Archives For literature circles

House of the ScorpionThere they were. Four used copies of Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, and they were my find of the day at the Friends of the Danbury Public Library Fall Book Sale last weekend in Danbury, Connecticut. The unmistakeable bright red-orange and black spines were scattered in the author-alphabetized “F” section of the fiction offerings. They should have been in the young adult (YA) section, but a volunteer’s shelving error was probably why they were still available when I arrived. In this case, chance favored me.

I first became acquainted with Farmer’s science fiction novel two summers ago when I heard the plot involved cloning. I was looking for YA literature that could be used as a companion pieces to  Frankenstein; novels that incorporated many of the ethical questions raised by recent advances in the science of cloning. Science fiction was the genre that offered the most obvious choices. Farmer herself recognizes how science fiction anticipates the problems created by real science, saying:

“Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can’t get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it. “

The genre of science fiction is amazingly prescient in predicting technological advances.  H. G. Wells’ offered  The First Men in the Moon in 1901, 68 years before Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 and took steps on the lunar surface.  Digital books, submarines, droids and robots were features in science fiction novels before they became real nouns in our vocabulary. Credit for dreaming up the Internet is given to a wide spectrum of  fiction writers, from Mark Twain to Arthur C. Clarke, and manipulating human life has its genesis with 18 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Therefore, Farmer is following the successful literary tradition of predicting man’s future. Her prediction takes the form of another dystopia, the equivalent of a political science crash course in failed nation-states for young readers.

Her opening mimic another great science fiction read, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His great satire’s opening scene is in a factory that is manufacturing embryos. With streamlined industrialized precision, conveyor belts carry embryos that are then deprived of oxygen in order to create a caste of mindless workers. Farmer borrows some of Huxley’s ideas and begins her story with images that recall that frightening scenario:

A dull, red light shown on the faces of the workers as they watched their own arrays of little glass dishes. Each one contained a drop of life. (1.2)

In addition, Farmer’s predictions of a territory between the United States and Mexico controlled by drug cartels is plausible. That is the setting for her “coming of age” story of a young clone named Matt. The medical breakthroughs that create Matt, a clone of the drug lord El Patrón, are also feasible. Matt is unaware that his life is both protected by his status as the clone for the most powerful man in the land of Opium and endangered by El Patrón’s mortality…and at 146 years old, El Patrón is very mortal.

Farmer combines the issues of organ-harvesting, the economics of drug use, and adds a few Zombies for an exciting read that contains several amazing plot twists. I remember my jaw dropping…I didn’t see one twist coming at all. Farmer’s inventiveness with plot and skills as a storyteller resulted in the book receiving both a National Book Award for Young Adult Literature and a Newbery Honor in 2002. 

Last year, we offered 7th grade independent choices in literature circles centered on their interest in dystopias. The House of the Scorpion was one title offered along with other science fiction novels including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Neil Shusterman’s Unwind, and several of Scott Westerfield’s selections from his Pretties series. Students fresh from reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Game Trilogy were ready for other predictions for the future, and those who had not completed the series were given the opportunity to read these as well.

The cost for the four gently used copies at the book sale was $8.00; copies normally retail for $8.10, so this was a “buy one get three free” bargain in comparison. Based on other used book sales, we now have a class set (30) of The House of the Scorpion. The novel could be an all class read, however, as some of the topics in the novel require mature readers, we opt to make this and the novel Feed independent choice books.

The ethical questions raised in Frankenstein and The House of the Scorpion makes them good companion pieces, but that is not the only reason to pair them together. Our English Department’s essential question is “What does it mean to be human?” Literature gives students the language and the models for answering that question. The Monster in Frankenstein and the protagonist Matt in The House of the Scorpion are “non-human” characters that make students consider that being human may not be limited by the definitions in science, but by the possibilities in science fiction.

Sophomore English is centered on the study of World Literature and is organized to complement Modern World History classes taught by members of the Social Studies Department. This means, when students are taught about World War I, the English classes read All Quiet on the Western Front.

One of the goals this year for every member of the English Department is to increase the amount of reading opportunities. To meet this goal, the EnglishII classes have just completed a unit where they chose books written by world (not American) authors or books about world events. The unit ran for 18 days-11 days class periods designed with 20 minutes of silent sustained reading combined with lit circles for a total of 3 hours and 40 minutes of in-class reading time.
Students choose the book they wanted to read after researching book titles with reviews (from Amazon) promoted in a prepared folder on Livebinders. Literature circles were organized by student selection of titles; teachers made recommendations for low-level readers.

80% of the texts offered in this unit were added to the classroom library as used books. Books were purchased for $.50-$4.00 each over the period of two years through visits to thrift stores, public library sales, and online used book vendors. The remaining 20% of texts were already purchased for classroom libraries through the retail market. The most popular titles selected by the students included: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Alchemist, Hiroshima, and The Life of Pi (titles initially purchased at retail price); Like Water for Chocolate, City of Thieves, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The God of Small Things and Ella Minnow Pea (all titles added through used book markets).

Literature activities were designed to encourage student creativity and to be simple enough so that students could complete the tasks during the period. Students were continually reminded that they need to read for homework as well as in class.
Once the literature circles were organized, students kept all group work in folders. Literature circles were not divided with assigned roles; all members of the group participated in the daily scheduled activity.

Daily activities included:

  • Members of the group developed five questions each which were shared in the group. All members chose three question from this pool and responded to them;
  • Members of the group each located a passage with figurative imagery and used that passage to create a found poem;
  • Members of the group illustrated a scene from the book as a six-panel comic strip;
  • Members of the group researched 14 facts about the text they chose, the author, and the context when the book was published;
  • Members of the group each wrote three character haikus;
  • Members of the group created one timeline of 10 events from the text and organized these on Timetoast.com interactive software.

Once students had chosen their texts, they were given an index card to record data about their reading habits. Students recorded their progress on these cards with the following data: page # at the beginning of a reading session, page # at the conclusion of a reading session; the number of minutes for the reading session; the location of the reading session. At the conclusion of the unit, this card was used as a self-reflection exercise, and the data card attached to a sheet with the following questions:

1. According to the data you recorded on the card, how long did it take you to read this book?
2. What was your average reading rate (pages per minute)?
3. In which location did you read most frequently?
4. If you had to take a detailed multiple choice quiz or test on this book, would you have scored well? WHY or WHY NOT?
5. Who would you recommend should read this book?

As a final assessment, students completed a dialectical journal of 10 quotes (5 from the beginning of the book; 5 from the end of the book).

The unit was successful in having students engage with their texts daily; students would enter the classroom saying, “We get to read first, right?” while literature circles allowed for student centered activities. Assessments of responses collected in literature circles allowed teachers an opportunity to monitor student understanding. Several students completed their chosen text early. These students were given one page book review sheets to complete for extra credit; no other assessments were given for extra credit reading.

The goal was to increase student engagement in texts with SSR and literature circles while exposing students to author voices from around the world. This unit has proven to be flexible and teachers will schedule this unit with some changes to literature circle activities during standardized state testing and again at the end of of the school year. The 20 minutes a day also provided time for teachers to familiarize themselves with many of the texts as well. Why should students be the only ones enjoying a book? What teacher wouldn’t want a little reading time for themselves?