As a teacher, you may have had this common experience. You have a beautiful, complex novel to use in your unit. It contains important messages for readers, and you pray your pupils love its symbolism, imagery, and characterization as much as you do. But once the class begins to dive into this story you love, it’s a swing and a miss with students. They don’t connect with the characters, the symbols go over their heads, and they’re bored with the plot.
If you’ve been teaching for a while, you have hopefully learned not to take such negative reactions personally. But even veteran teachers still sometimes wonder, “Why doesn’t this story resonate with my students?”
The answer is often this: many students need help stepping into stories. You know how when you’re reading a well written book, you feel like you’re in the story, experiencing it along with the characters? Well, not all readers feel this as they read. Sometimes, we need to recreate a book’s events in order to give students that thrilling feeling of stepping into a story’s pages.
This is why, when we were writing The Giver Novel Study, we chose to bring elements of the story to life, so students could participate alongside the characters. We’d love to share some ideas from this unit, so you can be inspired to create novel experiences for your own students, using any texts that your students happen to be reading.
1. YouTopia Project
This is a great little project for any dystopian story. Before reading, students are placed in groups and create their own “perfect” societies to present to the class. Students create a brochure that includes their new community’s regulations, rules, and roles of government, along with a motto and symbol for their society. They also write a “Community Statement” that explains the reasoning behind their choices. This leads to a helpful discussion of utopian societies and the problems inherent in them. Later, when students are reading their book, they can connect the story’s society with the activity.
2. The Ceremony of 12
In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, children are given their “career assignments” in their 12th year. This is known as “The Ceremony of 12,” and we knew we needed to include this experience in The Giver Novel Study! Using the cards we created, the teacher passes out the career assignments randomly to students. Each career is based on one that is mentioned in the text and is explained on the cards. Then students write reflections in which they accept their careers or request a reassignment. Afterward, the class discusses the pros and cons of careers being assigned rather than chosen. As you can imagine, this experience will help students to understand the story’s ceremony and to analyze it more deeply as they read the novel.
Of course, you may not be teaching The Giver. But most books have some kind of experience you can recreate! Here are a few ideas to inspire you as you think about your class’s upcoming stories:
- Reading Romeo and Juliet? Host a wedding!
- To help students empathize with Charlie in Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” students can try out Rorschach tests and engage in a classroom maze (check out a complete unit here).
- For The Outsiders, you can recreate a drive-in movie theater experience in your classroom!
3. Mealtime Discussions
In The Giver, the family uses mealtimes to share their dreams and their feelings. In our unit, students are placed into four-person “Family Units” and recreate these discussions in a guided way. After sharing in small groups, the class discusses the story and talks about why leaders in the book’s community would encourage families to share in this way.
Many texts offer such opportunities for students to engage in discussion-based experiences. For example, the text you’re using may include a dinner party, which you can recreate in your classroom as students play guests. Interviews, town hall meetings, question-and-answer sessions . . . there are so many possibilities!
4. “You May Lie” Vocabulary Game
Of course, if you want a fun, memorable experience, nothing beats a good game. In The Giver, most of the community must always be honest, but the “Giver” and “Receiver” may lie. We incorporated this detail into a vocabulary game, in which students may pretend to know a definition even if they don’t (in order to gain points for their team), but they lose points if their bluff is discovered. Of course, the Giver and Receiver on each team may lie without penalty.
Be creative and think about any elements in your class’s books that may inspire a good game. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
- In one of our newest resources, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” Short Story Unit, students play “Invasion” before reading, a game in which they suspect and accuse each other. This preps them to understand the characters’ motives when the neighbors in the story begin to turn on each other.
- If you’re reading a play, charades can be a fun way to get students into the acting spirit, and you can even use topics that they will encounter in their reading.
- Reading a mystery? You can create a puzzle by finding images related to the story, printing them and cutting them into puzzle pieces. Have students work together to
- assemble the puzzles, then use the images to predict what the story will be about. This is a great way to activate students’ sleuthing skills before they read.
If you’re teaching The Giver, you can let our resource do the planning for you. But we hope that this post has inspired you to create classroom experiences for any text your class is reading. It only takes a little creativity to really bring a story to life for your students!