Back when the Hunger Games was the #1 New York Times bestseller, and Jennifer Lawrence had signed up to play the protagonist and bring the most popular book in the world to life, I was a new teacher who wanted to grasp my students’ attention. Instead of reading a book like Animal Farm or 1984 during the Cold War Unit, I decided that the class would read the Hunger Games and learn about police states through a narrative about teenagers hunting each other. I figured this choice of reading would engage everyone in the room, and in turn have them invest in everything else going on throughout the unit.
I also wanted to be the cool teacher (Remember your first year of teaching?)
Unfortunately, my plan backfired. Nearly every student in my classroom had the read the book, and the ones who had not were intrigued by the plot, but reminded of the many other young adult post-apocalyptic novels that had come out in that same span of time. For most of the students, the reading was not challenging, and I largely failed at connecting the reading with the content I wanted my students to derive from it.
I chose the book because I believed it would create easy-to-access engagement. I have learned since that it is rare to find deep and connective learning on the easy route. Growth happens when students are stretched beyond their comfort zones, brought out of the ordinary world into unknown territory. This is evident in so many aspects of life. Think of the most transformative periods of your own life. Were they all joyous events that you celebrated immediately after? Or were they more like forest fires, destructive, painful, and challenging experiences that created very real damage in order to allow new and stronger growth?
Very little growth happens in the alpine, at the peak of mountains when you stand on top of the world. Growth happens in the valley, where the hard work is taking place. Serving refugees and trudging h towards a deadline is the valley for many students in my class. Working in a collaboration group with a group of kids who are not friends is what stretches many of my students and forces them to learn teamwork. Reading fiction that was written for a different generation and finding relevant meaning in it can be strenuous work. But it is this stretching, this escape from the comfortable bubbles that school often fosters, where real character development begins.