At a local middle school, a special event has been announced and it is an inter-grade competition with a Hunger Games theme. At an all-school meeting last week, teachers explained that for that one afternoon, each grade would become a district, be assigned a color and would compete against each other in friendly challenges of knowledge, speed, endurance and teamwork. Names of volunteers from each grade would be drawn from a bag to compete in each challenge for a set number of points and to earn even more, the District (grade) who had the most students come to school that day in their assigned color would win a huge bonus. The grade that won the whole event would get an ice cream party. Following this announcement, the gym erupted in noise: the seventh grade chanted “District. Seven.” over and over, I heard yells of “I volunteer as tribute” and students all over the gym raised three fingers and whistled four familiar notes.
After our discussion of critical literacies over the past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which schools can step outside the box to further these literacies. The Hunger Games event at this middle school was not focused on any kind of traditional literacy, and really only came about as a way to engage the entire student body for two hours while the majority of teachers were in a meeting. The remaining teachers ran with this opportunity and the Hunger Games-themed event was born. Never having read the Hunger Games trilogy (I know, I know, it’s on my reading list), I am not in an ideal position to be touting the benefits of utilizing it in literacy instruction. However, feeling the energy in the gym that day, I saw the ways in which, with some careful planning, the awesome power of those students’ love for the trilogy could be channeled into some amazing teaching opportunities.
It is true that students who had not read the books may feel marginalized by the theme of the event and until the event has take place, I will not know whether the goals set by the teachers were met. However, what the experience brought home for me was that sincere excitement and energy can be used in creating an authentic and fun learning environment. I know this is not news. Teachers have been using favorite books, films and other forms of popular culture to support instruction for a long time. It makes sense to connect to students’ lives and interests to engage in abiding learning. I had simply never seen that idea implemented on such a large scale and be greeted with such widespread enthusiasm.
I guess my question is what are other books, movies or television shows that we can use to further learning and support the development of critical literacies in school? Should we even be expending energy trying to create projects based around popular culture or is it likely to be a distraction to students, rather than a gateway to learning? I am inclined to think that engaging in literacy instruction using Harry Potter, for example, would help students connect their learning to something they are genuinely interested in: fostering excitement, not limiting their creativity. Books like those in the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy are controversial for a variety of reasons, but they are also extremely popular with students. Educators have to balance potential push-back and the opportunity to engage students in these exciting ways.
For more on beloved books and literacy… (mostly with adolescents)
Arter, L. (2009). Celebrating Multiple Literacies with Harry Potter. English Journal, 98(6), 69-73.
Curwood, J., Magnifico, A., & Lammers, J. C. (2013). Writing in the Wild: Writers’ Motivation in Fan-Based Affinity Spaces. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 677-685.
Fingon, J. C. (2012). Nontraditional Texts and the Struggling/Reluctant Reader. Voices From The Middle, 19(4), 70-75.
Sass-Henke, A. (2012). Putting Characters First in a Middle School Classroom. English Journal, 102(1), 71-75.
Simmons, A. M. (2012). Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(1), 22-34.
Urbach, J., & Eckhoff, A. (2012). Release the Dragon: The Role of Popular Culture in Children’s Stories. Contemporary Issues In Early Childhood, 13(1), 27-37.