By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Mindy Ahrens used book with students at Northside Elementary
Joshua Wong didn’t like reading. That changed when his teacher selected “The Hunger Games” as a reading assignment at Hoover Middle School in San Francisco.
“I thought books were boring, but this book changed my mind,” explains the eighth-grader. “‘The Hunger Games’ is a page-turner, and I never know what is going to happen next. Now I guess I should try a book to see whether it’s good or not.”
Wong is among millions of students who have become enthralled with “The Hunger Games,” a trilogy by Suzanne Collins that depicts a bleak future where teens fight to the death in an annual tournament on live TV. Educators have found creative ways to use the book in the classroom, reports the New York Times. In addition to motivating students to read, “The Hunger Games” is generating powerful classroom discussions on government, oppression, inequality, surveillance, bullying, reality TV and morality.
That’s certainly the case at Hoover Middle School, says Wong’s language arts teacher, Sarah Gadye. She and Gerraldine Darlington, both members of United Educators of San Francisco, decided “The Hunger Games” should be read by the entire eighth-grade class, and they asked the PTA to purchase copies for 400 students. Students have been reading sections of the book aloud in class.
“Even struggling readers are picking up the book so they can be part of the conversation. They don’t even realize that they are discussing some very grownup themes,” says Gadye. “We want to engage as many kids as possible — even kids who hate reading. And we’ve been successful. We’re happy teachers.”
Students wrote essays and did research projects based on the book. Some described how the fictional country Panem and its Capitol mirror the Roman Empire, where gladiators fought to the death. A student researched post-traumatic stress disorder because she felt Haymitch, a Hunger Games champion and mentor who drinks excessively, suffers from that condition.
Characters in the book are constantly being watched by the government, so when Hoover School installed surveillance cameras, students hotly debated whether being recorded increased safety or violated their privacy. This led to further discussion about the government’s right to view phone and computer records of individuals.
“People who don’t talk to people outside of their own group are talking to each other about the book at lunchtime or on the Muni bus,” says student Riki Eijima.
With TV viewers following every move of the Kardashians, Snooki and other reality TV stars, Gadye asked her students to compare current shows with “The Hunger Games” — the ultimate reality show where death is usually the outcome. Some students made comparisons to “American Idol” and “The Bachelor,” where contestants suffer and cry before being eliminated. When asked by their teacher if they cheer for contestants to win — or lose — based on appearance, most students raised their hands in affirmation. Then they pondered whether this was good or bad.
“I had a lot of fun teaching this book,” says Gadye. “The best thing is that it got students thinking. We could have spent more time on it, but we don’t have lots of time because of testing. These days it’s challenging to do anything in depth, but we succeeded.”
Using the book in the classroom
Capitalizing on students’ passion for the book, Mindy Ahrens incorporated it into core subjects. When teaching percentages in math, she had them figure out the percentages of children from the 12 districts who are selected in a ceremony called the Reaping to become “tributes” and fight in the Hunger Games. There was also a class field trip to see the movie.
“On the bus ride home, I could not believe the rich conversations I heard from my kids,” says Ahrens, a sixth-grade teacher at Northside Elementary School in Cool, El Dorado County. “There was a lot of talk about utopia versus dystopia, where there is hunger and starvation. I was impressed with the amount of critical thinking.”
The book appeals to boys because there is a lot of action, while girls relate to the strong female heroine and a bit of romance, says Ahrens, a Black Oak Mine Teachers Association member. “I wanted to focus on the reality TV angle and why we keep watching these kinds of things. Why do we want to see the tears? Why do these things entertain us? In these types of shows, there is always an alliance and always a villain. We discussed many things, including trust and friendship. Even with the violence and craziness of the games, Katniss (the protagonist) builds trust in people.”
Marylen Haines, a teacher at Palomar Continuation High School, used the book as a basis for writing and vocabulary lessons. First she read the book aloud, and then had students continue reading during silent sustained reading time. She was impressed with the discussions that followed.
“They talked about the government and what can happen when you don’t use your right to speak out or vote, and what happens when the government makes decisions for you,” says Haines, a member of the Sweetwater Education Association. “A lot of my kids are turning 18, and ‘The Hunger Games’ helped them realize that their vote and their voice really mean something.”
Taking part in a Reaping
Before reading “The Hunger Games,” Sandrine LeGrand’s students took part in a Reaping ceremony and had to enter their names in a class lottery based on their age and number of family members, as in the book. Names were selected for one male and one female student to become “tributes.” They were asked to imagine being forced into life-and-death battles. Unlike the book, no one volunteered to take their place.
“I definitely wanted somebody else to be picked,” says Maurice Barajas, the boy tribute. “It didn’t seem fair, because other students had their names entered more times than me.”
LeGrand, a resource reading teacher for eighth-graders with learning disabilities at Leyva Middle School in San Jose, asked www.donorschoose.org to find a benefactor, and soon 35 books arrived in the mail. Her students instantly felt a sense of “belonging” because they were reading the same popular book with other students.
“The book is violent, but it’s not about random violence; it’s about survival skills,” says LeGrand, an Evergreen Teachers Association member. “It’s about keeping your humanity in challenging circumstances. It’s something these kids can relate to.”
She said that many of her students identified with Katniss, the lead character, because they, too, are poor. “They said that they envisioned the Capitol being white people and the districts filled with poor people who are Mexican.”
Like Katniss, her students also take care of younger siblings and see themselves as caregivers, says LeGrand. “And they liked the fact that Katniss was a strong, independent young woman who was able to take care of herself.”
Tips for teaching “The Hunger Games”
Ask students to compare it with classic books with similar dystopian themes such as “Lord of the Flies,” “Fahrenheit 451” or “1984.”
Ask students to write in journal format from the point of view of one of the main characters about what is taking place and how they feel about it.
Have students compare “The Hunger Games” with reality shows like “Survivor” or “American Idol.”
Assign research topics based on themes of the book, such as government oppression, surveillance and the Patriot Act, poverty, ancient Rome or McCarthyism.
Visit online sites offering lesson plans, such as teachershare.scholastic.com/resources/11485.
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