"Everyone in this tale has a rock-solid hamartia: hers, that she is so sick; yours, that you are so well. Were she better or you sicker, then the stars would not be so terribly crossed,but it is the nature of stars to cross, and never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves.' Easy enough to say when you're a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars." ~page 111
I realized recently that I did not have a book review of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars on this site, and I instantly thought, "How is that POSSIBLE?!?" I eventually came to the conclusion that I had read the book shortly before beginning this blog, which probably explains the oversight.
Anyway, I'll begin this with a long overdue review of the novel. I should start by admitting that I had ABSOLUTELY NO desire to read this book. I hadn't read John Green at all at that point (a sad oversight that I've been working on since that time), but even if I had known what a great writer he was, I still would have been reluctant to read this particular story. Everyone at school who was raving about the book would sum it up by saying that it was an amazing love story of two kids who had cancer, and that it was heartbreaking. Yuck. I was repulsed for a couple of major reasons: (1) I HATE feeling manipulated by authors, and this (very BRIEF and INADEQUATE) summary sounded like the perfect recipe for profound reader manipulation. (2) My mother died of cancer nine years ago, and while I thought (at the time) that it would be enlightening for some people to read about what cancer is like, I had my own life experience all too fresh in my memory and did not feel that I needed any help understanding it.
But then the faculty book club at school selected the novel, and I found myself reading it despite my objections. I'm SO GLAD I did.
It's true that it's a book about two teens who have cancer--but really it's a book about two brilliant, hilarious, painfully teenager-y kids who are trying to figure out life just like everyone else. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters are two phenomenal young people, and they remind me so much of some of the amazing teenagers I've had the chance to know and work with over the past ten years--infinitely intelligent, snarky and optimistic, frighteningly unaware of the larger world. Hazel and Gus also have an obsession with an author, which leads them on all kinds of adventures. They are complex but loveable, and they live and love and discover so much that we, the readers, can't help but experience their adventures and suffering with them. Both Hazel and Gus suffer, but it is precisely their understanding of their illness that makes them such kindred spirits:
"Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile." (Green 213-14)
John Green does a phenomenal job of showing the inglorious nature of illness--the way that it strips people of even the honor of dying with dignity. He shows the profound impact sickness has on relationships, and the way that people (especially children) who are sick are isolated from the rest of the world by imaginary lines they can neither entirely understand nor control. But what I love most about this novel is that Green does not write a story about cancer; he writes a story about two teenagers who fall in love. It's a remarkable journey, and amazingly uplifting. More than my own testimony, I judge the success of this novel by the innumerable students who have read and passed along the single copy I own. As a testament to the well-loved nature of the book, notice the tattered edges of the cover in the image above. They all love it; lots of them are counting down to the release of the film in this coming June.
Reasons to teach this novel (and activities you might want to do with it):
"You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them. Language buries, but does not resurrect." ~page 112
Our students come back on Tuesday! We've had meetings since last Tuesday, so at this point, the thought of having class, and of getting into the normal routine, seems exceedingly blissful. I intended to post about back to school/ first day activities today, but after staring at my screen for a while, I decided that is a post for the near future. Today, I'd like to reflect on young adult literature that I discovered during summer reading this year.
This is the list of what I read from YA Lit this summer:
I couldn't say that I didn't enjoy any of these. They were all excellent novels. In fact, I was beginning to worry that I would reduce my credibility on Goodreads with my recent high ratings. I've given pretty much everything I've read this summer four or five stars. However, I realized eventually that the seemingly inflated ratings come from the fact that all of those books were recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste.
That brings me around to recommendations. I've discovered in the past year that talking with kids about books is the number one way to get them to read. I read things and tell my students about them; the next thing I know, they are reading them for themselves. They make their own judgments--I particularly enjoy it when a student plows through a book that I loved and then tells me that s/he did or did not particularly like specific things about it.
My thoughts about the books from this summer:
Lauren Oliver is brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed discovering her writing this summer. Her narrators are complex and challenging, and she moves forward at a riveting speed that leaves the reader breathless. I think (despite my initial doubts during the first 100 or so pages) I ultimately liked Before I Fall better than the Delirium series, but both were amazing reads that have been enjoyed by my students as well as me.
Saenz is a phenomenal writer and his story poignantly and directly attacks the struggles that teenage boys encounter when they discover that they are a bit different from their peers. It's a story of loneliness, self-discovery, and compassion, and I loved every minute of it.
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a hilarious, insightful story with a brilliant narrative voice. It moves quickly and is a great read for teens navigating the complex pathways of social networks in high school, as well as those who are struggling with the illness of a friend or family member. It's honest and sheds an authentic light on the hilarity and absurdity of life as well as the complexities of the human experience.
I just finished Bitterblue, and I can't say enough about how much I love the world that Kristin Cashore created. She thoroughly engrosses her reader in the fantasy world of seven kingdoms (with another world accessible only through tunnels). What I particularly like about those books is the continuity of progressive thinking and strong female narrators throughout each of the novels. I also love the way that the novels complement one another while telling unique, fascinating stories. Though I loved all three novels, I found Bitterblue the most powerful as Cashore reveals through that novel the long lasting impact of a devastating tyrant and the challenges that people face in the aftermath of such a horrible experience.
John Green's novel was brilliant--funny, moving, and perfect for teen readers who are feeling alone and learning to relate to the world and their friends. This is an awesome story about the unlikely meeting of two very different teenage boys who discover that they have some things in common. It's an excellent book for teenagers who are dealing with relationship issues, loneliness, sexuality issues, or depression. It's simply a great novel for readers who are looking for a fun read about the struggles of "normal" teenage life.
Marie Lu's series is AWESOME! I love the alternating narrators and the way that their lives intertwine. The story itself is compelling, and Lu unveils her post-apocalyptic, dystopian world bit by bit in a way that keeps the story ever suspenseful and intriguing. They are excellent reads and are among the best of the genre that I've read so far.
I loved, loved, loved Hold Still. It was raw and honest about the devastation that people experience in the wake of suicide. However, what makes it remarkable is the way that LaCour shows with candor and authenticity how art and love and reflection can bring about healing and remembrance. It is a story of bravery and hope, and it addresses mental illness and self harm in a way that is approachable for teen readers as well as adults.
Finally, I will end with the book that began my summer. The Dog Stars is a phenomenal book. It took me quite a while to get into that one, but it was well worth the wait. It is a brilliant book that shows the desire to keep living in a post-apocalyptic world where virtually nothing is left. The narration is powerful with curt, broken syntax and sharp realities depicted in single word phrases. “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.” This is a remarkable story, and it would be a good one to teach in an advanced or AP class.
Well, this has turned out to be longer than I anticipated... I loved the novels I read this summer (almost as much as I loved the summer itself), and I can't wait to share them with the students this coming week. Best wishes to all of you fellow teachers as you settle in to a new year with your students.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: Thank you so much for all of the emails and comments regarding this post and the materials I created. As of 9/4/14, the materials are now available on TeachersPayTeachers at my (newly created) store, Teaching the Apocalypse. Please check it out and download the materials from there (you'll have to create an account to download the materials). If they are useful to you, please RATE THEM on this page, and leave comments. You can FOLLOW ME on TpT, where I will soon post more materials and activities.
"We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another."
As you are likely aware, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a young adult dystopian novel that was first released in April of 2011. The second in the series, Insurgent, was released in May of 2012. According to my students, the next book, Allegiant, will be released in October of this year. The first novel, which is what I will focus on in this post, revolves around the choices that a teenage girl must make as she moves toward adulthood. It is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the society is divided into factions based on which attribute they most value (bravery, truth, peace, knowledge, or selflessness). At the beginning of the book, the main character must choose her faction, and once she makes that choice, she must learn to live with the impact of that decision. Meanwhile, the world around her is rapidly changing and deteriorating in ways she only begins to discover. For more information about the book series, you can see Veronica Roth's page. Here's the trailer for the movie to be released in March 2014.
Above all else, I judge teen lit by how much excitement it generates in my students. We read Divergent in August, and I still had students talking about the movie and showing me images of the new book cover as late as May. I had three copies of Insurgent for the classroom, and they were constantly in demand and read (voluntarily) by almost half of my students. This book series resonates with the students and generates a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in reading. It is exciting and dares students to consider their own bravery, but it is also the story of a teenage girl discovering love and romance, which the students enjoy as much as they do the intensity of the action.
Last year, I began the year for English 9 with Divergent. The unit revolved around active engagement and how to make choices in the classroom and in the community. One of the things I loved about beginning the year that way was that students used Divergent during our SSR (sustained silent reading) time. That made it easier for them to adjust to SSR, and it was also nice because it allowed students who flew through the reading to move on to other books while giving students who took longer to read the support and time that they needed to get through the novel.
The novel focuses on choice--the fact that above all else, the choices that we make determine what happens in our lives. It also highlights the interrelationship between choices and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because it was the beginning of the year and the beginning of my students' high school careers, we focused on parallels between choices in the novel and choices that they were making in their own lives and as citizens within the school community. I used nonfiction and poetry supplements to enhance the novel and highlight the skills that we were developing.
The unit revolved around three essential questions:
As far as skills are concerned, I focused on point-of-view, characterization, tone, inference and close reading skills (including annotation). As we moved toward the end of the novel, we focused on theme and finding textual support to prove theme statements. The students completed plot questions and double entry journals for homework (I've attached a sample of that assignment below). For assessment, I used quick reading quizzes and daily formative skills checks. We had discussions and practiced the skills with supplemental readings. As far as major assessments, I used two skills assessments. The first was an excerpt from a major scene in the novel and the second was a cold reading passage. We also had a Socratic discussion at the end of the novel for which the students prepared, and the students wrote responses to some guided questions on Schoology prior to the discussion. For more information about Socratic discussions, see my previous post.
The document below includes the way that I broke up the reading, a description of their homework and a model of the double-entry journal. It also includes the homework for chapters 1-4. In the journals, the students moved from practicing inferences to tone and finally to theme statements. If you like this activity and are interested in having more of the packet, please feel free to contact me directly. These journal entries could certainly be modified to use in class as a way to reflect on and respond to the reading.
The final project required students to create their own factions. It was a research project and it included a group presentation. The students had to come up with the faction characteristics and create a name with a complex meaning. They had to find a possible representative from real life of that faction and research the person's life as an illustration of how that person demonstrated the traits of the faction, and they had to make connections to the novel with passages from the book. Here is a PDF of the assignment sheet, the rubric for the projects, the audience participation guide, and the peer and self-evaluation that I created last year.
Phew! That just about sums it up, I guess. I do have more materials and activities that went with the unit (in case you're interested), but I tried to include the major assignments and the general approach. As far as changes for this coming year, I will likely NOT teach tone as one of the main skills with this novel. I discovered that because the novel has so much dialogue, many students became confused between characterization and tone. They would focus on a character's specific tone in his/her words instead of finding the tone of the passage, and it was challenging to explain the nuances of the difference. They found clarity as we looked at descriptive passages, but it was perhaps an unnecessary confusion. I might also drop the double entry journal entries down from two entries to one (or have them do one at home and one in class). The length of the novel was overwhelming for some students, so I will do more next year to help them with modifications as needed. We have a couple of copies of the audio of the novel, and one of our ELL teachers created chapter summaries of the novel that we'll use for struggling students. I'm also considering teaching Romeo and Juliet first this coming year so that students can take a field trip to see the play at the amazing Staunton replica of the Blackfriar Playhouse before it leaves in November, so I will likely introduce some of the concepts such as inference and close reading skills at an earlier time.
As a final thought, I'd like to encourage teachers considering teaching YA lit in the classroom to take the plunge. At my school, many people are very supportive--in fact, this last year, we purchased Divergent and the whole school read it at some point during the year. I know that may not be the case everywhere, but I find that we as educators can continue discovering the balance between classical, canonical texts and contemporary texts written for teens. Many students (both boys and girls) told me that Divergent was the first book that they had honestly read from cover to cover, and that paved the way to a much more prosperous year as far as silent reading and setting individual reading goals. What I love most about YA lit is the way that the stories address complex issues (such as why wars happen and how to make difficult choices and face your fears) in ways that are accessible and appealing to teens. I've read SO MANY amazing YA books that would work well in the classroom. The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare is amazing, as is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (how do I not have a post on that novel yet? Coming soon...) would be an awesome novel to teach, and it would work nicely as an exploration of text-to-text comparisons with a focus on audience since the film and novel are quite different. I also love the idea of teaching the first book in a series because that gives students a great jumping off point for their own reading. As far as realistic fiction, I just read Hold Still by Nina LaCour, which addresses the impact of suicide on a community, and our department discussed teaching John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which includes teen romance, the role of fate, and illness.
Have you taught (or are you considering teaching) any YA lit novels in your class? Please share your comments and ideas! I look forward to learning what others are doing with this amazing genre.
While I intend to focus primarily on contemporary YA lit and how to use it in the classroom, it’s been “much upon my mind that I ought to tell…the whole truth,” (things I remember from my own high school experience: Dickens’ Great Expectations) and the truth is that in class, I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet. Couldn’t get more classic, less contemporary, could we?
Because of its canonical aspects and the language barrier, I approached the unit with trepidation. While I’ve taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, I have rarely taught freshmen and had not yet come across this particular task.
I have no use for beating difficult texts over students’ heads (metaphorically, of course—I feel obligated to highlight that I do not promote abuse). I certainly have done my share of suffering when teaching texts that students did not enjoy (A failed attempt at The Crucible comes to mind, as do the early parts of years when I taught American lit as a chronological survey course). While I love teaching Hamlet to seniors, I found the thought of Romeo and Juliet with freshmen intimidating. I believe in instilling the love of literature and of learning in the hearts and minds of kids, and I believe that some texts invite that possibility more than others.
So I did what I do when I am anxious—I researched (which, as a random aside, is a terrible plan when it comes to things like medical concerns, but which works quite well for conquering fears over teaching certain texts). I came across lots of mediocre ideas and some stellar ones as well. I used one of John Green's amazing Crash Course videos (see youtube link here) to get the students interested and give them some helpful background information. For other engaging activities during the unit, I relied especially heavily on Dana Huff’s posts (on www.huffenglish.com). I was most excited by her ideas about pairing scenes from the Zeffirelli version of the film (1968) with the Luhrmann version of the film (1996). Many of the students are visual learners, and all of them are better equipped to interpret and analyze film, so those activities have been amazingly successful. They made great notes, had good discussions, and wrote strong essays. The films bring out so much of the power within the writing and the story. I watched Luhrmann’s version of Act V scene iii five times. This is the testament to the power of interpretation: I felt a shiver of chills every time Romeo took the poison and felt Juliet’s hand. I’m not easily moved, but I cringed (as did every student watching) as Romeo discovered the horrifying truth.
The unit has been much more successful than I expected. They have become much better at paraphrasing, have made tremendous progress with reading, and have managed to push through the difficult language and into the complex issues that the story itself presents. With the recent epidemic of star-crossed lovers in awesome YA lit novels, the story feels remarkably relevant and even exciting. (If any teachers want to contact me for additional ideas or resources for Romeo and Juliet, please feel free to do so on the contact page or through twitter.)
And so I look toward next year’s Fate and Choice unit with excitement instead of dread. I keep thinking of all the things I can change and add. I used a small excerpt from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (a phenomenal novel! A review of this will come at some point, I’m sure, but at this moment suffice it to say that I highly recommend it) this year to help students understand the term star-crossed, but I’m excited about the notion of introducing more pairings next year. I just read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which is exquisitely written and includes a delightful balance between the crude nature of zombies and the irrepressible force of love), and I’m fantasizing about fun pairings between balcony scenes and other aspects of the two texts. Whether it’s gnomes (I have full intentions of using some aspect of the movie Gnomeo and Juliet), zombies, or terminally-ill teens, the power of this trope resonates throughout our world.
As R. says in Warm Bodies: “In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
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 2018. 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.