Friday, September 14, 2012

How teachers and parents can use popular young adult and children's books to create social change

I am a retired teacher and miss teaching and being with children. Unfortunately, I had to retire before I was really ready due to health issues ( I'm better now but not 100%) I do lots of different kinds of volunteer activities. I'm involved politically because I believe all substantive change is political. I work as an advocate for children and for educational reform. Everything a teacher can do in her/his classroom is determined by a politician. I just started a tutoring service and I became an Amazon Affiliate because I need to earn extra income as my retitement doesn't cover all my expenses-medical insurance is outrageous! I thought maybe I could combine my passion for teaching  by writing about how I worked within the system while at the same time worked to reform it. My blog is about my educational philosophy. I share lesson plans and ideas, and  I focus on how to use children's and YA books to foster thoughtful discussions and how to empower students to become agents of social change. Each entry is a little different, Stand Up- Speak Out- Make A Difference is about my journey and my philosophy of eduction. My hope is that my readers will join me in a on-going dialogue about how we can use popular literature and other educational tools to build a better world.

My 11 year old niece was reading THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins, and yuck was my first response. Children killing one another isn't appealing to me especially when there have been so many recent shootings. But I didn't want to lose a "teachable moment" because of my prejudices. My teaching experience has taught me to trust children. They know if the content of a book is too disturbing for them. They just set it down.  I wondered why this book was so popular with young people. I asked my niece and her friends what was appealing about such a dystopian novel. They didn't know what dystopian meant so that was our first discussion. A dystopian system is repressed, controlled, and restricted with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often the key, as is a constant emphasis, that this is not a place where you'd want to live. There are four major elements that appear in good dystopian novels. Certainly books need not have all of them, but the best do: a setting so vividly and clearly described that it becomes almost a character in itself; individuals or forces in charge who have a legitimate reason for being as they are; protagonists who are shaped by their environment and situations, and a conclusion that reflects the almost always dire circumstances. They talked about how the book engaged them with a complex story that included love, teamwork, and survival and one girl said she thought if the government ran out of money they would have real Hunger Games. How could she think such a thing?

 I reluctantly read the novel and was pleasantly surprised! I'm glad I got over my prejudices and read the novel with an open mind. I would have missed the opportunity for countless "teachable moments". The novel is well-written and the taut, intricate plot is haunting, compelling, and rich- like peeling an onion, the layers explore issues that eerily parallel what is happening in the world today. Imagine a future in which the all that is left in the world is the ruins of a place known as North America. Panem the rich Capitol is surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is cruel and harsh and represents the empire of the future. Panem keeps the districts under control by forcing them to all send one girl and one boy between the between the ages twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.  Is this the method an authoritative government will use to wage war and insure peace in the future or is there a different way of living and being in the world?  Children know this planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don't poison the water, air, or soil, don't let the Earth get overcrowded, and don't touch the thermostat, have been broken. I now understand why that young girl thought that if the government runs out of money there would be real Hunger Games
Our children  need guidance and need to figure out what is means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. We need a new vision/system and we need it within a few decades. Forget that the task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after they are done.

When I am asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same. If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the data. But if you meet the people working to restore this Earth and the lives of others, especially the poor, and you aren't optimistic you haven't got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. Our children need to know they too can make a difference!

No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights and more. Children can research and join one of these movements or they can create their own movement and gain strength by connecting with others. By working for change children can provide hope, support and meaning for themselves and for others.

 With so much apathy and many children feeling powerless (the media and books strongly influence our children's perceptions) I began to think about if I was still teaching how I could use the themes in this novel for the positive. I talked to my niece and her friends about what kind of world do they want to live in.  They told me a world without war, hunger, poverty, clean water; a world with peace, enough goods for everyone, and guarantee human rights (all themes in the book). I asked them how they could make this happen, they didn't feel like they could do sad. We talked about how all change is political and if you want a different world you need a vision and a road map. It doesn't have to be perfect and will change over time but it's a beginning! Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers and our children are making a difference everyday. Let's continue to empower and engage them in meaningful ways. We brainstorm ideas that they could do right now to make the world a better place. Here's a list of some of their ideas:

*Create a vision of the world they want to live in-if you don't like the way things are now you have to propose an alternative
*Pick one problem/issue and develop a solution
*Join student council and share their ideas
*Write for the school newspaper about important topics and things kids can do
*Have a can food drive
*Car washes and donate the profits to a charity
*Start a school recycling program
*Start an environmental club
*Tutor younger students
* - this is a website where people can write petitions and have people sign them. Petitions  are forwarded to government officials. There are a lot of websites to post petitions on.

I want children to know that they do have power and they can make a difference. They are not a test score!
My message:
The living world is not "out there" somewhere, but in your heart. Follow your heart and know that you are brilliant, and the earth is hiring!
I wouldn't want to discuss all the themes in the book. I think you run the risk of ruining a good piece of literature that way. But do have children reflect on how they can apply the lessons you or they choose to examine to real-life situations.  Pick and choose what fits your circumstances. Happy reading!

A few themes and discussion ideas include:

*What does it mean to be human?
Study evolution and /or different religious beliefs from a multicultural/historical perspective.

*Examine the qualities of the different characters in the book. Katniss is able to survive because she has learned essential thinking skills and how to apply these skills.

Gathering data through all senses: Intelligent people know that all information gets to the brain through sensory pathways: gustatory, olfactory, tactical, kinesthetic, auditory and visual. Katniss sensory pathways are open, alert, and acute and she absorbs more information from the environment then Peeta whose pathways are oblivious to sensory stimuli. What happens when Katniss losses hearing in one of her ears? To know a dance it must be moved; to know a game it must be played; to know a goal it must be envision.
Managing impulsivity: is another essential thinking skill  that helps Katniss survive and there are many examples in the book. Effective problem solvers are deliberate: They think before they act. Her ability to delay gratification (she is hungry but the threat of being killed must be weighed) is perhaps the essence of emotional self-regulation. Katniss and Peeta have the ability to deny impulses, hunger and reacting to others in the Game without fully understanding their strategies. They take the time to reflect on alternatives and consequences of several possible directions before they take action.
Persistence: Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes but they never quit. Katniss is able to analyze a problem (and there are many for her to overcome)  and then she develops a strategy to attack it. If one strategy doesn't work she knows how to back up and try another. Katniss recognizes when an idea must be rejected and another employed. She has a systematic method for analyzing a problem, which includes knowing how to begin, what steps must be performed, and what data must be generated or collected. Because she is able to sustain a problem-solving process over time, she is able to deal with ambiguous situations
Thinking flexibly: Of all forms of mental activity, this is the most difficult to foster even in the minds of the young. An amazing discovery about the human brain is its plasticity-its ability to "rewire", change, and even repair itself to become smarter. Flexible people have the most control. They have the capacity to change their minds as they receive additional data. Katniss creates and seeks novel approaches to problems she encounters. She displays confidence in her intuition and is willing to let go of a problem, trusting her subconscious to continue creative and productive work on it.
Applying past knowledge to new situations: Intelligent humans learn from experience. Would Peeta survived without Katniss? Would he have eaten the poison berries? When confronted with a new a perplexing problem Katniss draws forth experiences from the past.
Taking responsible risks:To survive Katniss must draw on past knowledge, be thoughtful about consequences, and have a well-trained sense of what is  appropriate. Her risks are educated and she knows that all risks are not worth taking. Again there are countless examples you will find in the book.                                     
Listening with understanding and empathy: Some psychologists believe the ability to  listen to another person-to empathize with and to understand that person's point of view-is one of the highest forms of intelligent behavior. It's at the very core of what it means to be human. Katniss struggles with the tasks place before her. Her ability to see things from the other Game contestants point of view helps her plan a winning  strategy. She develops bonds with Rue and Peeta and the internal conflicts and choices she makes demonstrate her connections to others.
Creating, Imagining, Innovating: All human beings have the capacity to generate novel, clever, or ingenious products, solutions, and techniques-if that capacity is developed. Katniss conceived problems solutions differently, examining alternative possibilities from many angles. Peeta use a clever method (after he was seriously injured) to hide.
Thinking interdependently: Human are social beings. In groups we contribute our time and energy to tasks that we would quickly tire of when working alone. How do the players take care of each other?   How does forming alliances help the different players in the book survive?
 Remaining open to continuous learning: Intelligent people are in a continuous learning mode. "Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Albert Einstein. Katniss' confidence, in combination with her inquisitiveness, allows her to constantly search for new and better ways to win the Games.
Metacognition: Thinking about thinking, metacognition is our ability to know what we know and what we don't know. It is our ability to plan a strategy for producing what information is needed, to be conscious of our own steps and strategies during the act of problem solving, and to reflect on and evaluate the productiveness of our own thinking. I don't know how many times I've asked a student how they solved a problem and they say they just did it, unable to describe the process. This is one of the most important thinking skills we can teach. The book describes what is going inside Katniss' head as she thinks. Katniss reflects on her thinking by tracing the pathways and blind alleys she takes on the road to her problem's solution i.e. winning the Games.
Striving for accuracy and precision: Check it again! A desire for exactness, fidelity and craftsmanship. Katniss checks to see if her tools/devices used work well enough for her purposes for example, will the trap she made work.
Questioning and problem posing: How do you know? Having a questioning attitude; knowing what data are needed and developing questioning strategies to produce those data. Katniss is constantly questioning the strategies of the other players and of those who are in charge of the Games. How does this help her win?
Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision: Strive for accurate communication in both written and oral form; avoiding over generalizations, distortions, deletions, and vague language. Find the passages in the book that contain examples of concise, descriptive, and coherent language. Find analogies in the book that demonstrate this skill.
Responding with wonderment and awe:Finding the world awesome, mysterious and being intrigued with phenomena and beauty. Katniss displays compassionate behavior toward other life forms. She understands the need to take care of the environment. She learns which roles and values are to respected in other human beings.
Finding Humor: Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected. This is a trait that Peeta has developed to cope with stress. He uses humor to lift both his and Katniss' spirits when they are in a difficult situation.

There are many other ideas to explore in The Hunger Games.

Human Rights: How does Katniss and Peeta rebel and stand up for their rights? Study the abolition movement, civil rights movement, peace movements,  and more recently the Occupy Movements.

The Constitution Of The United States and the Bill Of Rights: Students could write their own constitution and their bill of rights.                                                

Post traumatic stress disorder: Is Haymitchs' alcoholism related to this disorder?

There are so many more lessons to explore in this book but I hope that I have given you some ideas about how to use the book to help children focus on the more positive aspects.

In future post I will spend more time on actual lessons. I just wanted you to get to know me a little. I will also recommend some adult books to educate ourselves and pass that knowledge to our children. For the next post I am going to write about vocabulary words and phrases related to each essential thinking skill.  I am also going to describe more essential thinking skills. In every academic field there are vocabulary words that define that discipline and gives a common language to communicate ideas. For example, these are a few key terms, synonyms, and word phrases that stand for and convey meanings similar to the terms I use for the essential thinking skills: characteristics, character traits, virtues, dispositions, qualities, attitudes, inclinations, proclivities, mental disciplines.

Until next time, happy reading!
Debra You can visit my store at:

I also have started tutoring. I can be reached at 707-628-8590, visit my site

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