A quick synopsis for people who have not yet read The Road (2006): A father and son (who remain unnamed throughout) travel on a road that was once an American interstate, moving toward the south and the ocean in an attempt to find a warmer place and potentially other people like them. The father remembers all too well the world that once was; the young boy, who was born at the time of the apocalyptic event, cannot imagine what that world was like. The man often ponders the ghost of the world that once was: “Query: How does the never to be differ from what never was?”
I should begin by saying that I love Cormac McCarthy so passionately that this post will undoubtedly be more biased than usual. That said, until The Road came along, I never imagined that I would find myself using one of McCarthy’s texts in class.
What I love the most about The Road (as far as classroom use) is its accessibility, its honesty, and its hopefulness. While many students and readers of The Road would argue that it is fatalistic or hopeless, I maintain that while it is bleak (traveling alone to an unknown destination long after the almost complete annihilation of humanity is a bit grim), it is a story full of hope. As the father says to the boy, “You have to carry the fire…It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
To carry on as the man and the boy do in a world where nothing is left is both exquisitely human and excruciatingly beautiful. “Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”
One of the great aspects of this novel for teachers is that it functions on many levels. It is relatively easy to read and moves quickly, but its profundity enables meaningful explorations and discussions.
Another aspect I love about teaching this novel is the research project I have had the students do with it. Focusing on the following question, they research and present their arguments to the class: What happened prior to the beginning of the novel, and what would drive humans to make the choices that they do in the text?
This project encompasses several goals at once. The research is authentic and driven by a clear purpose, but it caters to students’ beliefs about the world and their unique interests rather than focusing narrowly on literary analysis. It also forces them to grapple with the more gruesome aspects of humanity such as cannibalism. The groups must persuade their classmates that they have the most convincing argument. McCarthy provides hints of aftermath within the novel (which they must utilize and incorporate into their presentations), but he leaves the issue ultimately undisclosed.
To be fair, to the characters in the novel, it doesn’t make any difference at all what happened. No knowledge of the previous events would alter the devastating reality of their present world, and I doubt McCarthy cares much what readers believe about what happened. However, like any good open-ended question, it is worthy of pursuit, and it gives students a chance to demonstrate how creativity, thorough research, and the power of persuasion can all fit together to serve their purpose.
Have you had success with other activities for The Road or similar texts? Do you have other research project ideas? Please post them in the comments section! If you’d like the materials that go with the research project for The Road, please email me and I will send them directly to you.
“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.”
The first in its series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor is a riveting story that draws you in from the moment it begins. Much of the first novel is mysterious as Karou attempts to figure out who she really is and how she fits into the world. Constantly lonely, Karou struggles to relate to other people and to find her place. It isn’t until she meets Akiva, an angel who should be her mortal enemy, that she begins to discover traces of her true self. However, as she makes that discovery, her only true family is torn away from her and she finds that she is more alone than ever before.
Throughout both of the novels already released in the series, Karou struggles to reconcile what is in her heart with the harsh reality of her world. These novels grapple with the impact of war. Brimstone, Karou’s surrogate father, says to Akiva: “Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters? I've seen things… There are guerrilla armies that make little boys kill their own families. Such acts rip out the soul and make space for beasts to grow inside. Armies need beasts, don't they? Pet beasts, to do their terrible work! And the worst part is, it's almost impossible to retrieve a soul that has been ripped away.” Brimstone explores the way that war impacts communities. Although it is a fantasy novel with angels and demons, Taylor dives into the all-too-human essence of war and revenge and the way that those forces can decimate the soul.
Days of Blood and Starlight is even more riveting than Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Laini Taylor never lets the action lapse as Karou rediscovers her past and finds new and courageous ways to help her people. I can’t wait for the next novel!
Translation for teen readers and the classroom: This is an excellent series for teens who love fantasy and who aren’t intimidated by longer books. The kids are tearing through them in my classes, and so far both novels are receiving rave reviews. As far as classroom application, what I love most about this series is the way that it gets into the heart of war. It forces the reader to reconcile the fact that there are good people (and bad people) on both sides who are simply doing what they have been trained to do, and that their preconceived notions of the “other” are shaped at birth and enable them to justify the violence. The novels do a stellar job of showing the devastation that war causes for everyone involved, both on a personal level and on an epic scale.
“Dead souls dream only of death. Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is.” ~Laini Taylor, Days of Blood and Starlight
If you're interested in stories where the apocalyptic event actually occurs, The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is an excellent choice. In this intriguing story, Julia, the eleven-year-old narrator, experiences the slow decline of civilization as the Earth begins to slow its spin. From dying birds to mysterious sicknesses, the impact of the ever-increasing period between night and day continues to mystify and terrify Julia and her family. Meanwhile, she finds herself in her own tumultuous and often lonely adventure of early adolescence, a time made even sharper and more isolated by the changes occurring around her. She writes from a later perspective, looking back on those early events with bewilderment and nostalgia. She states the paradoxical nature of the peculiar occurrence: "We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology. We had robot arms and robot hands , robots for roving the surface of Mars...We could make a dead man's heart pump blood through the body of a stranger. We were making great strides in the realms of love and sadness--we had drugs to spur desire, drugs for melting pain. We performed all sorts of miracles... And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known" (Walker 266). Julia struggles to find her way in an ever-changing world in which she is often painfully alone. The future remains frighteningly uncertain, and yet she finds that she is able to continuously move forward and face that future.
Translation for teen readers and the classroom:
This novel would address a variety of issues that could fit well in the classroom. It's a painfully conscious testimony to the struggles that children face as they become teenagers--struggles to fit in with others, to protect themselves from pain, to understand their parents and the adult world. It raises issues about loyalty, friendship, bullying, and alienation. Although it is an intriguing and creative work of fiction, it would not be an easy read for reluctant readers. On the other hand, it would appeal to students interested in apocalyptic events that, while intense, are not particularly violent or dramatic. It speaks particularly well to the experience of students on the fringe of social groups who struggle to blend into the larger social scene. It is a tender account of the human experience of adolescence and the desire to be remembered and to endure.
“Clearly the end is coming,” she said, pushing her bangs out of her face. They instantly fell back over her eyes, shading her beautiful face from the world. I contemplate what she means. “We all know it’s coming. It’s just a question of what it will be.”
I laugh, half because I think it’s what I’m supposed to do and half because I’m uncomfortable with the prospect that she might be serious. She shoves her bangs out of her face again and for an instant, I see the sparkle in her brown eyes, caked with dark eyeliner. In the moment that I can see her gaze, I find her studying me, as serious as the grave. She seems strangely excited and resolute. There is no trace of humor in her eyes.
“My vote is on zombies,” she says confidently. “You know, it could happen anytime.” She gestures wildly around the room as her bangs form a curtain again covering her face. As I follow the gesture of her arm, I suddenly see her fellow students, crazed and active in various states of frenetic energy, in a new and eerie light.
“It could be worse,” she says resolutely from behind the veil of her hair. I consider her statement. I guess she’s right.
She stares at me through strands of her black hair. There is conviction in her voice as she says, “I won’t go out without a fight.”
I nod. What else is there to say? There isn’t much more that any of us can hope for than to put up a valiant fight when the time comes. Zombies and all.
It was then, at that moment of prophetic importance for the single girl student professing what she knew to be true, that I realized that something fundamental had changed in the consciousness of my students. They live in a world that we, the adults, both fear and fail to understand. In their world, the reality of humanity’s frailty is omnipresent. Gone are the days of humanity’s bold and brazen position as the pinnacle of existence. Unbeknownst to those of us whose brains have ceased growing, the world as we know it no longer exists. Humanity is no longer the apex of a complex hierarchy. The teens of today know what we, the adult world, can only grasp at with frail, flimsy comprehension.
We are not the top of anything. And our end will come.
The children of the twenty-first century are the prophets, the realists, and the planners. They are aware at every moment, in every way, of the fact that our tenuous existence could cease at any moment. They ponder which end will consume them. They’re comforted by the simplicity of poems like “Fire and Ice.” They fear much more complex apocalyptic scenarios. They dread the lengthy progression of a slow, gradual extinction. They awaken each day understanding in a way that I, a cynic and pragmatist of the 1980s, can only begin to vaguely fathom.
They live in the era of the apocalypse. And we, their so-called educators, can only do our best to keep up with their evolutionary prospective.
It seems appropriate to proclaim here the purpose of this blog: I intend to explore how to teach trending literature to a population who grows in many ways but continues to stretch farther and farther from the literature we as a society hold so dear. They are amazing kids and they deserve our best. If my creativity can stretch half as far as theirs, I might be lucky enough to serve their needs from time to time.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.