the meaning of a word from its context or its word roots.

For example, consider the word “misanthropic” from Nadia Bolz-Weber’s “Panic on the Road to Jericho.” Students could break it down by realizing that the prefix mis- is a negative one, so this person is “against” something. Anthropology is the study of people, so they could make the connection (especially because Bolz-Weber states that it will make her uncomfortable being “in a conference room with five hundred Lutherans.”

Since the half-dozen people she finds like to “talk smack about other people” this is also a clue as to what misanthropic means.

You might use the term “allusion” in conjunction with reading the essay “Call Me Charlie,” where Josh Bond refers to “a Jimmy Hoffa-type guy to me.” This is a case where students might need to use the Internet to discover the meaning of the term. There’s no way that context or word roots will tell them what they need to know.

Compare and Contrast

Many of the pieces in the book are available online in audio format as well. Students could be tasked with listening to a piece, on their own or in class, then comparing it to the written piece in the book.

Discussion questions:  

  • What surprises you about hearing the voice of the storyteller—and how does it change your experience of the story?
  • What details have a different impact as spoken than as read? Why do you think that is?

Students could also be asked to compare and contrast two essays in the book. For example, Tara of “The Moon and Stars Talks” and Samuel of “Jenny” are both young people on the cusp of adulthood. How are their situations similar, and how are they different? How do their reactions to adults differ, and how are they alike?

Structural Analysis

Choose one of the pieces and ask students to analyze its structure. Where and when does the story begin? Why did the author choose to begin it there?

Is there an introduction? How does it compare to the introduction in an academic essay—does it identify the main points/characters/themes that will be dealt with?

What’s the structure of the piece – is it chronological? Does it move logically from point to point, the way an academic essay would?

Is there a conclusion? How does it compare to the conclusion of an academic essay?

Have students read “The Two Times I Met Laurence Fishburne” and identify the main point the author is making. (For the professor: is it “follow your dreams”?)

Have students read “Call Me Charlie.” What’s the main point of this essay? (For the professor: Is it “do we really know anybody”? Or “my brush with infamy” or something like that?

Select a story from The Moth Presents All These Wonders. After reading and listening to your selection from The Moth, create a PowerPoint presentation.

Part 1: Introduction (Total 5 points)

  • Names of presenters
  • Class name and professor
  • Reading selection and page number

Part 2: Compare the effect of the audio to the written story. (Total 25 points)

  • Include link to audio version of selection. (5 points)
  • What changes did the editor make? (10 points)
  • What surprises you about hearing the voice of the storyteller—and how does it change your experience of the story? (10 points)

Part 3: Identify the key elements of STAKES, CHANGE and THEME. Where do you see evidence in the text of these crafting strategies? Choose one or two details for each. (Total 30 points)

  • STAKES: stories are most compelling when the storyteller lets the audience know what was at stake for them in the story. When the audience/reader knows what matters to the storyteller— what they have to win or lose within the story—they are all the more invested in the story. (10 points)
  • CHANGE: Moth stories almost always involve a personal transformation to the protagonist/ storyteller. Somehow, the storyteller is different from the beginning of the story to the end.  (10 points)
  • THEME: a single story from one’s life can be told in many different ways; storytellers tend to draw out one principal theme within the story to give it shape and to create a story arc. (10 points)

Part 4: Discussion (Total 20 points)

  • Write two discussion questions/topics for the class. These questions/topics should be thought provoking and open ended. (10 points each)

Part 5: Conclusion (Total 5 points)

  • Share final thoughts and conclusion. (5 points)

Each of these pieces has three specific elements: Stakes, Change and Theme. What’s at stake for the speaker? How does the action he or she undergoes cause change? What is the underlying theme of the piece?

You can use this as a framework for getting students to create their own Moth-like piece. Look at these elements, as well as the underlying structure of the piece, and get students to brainstorm about what they might write about. Then use this framework to have them identify what’s at stake in their story, how the action causes them to change, and what kind of theme they might draw out of their work.

For example, “A Tale of Two Dinners” can be a prompt for a narrative essay about your personal identity. Who are you? What are you?

Identifying the Main Points of a Piece of Writing

Assignment: Identify the main points of a piece of writing.

  1. Have students read Ishmael Beah’s essay “Unusual Normality” and identify the main points he makes. Possible points include:
    • His “fresh start” in America
    • School interviews which reveal his background
    • How he doesn’t fit in with other students because of language & war experience
    • The chance to be a child again
    • Paintball game

My Immigrant Narrative

Ishmael Beah’s piece may also be used to model a narrative essay about immigration – either the student’s immigration, or that of a friend or family member. What main points would the student/author make? 

Themes: Break Down of Stories

“The Moon and Stars Talks” by Tara Clancy: p. 3

Tara grows up in working class Queens with no real vision of life beyond her borough. When Tara is a teenager, her mom begins dating a wealthy man—and suddenly Tara is spending weekends at his fancy house in the Hamptons, where he introduces her to another world of thinking and new possibilities for who she could become. Link to performance:

“Jenny” by Samuel James: p. 112

Samuel is an African American teenager who feels abandoned and angry as he’s bounced around the Maine foster care system. His friendship with Jenny, a girl who rides the school bus with him, changes everything. Link to performance:

“R2 Where Are You?” by Tig Notaro: p. 140

Tig, a well-known stand up comedian, tells of her tumultuous relationship with her stepfather Rick, who ran their household with robotic detachment and always disapproved of her comedic aspirations. When tragedy strikes, she begins to see a different side of Rick. Link to performance:

“My Grandfather’s Shoes” by Christian Garland: p. 222

Christian, a high school student from The Moth Education Program, steals money from his grandfather to buy sneakers. Years later, he decides to pay his grandfather back and regain his trust before it’s too late. Link to performance:

 “Leaping Forward” by Cybele Abbett: p. 226

Cybele’s preteen daughter comes out as transgender, and Cybele has to navigate her own conflicting feelings as her child transitions. Link to performance:

“Prom” by Hasan Minhaj: p. 233

Hasan, now a stand-up comedian and correspondent on The Daily Show, grew up Indian American in a largely white California community. He describes the sometimes funny, sometimes excruciating ways he experienced this culture clash. Link to performance:

“Unusual Normality” by Ishmael Beah: p. 9

Ishmael adjusts to life in America after being a child soldier in Sierra Leone. In a darkly funny and touching story that centers around a game of paintball, he describes how he kept the secret of his past from his new high school friends in an attempt to experience the innocence of childhood that he never got to have. Link to performance:


“The Two Times I Met Lawrence Fishburne” by Chenjerai Kumanyika: p. 59

Chenjerai is overjoyed when his hip-hop group hits it big and assumes that his star will continue to rise. When their success fizzles out, he has to come to terms with being a “one hit wonder” and what he will do with his life after his fifteen minutes of fame. Link to performance:

“Deja Vu (Again)” by Cole Kazdin: p. 118

Cole suffers from amnesia after hitting her head in an onscreen stunt. She struggles to relearn who she is, and to avoid repeating the relationship mistakes she can’t remember making. Link to performance: 

“Stumbling in the Dark” by John Turturro: p. 195

In this funny and touching story, John, a well-known actor, struggles to balance all the responsibilities of adulthood: to his mother, his mentally ill brother, his own career and life—all during the 2003 New York City blackout. Link to performance: 

“Downstairs Neighbors” by Shannon Cason: p. 209

A new family moves in below Shannon and his family in Chicago. When he realizes that his new neighbor Jesse is involved in dealing drugs, Shannon is torn about whether he should call the police. Link to performance:

“Modern Family” by Sara Barron: p. 132

When Sara meets the man she will eventually marry, there’s one relationship hiccup: he shares custody of a dog with his ex-girlfriend. Sara hilariously brings us into her crisis as she tries to be open-minded to modern romance but finds herself driven crazy by the ex-girlfriend’s active presence in their lives. Link to performance:

“Kidneys and Commitments” by Gil Reyes: p. 305

When Gil came out to his parents as gay, they told him they never wanted to meet anyone he was dating. But when Gil’s kidney unexpectedly fails and he’s in need of a kidney donor, only his boyfriend can save his life—and his relationship with his family. Link to performance:

“Light and Hope” by Bethany Van Delft: p. 297

When Bethany discovers that her daughter has Down Syndrome, she has to come to terms with expectations versus reality. With real honesty, Bethany lets us into her struggles of motherhood—and ultimately her discovery of the funny, strong daughter that she has. Link to performance:

Witness to History

“Fog of Disbelief” by Carl Pilliteri: p. 51

Carl was working in the Fukushima nuclear power plant when the 2011 tsunami hit Japan. He describes the day’s events with action-packed drama and palpable fear. When he escapes to safety, he tries to no avail to find the woman who always made him feel at home in Japan: the owner of his favorite restaurant, whom he lovingly called the “chicken lady.” Link to performance:

 “Call Me Charlie” by Josh Bond: p. 125

Josh manages an apartment building in Los Angeles and gets along well with his older neighbor/tenant, Charlie. One day in 2011, the FBI knocks on Josh’s door and informs him that “Charlie” is in fact Whitey Bulger, infamous mob boss and America’s most wanted criminal. Josh has a tough choice to make—a choice that makes history. Link to performance:

“The Shower” by Tomi Reichental: p. 149

When Tomi was nine years old in 1944, his family was taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. He describes the day when he and his mother are rounded up and taken to the showers. He can’t understand why the adults seem so anxious about taking a shower, but he senses the fear and describes with heartbreaking vividness their moments of suspense and anxiety. Link to performance:

“A New Home” by Dori Samadzai-Bonner: p. 174

In the early 1990s, Dori’s family fled Afghanistan and sought asylum in the United States. One day, after years of waiting for approval over their visas, they are summoned to court, where the judge tells them that they must return to Afghanistan, and where her father goes to desperate lengths to keep them safe. Link to performance:

“Undercover in North Korea with Its Future Leaders” by Suki Kim: p. 215

Suki Kim is the only person who has successfully entered North Korea as an undercover reporter. She tells the story of teaching in a university for the country’s elite in 2011—witnessing the culture of fear and lies that pervades the lives of even her young students. Link to performance:

“On Approach to Pluto” by Cathy Olkin: p. 310

In 2004, Cathy had worked for a decade on NASA’s New Horizons mission to photograph the surface of Pluto. Just as the New Horizon is set to orbit Pluto to complete its mission, the primary computer crashes. Cathy and her team must fight to see the fruits of her decade of work: all the wonders of a planet whose surface had never been seen before. Link to performance: