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Lake Oswego High School AP French class converse with manga author, Samuel Van der Ween

Lisa Grimm started class Wednesday morning, Oct. 30 by instructing her students exclusively in French. She asked for confirmation and got a couple blank and puzzled looks. Then she switched to English, and asked her students to turn to each other and check for comprehension.

She then went over to her desk to set up the Skype call the class was anticipating.

Something wasn't working with the sound on the Skype call and Grimm called for someone good with technology to come help. One student laughed and said, "Casey does robotics."

Soon several students gathered around Grimm, trying to solve the technical difficulty, when one girl said, observing the scene, "comment dit-on chaos?"

How do you say chaos?

"Chaos?" another answered hesitantly. Even a technical difficulty served as a learning opportunity.

For the entirety of the class period that day, students would have a graded conversation — via Skype — with Samuel Van der Ween, the author of the book they'd been reading as part of the semester's curriculum. The Japanese-style graphic novel, known as a manga, is called "The Path of Van Gogh."PMG PHOTO: ASIA ALVAREZ ZELLER  - Lisa Grimm holds up laptop to intorduce the class to author.

In the beginning of the semester, Grimm's class started off studying aesthetics. She said she usually doesn't kick off this way, "but because there was this fabulous exhibit at the Portland Art Museum on Paris in 1900, I decided to start off the school year with aesthetics."

She saw the opportunity to incorporate Van der Ween's manga into the curriculum.

"I really want to have a work of literature that nestles itself very well into the theme of aesthetics. .. So I thought, well, why not just get a hold of this and see if this could become something that would be really meaningful for students," Grimm said.

Grimm got her hands on "The Path of Van Gogh," read it in a single weekend and was thoroughly impressed.

She brought the idea to Rollin Dickinson, the principal of Lake Oswego High School, and he gave her the go-ahead to add it to her AP French 5 curriculum.

Van der Ween, 19, dropped out of secondary school at the age of 16. He didn't know what he wanted to do but he knew he didn't want to be in school.

Over the summer, he attended a three-week workshop at The Van Gogh Institute in the South of France. "It's in the city where Van Gogh lived his life," Grimm said.

Grimm said she's not sure what compelled Van der Ween to attend the workshop but "his dad was a Van Gogh expert." she said. So, that might have had something to do with it.

While studying at the institute, Van der Ween noticed exploitable elements in Van Gogh's life. The project he completed at the end of the workshop would become the rough draft for "The Path of Van Gogh."

The manga is the result of the work he did at 16, which he entered into a contest and then expanded on. It spans three years of artistic learning. As the book progresses, readers see Van de Ween's progression as an artist.

The manga is about Van Gogh's life, but it's also a murder mystery and contains autobiographical elements as well.

The manga is the first in a series of three. It's published by Shibuya, a popular publisher of mangas.

Like all mangas, it's read right to left. "The Path of Van Gogh" contains three chapters: The Yellow King, The Monster at the Doorstep and The Pathetic Heart of Men. "Things start going downhill in that chapter," Grimm said of chapter three.

The story of Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, who helps take care of Van Gogh due to his mental illness, is a main plot point in the manga.

Theo was an art dealer in Paris who was receiving some pushback from other dealers because he was backing and selling impressionism. "(Theo's colleagues) wanted to squelch him, and they even went so far as to threaten his livelihood and his family's livelihood," Grimm said.

In class on the day of the Skype conversation, the absence of sound from the incoming Skype call meant the class had to get creative. They used a laptop instead of the projector screen, passing it around so each student could introduce themselves. "Je m'appelle Natalie," "je m'appelle Amy," and so on.

They asked him questions in French and saw his response typed on the projector screen.

Every student was instructed to ask two questions, a minimum that wasn't hard to exceed given how engaged the students were in the conversation.

AP French 5 student, Ellie Nicoll said, "We're French 5, which, I don't know, people in France they study language their entire life so I was like 'oh god am I going to sound bad?' speaking to him. I didn't know what to think but now that we're here and doing it it's really actually pretty cool."

PMG PHOTO: ASIA ALVAREZ ZELLER  - Abby Tomita (front) and Ellie Nicoll (back) talk with author via Skype.

Questions ranged from silly to serious. On student asked Van der Ween if he used Snapchat.

While another asked about the difference between being an artist in France and being an artist in the U.S. Van der Ween said the capitalist system that governs art in the U.S. leads to constraints artists in France don't have. In France, he's more free to create because he doesn't have the pressure of having to create something people will buy.

Other questions explored the topics of his inspiration and writing routine.

Student Lauren Baumer, said, "It's cool to have this as a conclusion to wrap up this whole unit of reading the book."

Another student, Abby Tomita added, "It's also really nice that he's similar in age to us because it's a lot less pressure … a lot of times the authors we read in school are dead. This is a cool experience to be able to talk to an author that's living in the present."

PMG PHOTO: ASIA ALVAREZ ZELLER  - Lisa Grimm (left) hands laptop to Abby Tomita (right) to begin Skype conversation.

Grimm agreed that one reason this was such a meaningful opportunity for the class was because the students could relate to Van der Ween.

"I think something that's really interesting and very telling of Samuel's character is this quote that he put at the beginning (of the manga), which is 'what is difficult is good' … And that's something that we understood in our conversation with him is how hard he has had to work to produce this," Grimm said.

"It's inspiring to see because he's only a year older than us," said Baumer.

PMG PHOTO: ASIA ALVAREZ ZELLER  - Students talk with the author of 'The Path of Van Gogh.'

Nicoll added, "Especially in Lake Oswego, we're so pressured to go to a four-year college and everything and it's cool to see someone succeed who didn't do that."

After the Skype call had ended, Grimm turned to the class and said, "Best graded conversation ever, right?"

The students asked if they could do more of this sort of thing. She said she'll be looking more opportunities like this one because it really brought learning alive.


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