I met Joyce Carol Oates. In real life. I actually spoke to her. And, even more miraculous, she spoke to me. It happened unexpectedly--because of the extra hour it took us to find a place to park, we'd missed her speaking. We (Jen Moyers, another English teacher, and I) watched D. T. Max speak about his experiences with David Foster Wallace as he wrote Wallace's biography and then wandered over to the food trucks on the far end of the National Mall only to discover on our way there that Oates' line for signatures was disgracefully short. We jumped right in line, and before we knew it, we were there in her presence, giddy and bumbling as we tried to convey the phenomenal impact that she has had on our lives and the lives of our students. She was gracious and kind and she asked us where we were from and we rambled on about books and stories that we'd loved. It was a glorious moment.
Later that afternoon, I had the privilege of seeing Khaled Hosseini speak. He was interviewed by one of NPR's Fresh Air hosts, and he talked about his latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, as well as about his experiences in general, his novels, and his perspective on the world. He was a phenomenal speaker and it was such an honor to stand with thousands of other people who were there to show support and to listen to his wisdom and brilliance. When asked about his characters and morality, Hosseini said, "He's a good guy. He's a bad guy. To me, that's not interesting. It's the coexistence of those two entities within a person that is interesting." Hosseini talked about moral ambiguity and about the quest to do what is right. He spoke of how his works have evolved into more complex explorations of people who are neither all good nor all bad, but who are capable of both.
When asked about his writing process, Hosseini spoke about the images that come to him and the way that those images spark stories. For example, he said that Kite Runner came from the image of two boys participating in a kite running competition. Someone asked him about those images and how long he lets them simmer or resonate before acting on them. As he reflected on the writing process, Hosseini said, "It's more an act of discovery than an act of creation. It's as if the story is already there, waiting to be discovered." He spoke about the hopes that he has for a world where people better understand each other, and he commented with humility and grace on the honor he has had to speak on behalf of the Afgani people who are so poorly understood and frequently exploited by the western world. His words were powerful and they resonated with authenticity and sincerity. I cannot wait to read his latest novel!
This all occurred on Sunday of the book festival, on Saturday, we took 18 students from our high school to participate in the book fair. They were excited to be in DC and to see famous authors, but most of them were primarily there to see Veronica Roth. We all read Divergent by Roth as our school read last year, and it was well-received by the students, many of whom plowed through that novel at light speed and then read Insurgent as quickly as they could get their hands on a copy of it. To read more about how I used Divergent in class, see this post. The students waited over 2 hours in line without a single complaint to get Veronica Roth's autograph. They were thrilled to meet her and said that she was kind and personable.
We all went over to the teen tent (amid a torrential downpour) to see Roth speak. Her tent was packed to the brim. As she came on stage, the kids screamed and screamed like she was a rock star. Students chanted and shouted things like, "We love you, Veronica!" It was such a joy to see how much admiration and love teenagers could have for an author.
Roth spoke about the way that Tris, her main character, grew as she herself grew as a writer. She talked about her process, and how she wrote the scenes with Tris and Four first because she knew that the story was one that would be told through them together. She gave the kids lots of good advice about writing, including telling them to choose carefully to whom they gave their precious creative work, so that they would find people who would support and encourage them while also ensuring that they could grow.
Prior to our Divergent adventures, my group got to listen to Matthew Quick speak. I haven't had a chance to read his work yet, but after listening to him speak, I can't wait to read his latest works. He talked about being a voice-driven writer, and he talked about the way that he discovered the story by listening to the voice of his narrator. He also talked about Silver Linings Playbook, and how while he would have described the book in many ways, he would never have said that it was a book about mental health. However, he said, he was so happy that his novel had brought about some open and honest discussions about mental health and the way that our society is unwilling to confront it.
Both days were so inspirational, and it was one of the many times that I counted myself lucky and thrilled to be living so close to DC. It was an awesome experience that neither I nor our students will soon forget. (Photos and links to the Library of Congress video recordings coming soon!)
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.
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.