This post includes English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. It’s part of a series that shares English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for selections from Duke TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Online Book Club for gifted and talented students, which you can re-purpose for your classroom.
Why The Phantom Tollbooth?
- Sophisticated, fun word-play to introduce and illustrate puns and idioms, as well as the concepts of denotation and connotation
- A novel that employs familiar and popular narrative techniques – a portal story and a quest story, along with a less familiar technique – overt allegory – in an unusual and compelling way
- Opportunities to help gifted students (and teachers!) reflect on the purpose of learning and their own attitudes toward school in general and different subjects in particular.
- Social-emotional topics related to boredom, motivation, and expectation/goal-setting
- Engaging, challenging interdisciplinary connections in neuroscience, genetics, math, cartography, and philosophy
- An award-winning children’s book
About the Book
To Milo most everything seems to be a waste of time, and learning seems to be the biggest waste of all. Milo simply doesn’t understand why he needs to solve word problems or learn geography or be able to spell. He always wants to be where he isn’t, and he’s never satisfied when he gets where he’s going.
One day after school, Milo discovers a large package waiting for him in his room, a “GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH.” Since Milo has nothing better to do, he assembles the tollbooth, pays his fare, and begins his journey to the Lands Beyond. Milo is joined by some unusual friends, and the company is drawn into a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason. Along the way, they learn what happens when you jump to Conclusions, and they question whether words or numbers are more important for Wisdom.
About the Author
Norton Juster, an architect, planner, and professor, has written many celebrated children’s books, including The Hello, Goodbye Window, which won the Caldecott Award, The Dot and the Line, and The Odious Ogre. The Phantom Tollbooth has been named one of the National Education Association’s “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and readers of School Library Journal named the book one of the “Top 100 Chapter Books” of all time. Mr. Juster lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Have you taught The Phantom Tollbooth ?
Sample Reading Journal Prompts and Discussion Questions
We learn a lot about Milo in the first chapter of this novel. Use this Character Grid to note at least five different examples of Juster’s characterization of Milo. These examples might include things that Juster tells us directly about Milo, or they might be things that Milo says or thinks, which we, as readers then have to interpret. Then write an adjective to describe Milo based on each example.
- Can you relate to Milo as a character?
- Is he a likeable character? Why or why not?
As you continue reading (rereading) note how Milo is growing and changing throughout the story, and be sure to use your Character Grid to track other characters as you meet them.
Milo’s first stop in the Lands Beyond is the land of Expectations, which is an early example of something to look for throughout your reading (or rereading) of the novel: the author playing with language. Your Reading Journal will get a workout, but make note of instances of puns (humorous wordplay) in the novel. Often Juster will be playing with an idiom, which is an expression that can’t be taken literally, like “it’s raining cats and dogs.” Sometimes Juster will be punning with other expressions, like “going beyond expectations,” and with the names of places, like the Doldrums. For each example of wordplay you find, think about what the author is doing with the expression, how it works (or doesn’t work) in the story, and why.
- Pay particular attention to “Faintly Macabre’s Story” (Chapter 6, pp 71 – 79), as it provides an important history lesson for the kingdom of Wisdom, including the story of the founding of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis.
Create a Venn diagram listing the similarities and differences in these two cities, and add to that list as you continue reading (or rereading) the novel.
- What is most important in each city? Why? How do you know?
- In what ways do these cities represent the way you think about words and numbers? About language arts and math?
- In which city would you be most comfortable?
In Digitopolis Milo says that he doesn’t think numbers are very important, which infuriates the Dodecahedron.
- Why do you think Juster chooses to have numbers found, not made?
- How does this compare to words in Dictionopolis?
- Do you find the Dodecahedron’s explanation about the importance of numbers convincing?
- As you continue reading (or rereading) the book, what do you think the author is trying to tell us, as readers, about the relationship between words and numbers?
- In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is magically transported from our world to a fantasy world, where adventures take place but time seems to stand still in our world.
- What other stories, novels, or films use a similar technique
- How is The Phantom Tollbooth similar to those stories? How is it different?
- Why do you think these kinds of stories are so popular?
- What can an author accomplish with this technique that he or she can’t accomplish with a story either set entirely in our world or entirely in the fantasy world?
Milo says, “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” He thinks “seeking knowledge” is “the greatest waste of time of all” (9).
- Have you ever felt that your school experience was just a series of learning useless facts? In your opinion what is learning supposed to be like? Why is it important?
- Is “seeking knowledge” the purpose of education? Why or why not? If not, then what is the purpose of education?
- How have your best teachers helped you to see the point of what you were learning?
- What is the most interesting, useful, or meaningful thing you’ve ever learned in school? What made that particular lesson so memorable for you?
- How is the idea of “seeking knowledge”, and Milo’s attitude toward it, an important one throughout The Phantom Tollbooth?
The Whether Man tells Milo that “some people never go beyond Expectations” (19). In The Phantom Tollbooth, Expectations is a place along the road to your actual destination, but for us, expectations can shape how we perceive ourselves, our experiences, and others.
- As a place, Expectations is really neither good nor bad in the novel, unless of course you stay there. In the way we think about and understand expectations, how can expectations be helpful to us? How can they be not so helpful?
- What does it mean to go beyond expectations? What are the possible consequences of never going beyond our expectations?
- Share a time when you’ve gone beyond expectations. What was your motivation? How did it make you feel?
Interdisciplinary Topics to Explore
Saving for the Future
- an introduction to the history and mission of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway
- an investigation of a potential threat to the vault
- questions to help students think about what they would want to keep in a vault to ensure its/their survival
A Sensory Symphony & an Odd Oath
- an exploration of the neuroscience of synesthesia
- an introduction to the Hippocratic Oath and discussion questions about the relevance of the modern oath that is still used in many medical schools today
It’s About Time
- a timeline exploring the history of time measurement
- an introduction to a couple of “old philosophers” (as Tock calls them) – Plato and Immanuel Kant, who thought and wrote about time.
- an introduction to carpe diem poems, which, of course, focus on making the most of time
- discussion questions to help students think critically about selected carpe diem poems and relate the poems’ ideas to their reading of The Phantom Tollbooth.
- an exploration of the history of maps and cartography
- an investigation of the technology behind GPS – our modern-day “maps”
- an introduction to the different types of information maps can provide, using an interactive map-making tool from National Geographic.
Numbers Never Lie, or Do They?
- an introduction to different numbers used in statistics
- guidance on collecting and analyzing data for an experiment using statistics
- an exploration of the ways statistics can be manipulated and how to avoid being misled by them
To Infinity and, well, you know…
- an exploration of the mathematical concept of infinity
- an introduction to Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.