Before starting our next novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, my classes are investigating utopias to lay some groundwork for their thinking. First, I had them read about 3 real life utopias, including The Farm, Twin Oaks, and Acorn Community. They spent a class period reading and learning, then drawing conclusions about common features of successful utopias. Next, I had them think about what they would like to see in their very own utopia – what kinds of problems they would like to solve, and how they can build a successful, sustainable community.
For 3 days, they paired up and created their own personal utopias, complete with:
I let them create their utopia using any medium they wished (digital or physical), expressing themselves in any way they wished (verbally, in writing, in pictures, drawings, dioramas, etc.). They really enjoyed the freedom of choice and expression for this learning activity.
While they were working, I traveled around the room and did my best to listen and ask thoughtful questions. One group asked for my help when they became troubled about the idea of killing animals for meat, realizing it didn’t jive with their principles of non-violence and peace. I encouraged them to do additional research and see if they couldn’t find a solution for humane ways to kill animals. After quite some time searching, they concluded that there were no humane ways to slaughter animals, so they rebuilt their utopia into a vegetarian paradise. Another group felt that they wanted shortened school days so that children had more time to explore the outdoors and begin career training. They decided to get rid of science classes, which they felt were redundant. I began to question their need for medical professionals, food safety, agricultural engineering, and on and on and on…. and they quickly realized that science was a very important class that they needed to add back into their education plan.
Most of all, I loved watching my students think through problems on their own. This activity encouraged them to do some deep thinking and reflecting on what really matters in our current society, why things might be the way they are, and dream about what they would like to see differently for a better future. They also had to compromise and build off their partner’s ideas.
After 3 days of researching, planning, and creating, it was time to present their utopias to the class. I had the pleasure of watching over 40 presentations, and I noted some very uplifting and hopeful trends across all of the utopias. Overall, these ideas were repeated over and over again in the students’ visions for a perfect world:
nonviolence, no weapons
renewable energy and solar power
respect for nature
equality and respect for diversity
community service (both mandated for all citizens, and as a first-strike punishment)
Other trends that I found interesting and thought-provoking were the ideas of: government provided housing (everyone rents, no one ever owns), shortened school days/hours so that students could pursue career-related activities, regulated working hours (everyone works the same amount of hours per week, regardless of profession), and more support for apprenticing and on-job training starting in high school (trade schools?). Some disappointing trends I heard repeated were the ideas that social studies is a pointless subject and waste of time (guess we need to do a better job emphasizing the importance of this subject, especially in our democratic society!) and exiling members who disobey (nope, we can’t do that, sorry guys!).
Overall, this was a very enlightening activity, both for me and for the students. I believe it will help them better understand the world that Lois Lowry has created in “The Giver,” and better understand some important themes such as Sameness throughout the book. It could also lay the groundwork for some very interesting conversations in Social Studies about the concepts of Socialism and Communism!
Have you read the novel Spite Fences? I didn’t think so. It is a wonderful novel for 8th through *9th graders, but it is so often overlooked! (*Note: Scholastic says that this novel is geared for 6-8th grade interest levels, but I disagree based on the content and figurative language). I have been teaching this novel unit for the past 7 years, and I always see a tremendous amount of growth in my students – I just love this unit, and it is the perfect way to end our 8th grade year! We find so many ways to make cross-curricular connections between Language Arts and Social Studies with this unit.
The novel is about a 13-year old girl named Maggie Pugh who lives in a small Georgian town in the 1960s. She is poor, white, and the victim of abuse from her mother and next-door neighbor. She is at the age where she begins to notice things – facilitated by the gift of a camera to help her ‘see the world’ – and she questions the segregation and customs in her town. Because this novel is historical fiction, it is filled with references to important Civil Rights Era people and events. Since Maggie is a very bright young girl, and also a bit of a tomboy, my students don’t view this as a ‘girl’ book – in fact, my boys really love it and demonstrate much growth in their critical evaluation skills while reading/discussing this novel.
The magic of this novel is that it is the perfect piece to help students begin to discover figurative language. Spite Fences is rife with challenging language and thought-provoking questions about morals and real-world conflicts. It investigates important themes of human rights, dignity, faith, coming of age, and staying true to one’s beliefs. My students become outraged by many of the events, and we have very lively classroom discussions. There are so many subtle hints and hidden treasures that only a discerning, critical reader will catch. When I point out that the ‘fence’ represents oh-so-much-more than just a wooden structure, and that it is 6 feet tall, made of pine (::cough:: casket ::cough::) the students are mesmerized by the layers of depth and meaning.
My only lament is that this novel is no longer in print, but can be purchased second-hand or as an ebook. I still have paperback copies that I plan to use until they fall apart!
I have posted this unit in my Teachers pay Teachers store to share, since I firmly believe it is the perfect novel to use with your 8th and 9th grade students to prepare them for more challenging contemporary literature. I’ve made the reading response worksheets so that a student could even guide themselves through the novel – it would be a great option for an independent reader or a homeschooler as well. The unit spans 2 months, which is an entire quarter in my curriculum. The unit includes a prior knowledge activity – a movie guide for the film “A Time for Justice.”
This powerful 1994 documentary brings the Civil Rights movement to life and helps set the stage for this historical fiction. The best part is – you can order this kit (DVD + Lesson Plans) for FREE!
The Spite Fences Unit also includes a chapter-by-chapter reading guide with questions that range in type and complexity from inference to critical thinking, multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and open-ended short answer questions. This unit is great for end of the year test prep by providing students with a wide range of possible reading response questions. An answer key is included.
While reading the novel, my students also complete a fun reading response project. They create an Altered Book (or Scrapbook) that includes 9 ‘pages’ or installations. What we do is find some old hardcover books to repurpose by glueing or writing new things into the pages.
These Altered Book page assignments are designed to illicit deep thinking and writing that require students to find evidence and dig deeper into the topics and themes of the novel (following Common Core language for text-based discussion). Each ‘page’ has a pre-writing, brainstorming page to help students collect their thoughts. Here are some examples of their work:
This entire Spite Fences Unit includes:
* Welcome letter with lesson plan outline
* Enduring Understandings and Common Core State Standards
* “A Time for Justice” documentary movie guide with answer key to help build prior knowledge
* Reading Guide with answer key
* Altered Book Project with samples, rubric, and planning pages
If you are interested in purchasing this unit, click here!
I can’t wait for 4th quarter to start our final unit of the year – my favorite!
A real challenge in middle school is getting an increasingly large group of apathetic students excited about reading. I don’t mean to say ALL of my students – I definitely have some voracious readers – but there is always a hefty, vocal group that seems proud to proclaim indignantly, “I don’t read.” Well, harumpf. What’s a teacher to do with that kind of attitude? I understand that as an English Language Arts teacher, it is my job to get students excited about reading. Confetti, cartwheels, iPhone giveaways – whatever it takes! Okay not really. I’m not a performer, I’m not rich, and I don’t work miracles. I do my best to give students authentic, fun, motivating reasons to pick up a book (aaaaaand actually read/finish it). Of course I have to give a nod to my favorite teacher-author, Kelly Gallagher, who writes about just this topic in his book Reading Reasons. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!
One of the ways I try to motivate students to read is through my DVD Case / Movie Poster project. It is a project with reading, writing, language, expression, and art – a great way to hit multiple Common Core standards at once. This project has lots of elements that get kids excited: technology, critical thinking, creative writing, photography/images, and the critical elements of publication and display. Here is a glimpse of the final project, which is explained in more detail below:
You are looking at the display cases in the front lobby of our middle school. Each and every student got a chance to have their final DVD case (or movie poster) on display for the entire school. In addition, my students got some one-on-one time with 6th and 7th graders to share their project. They read their summary and review quotes on the back, explained the layout and image choices, and answered any questions their audience had – all in hopes of inspiring the student to go and read the book for themselves.
Here is a closer look at a DVD project:
And a collage of my students’ work:
Students begin by selecting an interesting book (can either be a novel or a biography) that is at their appropriate reading level. I introduce this project about 6-8 weeks ahead of time to get students enough warning to finish the book.
After reading the book, students will write what I call a ‘Review Quote’ (a book teaser summary that discusses the theme/message) to promote the book. To do this, we look at the backs of many books, even visit http://www.rottentomatoes.com and http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews to get a feel for the rich language of a teaser/review.
Next, the students will create either a DVD Case or a Movie Poster to promote the book through images as well as words. They really love this part, and I’m not just saying that. Rarely do I hit the money with a project where every single student is working, but this is it. And everyone is working at his/her own pace and area of expertise – artists, techies, writers; they all find their niche and even help one another.
On the day where I introduce the project, I bring in dozens of DVD covers and movie posters for students to view. We discuss similarities and conventions such as the size of the font, placement, purpose of images, etc.
After introducing the project, I wind up giving students 3-4 more days of in-class work time. Now that students have their own iPads, I may cut down this time and expect them to do more homework. On the 5th day, we do the printing and final touches, such as laminating the movie posters or putting the DVD covers in to the cases (I bought 100 from Amazon for about 25 cents each, totally worth it!). The 6th day is for presentations.
I am excited to do this project with the iPads this year, because students can actually go out and take their own photographs. Their goal is to match the mood of the book through color, layout, font, and images. They really do quite a bit of critical thinking with this project.
One of the only problems I have run into is that if their book has already been made into a movie, some students rely very heavily on the movie images. I had to make a rule outlawing this. The results were great, as this ultimately pushed students to be original and dig deeper into their own interpretation of the book.
Something that I learned last year, and will be repeating this year, is that some students like to make their own movie poster / DVD case from scratch, and others need a template to get started. Here is a template I created in Pages for the DVD Case. Students can ‘drag and drop’ their own images:
The final product can be displayed in your classroom, hallway displays, or as part of a gallery in which you promote the books to other students. The Library Media instructor at our school asked if she could display them in our Library, too!
If you want to purchase and download my DVD case / Movie Poster unit from TpT, the following items are included: * Common Core Standards for grades 8-12 including English Language Arts and Literacy in All Subjects * Suggestions for modifying and differentiating this lesson for students at all levels, from heavy support needed to extension ideas. * Essential Questions * Rubric * Project Description Student Handout * Sample Writing ‘Review Quotes’ with “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen and “The Giver” by Lois Lowry * 2 Sample DVD Cases with “Peak” by Roland Smith, and “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore * 1 Sample Movie Poster * Word Spectrum – ‘interesting’ to ‘boring’ – 65 synonyms students can incorporate into their writing * 5 Pages of detailed lesson plans and teacher tips including guided writing, peer review, modeling, small and whole group discussion.
I loved teaching this unit and collaborating with our school’s Art and 21st Century teachers. We found that this unit hits on a LOT of Common Core Standards and curricular goals, which was a huge plus! By working together, we strengthened student learning and participation. Students have told me that this was their favorite project all year!