Do you get tired of hearing students complain that the literature you make them read in your English class is old and boring? Do your students have difficulty relating to characters from World War eras? Why not switch things up a little bit? You might be surprised at the learning that occurs.
Ready to Rumble
English teachers have been teaching the same books for years now, under the umbrella of “classic literature kids should read." While I won’t argue that we should stop teaching the classics, I do feel that some of these books just don’t translate well for the modern teenage audience. As such, I present my argument for replacing some classic novels with their more recent, and relevant, counterparts.
Before my fellow English teachers start sharpening their pitch forks, hear me out. If you’re not ready to let go of your stand-by literature lesson plans yet, at least consider my suggestions as a way to introduce supplemental texts for your students. The novels I suggest for replacements could just as easily work as supplements for further study. So just breathe deeply, and keep reading.
In this installment, we have a literature rumble brewing between William Golding’s classic novel, Lord of the Flies, and Suzanne Collins’s new hit, The Hunger Games. I propose that all the qualities you like teaching in Golding’s novel can be found in modernized and more interesting forms in Collins’s work. Let’s have a good clean fight, shall we?
Round One: Plot
Lord of the Flies is a novel about survival in the wild. A group of prep school boys finds themselves stranded on a deserted island and have to find the wisdom and skills within themselves to survive until they can be rescued. The reaction of each boy to his new surroundings and the interactions between characters provide most of the plot’s meat. Readers follow along, amazed at how these civilized little Brits could turn into such barbarians so easily. Meanwhile, in the background there are hints of a war going on, to serve as an explanation for the way that the real world of adults seems to have abandoned these boys without remorse. (For more detailed information on LOTF plot lines, check out this article: http://www.brighthubeducation.com/homework-help-literature/34661-lord-of-the-flies-chapter-summaries/).
The Hunger Games is also a novel about survival. However, whereas in Flies we don’t quite know how the boys got stranded on an island (at least at first), in Games our protagonist’s situation is all too clear. Katniss has been dumped into a survival-of-the-fittest situation by her own countrymen, who find it entertaining to watch teenagers try to kill themselves a la “Survivor." Joining Katniss is Peeta, a boy from her district who is sometimes her ally and sometimes her enemy. Katniss’s story is set in the future, after World War 3 has torn the former North America apart. Now that continent exists as 13 separate districts, and each year the districts have to send a representative pair of teens to compete in a survival game show on television for the rest of the district residents to watch. In order to win, you have to eliminate the competition (literally – you have to kill them all) and survive the elements. The premise of the game show is that the Capital wants to showcase its power over the other districts and enforce peace by flexing its muscles now and again.
In both novels, you get suspense, wondering what will happen to these young protagonists as they try to survive the elements. Katniss, like Ralph, finds herself in situations where she has very little experience and yet must outsmart her enemies if she is going to survive the night. The difference is that Ralph’s story is set in a past that is almost too far gone for today’s teens. The memory of the first two World Wars is part of their grandparents’ consciousness, not theirs. Fears of a third one, though, they can understand. That is all too real for them, most of whom probably cannot remember a time when the US wasn’t fighting some enemy or another. While Ralph’s story seems strange and unlikely (who really gets stranded in today’s world of GPS and cellular technology anyway?), Katniss’s vision of the future is easy to envision (her game show is really just “Survivor" kicked up a notch or two).
Round Two: Characterization
In Lord of the Flies, the characters are mostly all spoiled rich kids who find themselves stranded and don’t know what to do about it. Since they’re all boys, they find humor in bathroom discussions and prefer to run around naked most of the time. The trio of Ralph, Jack, and Piggy each teach us something about human nature, while Simon reveals to us the truth of the dangers on the island. Ralph struggles to be a leader and maintain his civility in a harsh new world. Piggy tries to stand up for himself and maintain the order in their environment by advising Ralph. Jack embraces his savage instincts and goes off to the dark side. Simon comes face to face with the Lord of the Flies, and in his death he reminds us all of the darkest depths human nature can reach when properly pushed. (See full character descriptions here: http://www.brighthubeducation.com/homework-help-literature/34923-lord-of-the-flies-characters/).
In The Hunger Games, Katniss is far from privilege. She comes from a poor district and has grown up mostly fatherless. In her community, that means she has to support her family by hunting illegally because her mother cannot support herself and her two daughters (Katniss has a younger sister, too). Katniss has to compete in the Hunger Games because she chooses to take her sister’s place after the lottery drawing; her volunteering to go to the games is an act of heroism, as she’s basically volunteering to sacrifice her own life for her sister’s freedom. Once the games begin, many of the problems with the LOTF boys also plague Katniss and her fellow competitors. They each take a different position in their quest to win the games, but in the end the darkness shows through in them as well. Katniss finds allies in some of her fellow gamers, and enemies in others. Her plight is very similar to Ralph’s in that she seems to be one of the only ones in her situation who can remember that she is still a human underneath the guise of the games.
Round Three: Teaching Strategies
By this point, maybe I’ve convinced you that The Hunger Games is a book worth reading, but you’re still not sure it would do everything for you and your students that your old standby has done. So, what do you teach when you teach Lord of the Flies, anyway? Can you really replace all those great teaching gems with new ones from The Hunger Games? I say, yes you can.
In teaching Lord of the Flies, you probably want your students to learn about the symbolism involved. The pig’s head, the beast, the plane crashing on the island, and the conch all represent something about human nature and society. In LOTF, you’re going to talk about societal rules and how they gradually disappear on the island. You’ll probably throw in there some ideas about what changes inside the boys as they spend more and more time away from the civilized world of adults and begin to create their own society on the island. You may even include the historical significance of the war-torn background for the novel, and how that affects the boys without their realization.
In teaching The Hunger Games, you can get all of that good stuff too, I promise you. But the catch is that your students will find it a LOT more interesting. You can talk about how Katniss lives in a dictatorial society in the same place where they currently reside (the Capital is in the Rocky Mountains; Katniss’s district is in an area that was formerly known as Kentucky and Tennessee). You can discuss how it’s not too far of a journey to go from where we are today to World War Three, and have your students predict how another great war would impact our world forever. In the characters from the different districts, you will see discrepancies in class and socioeconomic status: the closer you are to the capital, the richer you are. The kids from lower-numbered districts have literally been bred for these games, while kids from the higher-numbered (read: poorer) districts are basically there to be killed for entertainment. Katniss’s mentor seems like an old drunk on the surface, but further exploration makes his drunkenness into an obvious defense mechanism from the horrors he has seen in his lifetime. The historical significance in this novel is a vision of the future, not the past. The darkness inside the characters is one we can already see brewing in the world today, not the remnants of another era. Katniss’s survival skills are real because they truly ARE for survival; unlike the prep school boys in Flies, she never has an opportunity to enjoy her freedom on an island. She has to learn to kill or be killed from the moment the games begin.
The Final Round: Yes or No?
Have you put away your pitch forks yet? I promise, I'm not trying to make radical changes, or to tell you how to run your English classes. But if you take my advice, I think your students will thank me for it. And after all, what have you got to lose?
We want our students to learn to love literature, right? We want them to learn to analyze theme, and symbols, and characterization techniques. We want them to dissect plots and find new insights. They can do that with almost any novel we assign, and certainly kids have been doing it for years when they read Lord of the Flies. But have they enjoyed it? You can judge that for yourself; if you’ve taught this novel, I’m sure you’ve gotten complaints from your students about the torture you subjected them to.
I will grant that kids will find a way to complain about anything. It doesn’t mean we should stop teaching them or that we should take out all the Shakespeare and replace it with comic books because that would be more fun for our students. Believe me, I enjoy torturing kids as much as the next English teacher, and I am in NO WAY trying to advocate any kind of “dumbing down" process here. I don’t think The Hunger Games makes things easier in an English class than Lord of the Flies does. In fact, I think you can get just as much rigor out of your lessons with Collins’s work as you can with Golding’s. The difference is that you might actually get some kids who like the book if you teach The Hunger Games. And if they like that book, they might stick around for the sequel, due out in fall 2009. Who knows? They might even do something really radical, like read a book on their own, just for the fun of it. All because their daring English teacher took a risk and threw out an old classic to replace it with a more relevant and entertaining option.