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Reading about Wadena from afar

Much of what Paul Hacking's second-year writing class in Kalisz, Poland knows about America comes from Hollywood, New York City and Wadena.

Hollywood makes the movies that export our culture overseas. Many of those movies involve New York, explosions and excitement.

Wadena's a bit different, students found.

Hacking, whose sister, Sara, is a reporter at the Pioneer Journal, had "built up a collection" of Pioneer Journal newspapers because of the family tie, and decided to put them to use in the class in Kalisz where he teaches advanced English.

The students learned about an America they weren't familiar with.

"For one, they kept wanting to know who this 'Dairy Queen' was," Hacking said.

He found the use of a small newspaper a good exercise for his students.

"It is a different language for them," Hacking said of the vocabulary in a small-town newspaper. "There are words they haven't picked up in their textbooks."

The students' fascination ran far beyond a few new words. They were attracted to -- or occasionally shocked by -- the culture.

"They love looking at the advertisements," Hacking said. "The car ads, especially."

The students were also interested in the coverage of small-town festivals, he said.

Other elements which are staples of rural journalism weren't as well-received -- such as obituaries in the newspaper.

"That was, for them, shocking, morbid, scary," Hacking explained. "It's not something that's really done in Poland."

Most of the newspapers there are roughly the size of "Life" magazine, and the coverage never includes obituaries, wedding announcements, births or other life events.

The lack of explosions and mayhem normally portrayed in Hollywood movies also surprised the students, Hacking said. He pointed to movies' tendencies to show a lot of tall buildings anytime America is shown on the large screen. To see coverage of rural areas was a switch for the new PJ readers.

"It's hard for my students to grasp the size of America -- it's so big," Hacking said.

Hacking and his wife, Joanna, visited Wadena last month to visit family and the city they'd been reading about. Hacking was born in Wadena, but moved away as a child.

He'll be keeping tabs in the future, too. He plans to use the Pioneer Journal and the people it covers to teach subsequent classes about America and newspapers.

"They can actually see real articles, how they are organized, how they are structured," Hacking said.

They'll learn sentence structure, and it's just a bonus if they read about a good car deal at a local lot, become fascinated with a young politician from Hewitt, or learn about the lives of people who recently died right here in Wadena.