Build Your Own Utopia: ‘The Giver’ PBL Unit
Check out Amber’s latest, most up to date resources for her The Giver unit at her Flexible Classroom website. Scroll down to The Giver/Utopia section.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver has always been a teacher favorite, but this year there is the added bonus that the movie was released alongside other movie adaptations of dystopic novels such as Divergent and Catching Fire. Students are aware, more than ever, of the potential for social discord and the implications that it may have for their own lives if government goes unchecked.
I began our unit by introducing our “big project” that we’d be doing at the end. I’ve taken to doing this so that students are able to identify their purpose for reading. Yes, we’d be taking a test. Yes, we’d be writing about the novel. But, they were also tasked with forming a “committee” to create a Community of their own that they would then present to their peers.
Each committee’s goal would be to persuade classmates to move to their Utopia. As we read the novel, I was able to ask questions that helped them grasp the big picture of community building. I also laid the groundwork for a major discussion about “unintended consequences.”
This is serious stuff
One of the concerns I have teaching the novel is that students are not prepared for the true gravity of the topic. Infanticide and eldercide, coupled with genetic engineering that resembles Hitler’s master plan to Aryan-ize the world, are heady topics for 13-year olds.
After a few chapters, I asked them to create a travel poster with their resource group, convincing me to live in the Community of the novel. We talked about persuasive language, as well as biased writing. No war, no homeless, no hunger, no orphans, no jobless. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
As the novel continued, we returned to our travel posters, gradually discovering the unintended consequences. The work I do with the students on the front side here pays huge dividends in their level of understanding and the quality of the communities they eventually create for their summative assessment.
Getting the logistics right
As usual, the logistics are the hardest part, so here is a play by play guide:
1) Distribute the assignment.
2) Teach the novel as you normally would, paying close attention to some of the issues that will arise when students create their own Community.
3) Let students figure out responsibilities. Allow them a day to sort out who will handle the individual pieces of the project. I show this student-made video, Paradox of the Perfect World, to inspire them to create the world they’d like while also appreciating what a difficult task it actually is.
4) Carve out some time. Once groups are determined, students need plenty of time to think, research, and produce a viable Utopia and quality presentation. I gave my students 7 days of library time. If you think this sounds ridiculously long, remember that you are facilitating this project and are able to direct discussions, differentiate your expectations, and allow for critical thinking.
5) Build an audience. Invite parents, family members, other teachers, your librarian, and administrators to the presentations. One of my proudest moments this year—when you know you are doing something right—is when I had two students from a study hall ask for a pass to see their friend’s presentation because they had heard all about it. Teaching doesn’t get better than that!
6) Keep the presentation schedule flexible. The team projects take about 15 minutes to present, so I plan for two per day. I also leave a day at the end for all “make-ups” because inevitably there will be someone absent or a lost-jump-drive emergency.
Project Based Learning is bumpy
One bump: what if a parent shows up to a presentation, but there is someone absent on their child’s team? In my trial by fire—this had never happened before—I had the students do the presentation anyway. When that student’s “part” came up, they were to divvy up the information to be explained. After all, they had been working collaboratively for weeks.
This made the group incredibly nervous, but they rose to the occasion, also teaching them the valuable lesson that “the show must go on.” They were then allowed to come to my study hall and present to students there so that even the absent child had the opportunity for a true audience. It was also very fun for my study hall of seventh graders to get a preview of what they would be doing in 8th grade. The 8th grade presenters were proud and even answered questions.
I also want to be clear that Project Based Learning is not easy to assess. I wanted them to reflect on the experience and their products. Visit the “8th Grade Giver Project” section on my website to find the assessment tool. [Updated Jan. 2017]
Taking a movie break
I won’t kid you—this was an intensive project, and we left it a little out of breath.
So, what did the kids want to do when they needed a break? They begged to watch the movie. This presented a problem for me, as I don’t normally show entire movies, and I never show PG-13 ones.
At first I said no. To be honest, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth. However, I decided I’d look into the rating because that was the number one thing holding me up. I found that the rating was due to the topic, not the content per se. I had seen the movie and had not had any concerns, but I wanted to be sure. After a little trepidation, I sent home the permission slips. Miraculously, they all came back! Isn’t it funny how it works that way?
Well, today we just finished up the movie. I have to say that I am thrilled that their begging paid off. The rich conversations that we are having comparing the movie with the book is really exciting for me, and, I think, for them.
They’ve never really done critical analysis of a movie compared to a book. And, then it occurred to me—and I’m sure I’m supposed to say I planned it this way—that this activity had met Standard RL7.7: Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).
It isn’t that I’ve never done this type of thing before, but I think that I always jumped the gun—showing the movie when they may not have engaged as deeply with the text as we did with The Giver.
My teaching role in PBL lessons
With five minutes left until Spring Break, I asked my students if they thought I should start next year with this unit. Antsy 8th graders were eager to tell me, emphatically, yes.
It was much more interesting when a grown-up was explaining things and helping them to understand.
My goal in project-based learning is always to facilitate student experiences. They had so many valid points, but I think the most interesting was this: dystopian books and movies are really popular, but it was much more interesting when a grown-up was explaining things and helping them to understand, and that the project had helped them learn to look for “unintended consequences.”
I love curriculum and themes and essential questions as much as any other teacher; however, I can’t help but believe that my bigger calling is to help students connect these dots and become people who think about the world in new ways.
Amber Rain Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and education writer in Hamburg, NY. She leads professional development in Project-Based Learning, Danielson’s Domains, and Differentiation. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and visit her website, AmberRainChandler.com.