Let the Great World Spin Interdisciplinary Teaching Ideas
Read Phillipe Petit’s Creativity: The Perfect Crime. He argues that breaking societal rules is occasionally necessary for true artistic expression — discuss this idea and determine its validity. Research other works of art that have been viewed as socially deviant and their public reception.
Lara and Blaine have removed themselves from society in order to paint. Research artists who have chosen a similar way to devote themselves to their craft. Compare these characters who view themselves as revolutionary and their work as described in the novel to Petit and his walk.
Class discussion might center around the character of Fernando and his interest in graffiti and photography. Research street art and its reception in the “legitimate” art world.
When asked why he chose to walk between the Twin Towers, Phillipe Petit answered, “There is no why. Isn’t the joy, the beauty, the sheer magnificence enough of a reason?” Discuss this statement in light of arguments that art must have some utilitarian purpose and the ones that argue that art for art’s sake is enough.
The Vietnam War plays a large role in the novel — it is the impetus for the formation of the support group for mothers who lost their sons in the war, for instance. Research the innovations in weaponry (including herbicides and defoliants, etc.) and the longer-lasting implications of exposure to those weapons (such as Agent Orange).
Corrigan suffers from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). Research the disease, its symptoms, and treatment. Compare to other blood disorders.
BUSINESS & TECHNOLOGY
Computer hackers place prank calls at several points in the novel. Research crimes committed by hackers and the biggest financial gains garnered thereby as well as the penalties for any who were caught and prosecuted.
Trace the development of the use computers in military intelligence.
Joshua, Claire and Solomon’s son, was killed in Vietnam while working on computer programming to accurately calculate the number of soldiers lost during the war. Research programs that were actually used during this time period and trace their development and use through current conflicts.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE and LEGAL STUDIES
Read some of the historical news articles (using databases such as the Historical New York Times) regarding the apprehension and sentencing of Phillipe Petit. Hold class discussion regarding the crime (criminal trespass and disorderly conduct) and sentence and debate its appropriateness or lack thereof.
Read the following review of the novel from the point of view of a law student. Discuss his opinions of the character of Judge Soderberg and compare to your own interpretations of his character. http://www.lasisblog.com/2010/08/18/colum-mccann-spins-a-great-tale/
What role did post-secondary education play concerning conscription during the Vietnam era? Research colleges and professors who helped eligible men avoid the draft and ways in which they did so.
The controversial Coleman Report was published in 1966. Based on the varying socioeconomic backgrounds of the characters in the novel, discuss what their educational background may have been in the late sixties and early seventies. (You may wish to consider Joshua, Jazzlyn, Janice, and Jaslyn).
The novel begins with and periodically returns to Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Tade Center towers. Discuss the use of this event as a framing technique, and comment on its symbolic and thematic relationship to the other events in the novel.
Watch the following interview with Colum McCann, paying particular attention to his reasons for writing. Determine whether your students believe he has met the goals he articulated for writing this novel. Discuss whether the interview changes their perception of the novel in any way. http://youtu.be/kAMZSpHfURg
Some might argue that the book is character rather than plot-driven. Can any one character be identified as a protagonist or antagonist in the traditional sense of those definitions? If so, who might they be? If not, what effect might the lack of those characters have on the readers?
What is the symbolic value of the tightrope walker? Is he used simply as a metaphor, or is he a fully developed character in his own right?
Read the poem “Locksley Hall” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from which the title of the novel is taken. Why might McCann have chosen to use this line as the title of his novel?
Discuss the effect of the constant shifts in point of view throughout the narrative.
Compose a journal from the point of view of any character in the novel who does not have a chapter dedicated to him or her.
Examine the themes and symbols contained in the work, especially the use of the Twin Towers in post-9/11 America.
What is the National Book Award, and what other novels have been selected for this honor? Compare previous winners to Let the Great World Spin.
Compare the documentary Man on Wire to the scenes in the novel that depict both Phillipe Petit’s preparation and thought process and the walk itself. (Note: Documentary will be shown in the spring semester and admission will be free to all SCCC students).
Research development of The Walk (directed by Robert Zemeckis), due to be released in October 2015.
Compose a movie poster or book jacket for Let the Great World Spin.
The book includes a picture of an airplane flying by the tightrope walker as he walks between the Trade Center towers. What effect does this visual image have on the reader, especially in a post-9-11 society? What other images are included throughout the novel (in particular, at the start of individual chapters), and what, if anything, do they add to the narrative?
The novel is obviously ripe for examination in a variety of historical topics. You may wish to consider with your classes the era of the Vietnam War, the construction of the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Guatemalan Civil War, the Watergate Scandal and President Nixon’s resignation, etc.
The Vietnam War was the first televised war. Research ways in which this visual news medium influenced public perception of the conflict and whether it played a role in the outcome of the war.
The Watergate scandal is mentioned in the novel. With your class, you may wish to research Woodward and Bernstein and their role in the eventual resignation of President Nixon.
Using a database such as the Historical New York Times, locate and read articles about Phillipe Petit’s walk between the towers and his trial and sentencing. Discuss ways in which journalistic style has changed since the seventies.
Hackers call New York City and learn of Petit’s tightrope walk. Choose a similar contemporary topic (an apt one might be the attack on the Twin Towers on 9-11) and trace its distribution via news and social media that did not exist in 1974. How quickly did news of the topic of your choice reach a worldwide audience? Did the news story need to be changed or clarified as new facts become available? Compare to the length of time it took for news of Petit’s walk to reach a world audience.
Research Phillipe Petite’s walk between the World Trade Center Towers and discuss the challenges and considerations he and his team faced when setting up the wire.
Research Petit’s background as a circus-type performer, juggler, etc. and determine how his “tricks” are possible.
Discuss the role of grief support groups in America such as the informal one formed by the mothers who had lost their sons in Vietnam.
Several characters face addiction in the novel. Discuss the various types of addiction and the ways in which it is treated, managed, or ignored and the outcomes on the characters in question. (The chapter titled “This is the House that Horse Built” might be especially useful.)
Discuss Petit’s response to questions regarding whether he had any doubts when stepping out onto the wire strung between the Twin Towers: “I would have never stepped on that wire if I was not absolutely certain physically and mentally to get to the other side safely.”
Class discussion might center around the character of Corrigan, whom several other characters term “crazy.”
What is the role of religion in the novel? Consider the character of Corrigan, the itinerant brother, his views on organized religion, and how he is treated by other characters in the book.
Examine ways in which religious practice and devotion change during times of war or social upheaval.
Corrigan struggles with his vow of celibacy. Research the tradition of celibacy in various world religions and the reasons it is considered important, especially in some religious orders.
Research religious figures in the Catholic Church such as Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day or Daniel and Philip Berrigan and Thomas Merton and compare their philosophies to Corrigan’s. Consider the legacy of The Catholic Worker Movement in times of war and civil unrest.
The novel is useful for discussion of class differences since McCann purposefully attempted to capture a representative slice of the population who might have witnessed Petit’s tightrope walk. In particular, you may wish to consider the misgivings Claire has regarding her apartment and the ways it might be perceived by the other grieving mothers when they visit or Corrigan’s devotion to serving the aged and the prostitutes.
Research James Coleman’s report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity” published in 1966. Discuss this report in light of what we know or can assume about the varying educational backgrounds of the characters in the novel.
Class discussion might center around Tillie and Jazzlyn and the reasons they chose a life of prostitution, especially in light of Tillie’s strong desire to keep her daughter from such a life.
McCann makes use of the Twin Towers as a symbol in the novel. Discuss the symbolism of the towers on a larger scale — what did they mean to Americans? To the rest of the world? Why were they chosen by Petit for his walk and by others as targets on more than one occasion?