Monday, August 4, 2014

Cii-fi and (some) other Earth-Collapse Fiction and Information

Pixabay image 7214: Dandelion seeds, from Hans
Cli-fi is trending. A subset of the general category earth-collapse fiction within the realm of speculative fiction, cli-fi concerns itself with the collapse of earth-based systems due to climate change. While generally this change is man-made, especially in more recent fictions, it is not always. Climate change in fiction may be caused by random or unexplained catastrophe, intelligent extraterrestrial forces, or even by the natural evolution of the Earth or the universe. 

By and large, however, contemporary interpretations of the genre focus upon the man-made environmental changes resulting from global warming or war. Husna Haq writes in the Christian Science Monitor of "a dystopian present, as opposed to a dystopian future," and it is, in fact, the immediacy and urgency of the social, personal, governmental, and cultural predicaments found in cli-fi, compounded by the cautionary nature of the stories, that drive the genre's popularity. Survival at its most basic is on the line in cli-fi.

Luckily for educators, this fascinating genre is not solely in the domain of literary fiction. In fact, even little children are not unexposed to cli-fi and earth-collapse fiction, often sugar-coated by anthropomorphic metaphor. Consider, for example, the children's films FrozenIce Age, Once Upon a Forest and The Land Before Time. Even the picture books Two Bad Ants (Chris Van Allsburg) and Lost and Found (Shaun Tan), and the YA classics Watership Down and The Time Machine embed an environmental message in the text. By thinking a little differently about many of the texts already in the curriculum, you are able to engage students of any age in cli-fi discussions.

Additionally, there is quite large body of good fiction, print and media, accessible to today's students. Those of you who teach Earth-collapse-due-to-war dystopian fiction (such as How I Live Now or The Hunger Games) might consider branching out to cli-fi.  The conversations are no less relevant and may prove to be more appropriate for the classroom.

Teaching this material can be dicey, which is why it is probably a neglected genre. Religion, belief, politics, economics, social structure, global inequities... all of these surface in the upper middle school and high school readings. Teachers should open up discussions and analysis that address:
  • "factual" and scientific content
  • belief-based content
  • sensational elements
  • emotional appeals (which point to the author/creator's message)
  • logical appeals (ditto)
The Lists: Spoiler: No zombie, war, or plague fiction is included here, unless it also carries an environmental message.

Film for MS and HS - You will also find a list with short summary annotations on Wikipedia. For younger ages, I suggest The Land Before Time, also available in many print formats, and perhaps a discussion of how the life of the townspeople in Frozen was (and was not) changed by the freeze. Thinking forward, it would be a good idea to also ask students, What caused the freeze? What undid the freeze?
  • The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962)
  • Waterworld (1995)
  • Twister (1996) - I am throwing this in because it appears that increasingly violent, large and frequent twisters are a result of climate change (stay tuned to late summer news) - don't bother with current remake
  • The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
  • This is the End (2013)
  • Snowpiercer (review) (2014)
  • What's Possible: The U.N. Climate Summit Film (2014) - docu-fiction?
TV media - Search YouTube for "Climate Change Documentary" to find current made-for-TV videos. You will find a comprehensive list, including cartoons and spoofs, on Wikipedia, but here are two shorts that I want to highlight:
  • The Showtime global warming documentary film series Years of Living Dangerously can be viewed by following the link
  • Twilight Zone Episode #75 (Season 3, Episode 10), "The Midnight Sun" - discussion - is available at Amazon and on DVD. I think this is a powerful introduction to the genre for MS and HS. The story is available from Amazon.com in other formats as well: 
    • graphic novel from the classic TV episode
    • story form in New Stories from the Twilight Zone
    • radio drama
picture books & children's books - I always suggest some picture books as a great way to introduce a topical reading unit at levels above elementary. Discussion can be engendered with humor and without the emotional baggage that accompanies a compelling work of fiction. While picture books and early readers with direct climate change warnings exist, middle and upper school readers find metaphorical and allegorical reads more compelling. I suggest:

  • The Lorax  (Dr. Seuss)
  • The Wump World (Bill Peet)
  • Farewell to Shady Glade  (Bill Peet)
  • Varmints (Helen Ward)
  • Woolvs in the Sitee (Margaret Wild)

middle school - Not all of these are directly cli-fi. Most are concerned with survival in post-collapse Earth rather than with its causation, which is more appropriate for many middle schoolers. Some upper middle school titles appear in the next lists.
  • Ship Breaker (Paolo Bacigalupi) and its sequel The Drowned Cities
  • Green Boy (Susan Cooper)
  • Empty (Suzanne Weyn)
  • The Boy at the End of the World (Greg van Eekhout)
  • The City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau) - 1st in series 
  • Pod (Stephen Wallenfels) - a quirky short novel about earth-collapse caused not by man directly, but by an alien life form that can not abide the actions of Man
  • Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) - Earth-collapse caused by a relocation of the moon
  • An interesting take on the genre is found in Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, particularly the last two stories: "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "The Million-Year Picnic" - we learn of the collapse of Mars, of human-made Mars, and of Earth.  
high school & adult The Dying Earth subgenre is well covered by both Wikipedia and BestScienceFictionBooks.com
  • The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard) - SF classic that may have started it all, although in this case the disaster is not man-made
  • Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner) - 1968 classic Earth-collapse fiction
  • The Windup Girl  (Paolo Bacigalupi)
  • Arctic Rising (Tobia Buckell)
  • Forty Signs of Rain (Kim Stanley Robinson) - 1st in the Science in the Capital trilogy
  • The Admiral (James Gilbert) - 1st in a series
  • The Carbon Diaries 2015 (Saci Lloyd) - suitable for upper middle school
  • The Other Side of the Island (Allegra Goodman)
  • Odds Against Tomorrow (Nathaniel Rich)
  • The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future (Naomi Oreskes, Eric Conway)
  • Out of the Depths (Noel Hodson) - The Future series - Kindle only
  • California (Edan Lepucki) - review 
  • Finitude (Hamish MacDonald)
  • Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver)
  • Waiting for the Flood (Margaret Atwood) - prequel/simultaneous/sequel story to Oryx and Crake and part of the Maddaddam trilogy - although man-made plague is the key SF element, this middle book has a strong environmental message
  • Hot Mess: Speculative Fiction About Climate Change (Brody et all) - stories
  • Inferno (Dan Brown) - included here not because of its pandemic theme, but for its discussions of Why a pandemic is necessary, the answer to which makes the novel cli-fi
mythical/fantasy elements in YA/Adult fiction
  • Love in the Time of Global Warming (Francesca Lia Block) - not for MS
  • Solstice (P.J. Hoover) - suitable for upper middle school
  • Caretaker Trilogy (David Klass) - suitable for upper middle school
Non-fiction and background reading - Climate Change is a hot topic. Students in many cities are using it as a focus of project-based learning and research. The following is list is meant not for students, but for teachers who wish some more background on the issue and its fiction. Some of the texts, and some yet to be written, are appropriate informational fiction for upper middle and high school.
Suggestions and additions always welcome.

Monday, May 12, 2014

52 Short Books: TLDR and What HS Students Are Reading (and NOT)

image: from OpenClips on Pixabay
TLDR: Too Long, Didn't Read.  Scroll down if you want to skip this read and go directly to the list.

A recently released study by Renaissance Learning finds that HS seniors read on average 5.2 books a year, down from 55.4 in grade 2 and 16.2 in grade 6.  There is also a decline in the number of words contained in the reading, from a high in grade 6 (419,121) to 304,252 in grade 12.

Wait a minute.  Do the math.  The books read by HS students must be longer.  That must explain the decline in the number of books read.

Nope. My quick study of the Top 20 lists for 6th and 12th grades provided in the report suggests that 6th graders are actually reading longer books, on average, than their HS counterparts, who are overwhelmingly reading fiction under 250 pages (must have small print). With the exception of The Hunger Games (which first appears on the grade 5 list, 810L) and another light read titled Safe Haven (830L), the longer texts read are found in the bottom (least read) 10. These include some zingers: Twilight (another light read but 544p 770L), Kite Runner (402p  840L), and Divergent (501p HL700L). Hardly a sterling list in terms of challenge.

Supporting my contention that 12th grade students are selecting books well below what they should be reading is the report's finding that the average ATOS book level (similar to the lexile scale) in grade 12 is 7.1 (one month into 7th grade).  The average ATOS in grade 6 is 5.3, which is not great, but at least it's not embarrassing.

I don't think too much should be made of this report, although it purports to be important. How many of these titles are assigned and how many are choice independent reading?  The titles are all Accelerated Reader quizzed titles, which may direct choice and certainly limits what titles are entered into the data.  The identity of the cohort is unclear; the HS students in the sample may not - probably do not - represent the full top-bottom range of student readers.

On the other hand, today's NPR post Why Aren't Teens Reading Like They Used To? reiterates the Renaissance report's finding that HS students are reading well below the level recommended by CCSS and other standards. It is possible to chalk the Renaissance report up as representative of the American public school student reading population.  OK through 5th grade in terms of fiction reading quality and quantity, but downhill from there.  Too far downhill in the 11-12 grades.

The essays which "pepper" the Renaissance report stress the importance of e-reading in today's classroom, suggesting perhaps that digital texts will spur students to read more.  I believe it is valid that e-reading is engaging and, for readers who use the tools, supportive of deeper reading. But a page-turner is a page-turner and a plod is a plod and long is long and a tool can not change that.  What needs to change is access to better reading choices.

If we want our HS students to read more than 5.2 fiction titles a year (I am not mentioning nonfiction because the report finds it amounts to no more than 15% of their reading, despite recommendations to the contrary), we need to consider the fact that, in their/our culture of e-communication and e-research, TLDR (Too Long Didn't Read) is a message HS students send out every day.  By not reading.  By selecting short rather than longer titles.  By selecting easy reads with ATOS reading level 5-6.

This is not helping/challenging/growing our students.  What we need to offer HS students are high quality, high challenge, high engagement short books.

I have spent some time with lexile.com and with good lists over the last few days.  It is possible to mine the classics and good contemporary fiction for excellent short books.  Alas, many of these probably are not in the Accelerated Reader quiz bank.  You may not have read or heard of many of them.  But it's high time HS readers were encouraged to make better reading choices, so gather up as many of these titles as you can.

My arbitrary short book cutoff is 250 pages.  Where possible, lengths are from lexile.com. Amazon.com is the backup.

Here is my list of 52 short fiction books (and one or two nonfiction titles) for 11-12 grade readers, generated by mining lexile.com (for pages and lexile ranges) and other lists.  They are in lexile order, something a bit questionable, but at least this is a consistent measure in line with Common Core standards. More about that later. Only two titles have been carried over from the Renaissance report's grade 12 top 10.  And it adds up to one book a week for a year.

Note: We can not really rely on lexiles to determine suitability and challenge. Examples: most of Gary Paulsen measures well over 1100L and ditto with the best of Zindel (e.g. The Undertaker's Gone Bananas measures 1050). Both novelists are great for MS, but with only a few exceptions are not suitable for HS. Ray Bradbury and Steinbeck, on the other hand, score much lower on the lexile scale than this reader would expect and are suitably complex for HS. Of Mice and Men belongs on this list, but since it is often read in grade 9 or 10, I have omitted it.

The Common Core, by the way, has realigned lexile bands with grade levels to make "stretch" reading the norm. Only the last 2 books on my list fall within the 11-CCR band.  That's absurd. A book does not have to have a lexile over 1200 in order to be great or an intellectual challenge for a 16 year old. I stand by all of these short books for 11-CCR.

The List, in lexile order:
  1. Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue - Lester - not lexiled
  2. The Metamorphosis - Kafka 670
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes - Bradbury 820
  4. Snow Country - Kawabata 820
  5. Skin and Other Stories - Dahl  830
  6. Drown - Diaz 830
  7. If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home - O'Brien  830  (NF)
  8. Slaughterhouse-Five - Vonnegut 850
  9. The House on Mango Street - Cisneros - 870
  10. Things Fall Apart - Achebe 890
  11. Grendel - Gardner 920
  12. Montana 1948 - Watson 940
  13. Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel - Coetzee 940
  14. The Box Man - Abe 950
  15. The Bluest Eye - Morrison 960
  16. July's People - Gordimer 970
  17. The Invisible Man - Wells 980
  18. Being There - Kosinski - 980
  19. The Painted Bird - Kosinski - 980
  20. A Tale of Two Cites - Dickens 990
  21. Franny and Zooey - Salinger 990
  22. Childhood's End - Clarke 990
  23. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids - Oe 1000
  24. Piercing - Murakami  1000
  25. Nothing - Teller 1000
  26. The Pearl - Steinbeck 1010
  27. Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction - Oates, ed 1020
  28. The Secret Agent - Conrad 1030
  29. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - Stevenson 1040
  30. Frankenstein - Shelly  1040 
  31. The First Fast Draw - L'Amour 1040
  32. Frankenstein - Shelly 1040
  33. Interpreter of Maladies - Lahiri 1050
  34. The Heart of Darkness - Conrad 1050
  35. The Crying of Lot 49 - Pynchon 1060
  36. The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald 1070
  37. The Time Machine - Wells 1070
  38. Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder 1080
  39. The Bad Seed - March 1100
  40. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Spark 1120
  41. Silas Marner - Eliot 1130
  42. The Bridges of Toko-Ri - Michener 1140
  43. My Life in Dog Years - Paulsen 1150  (NF)
  44. Ethan Frome - Wharton 1160
  45. Animal Farm - Orwell 1170
  46. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Haddon 1180
  47. Hiroshima - Hersey  1190
  48. Forrest Gump - Groom  1210
  49. Eighteen Best Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe - Poe 1220
  50. Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Marquez 1270
  51. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (stories) - Carver - not lexiled
  52. How to Escape from a Leper Colony (stories) - Yanique - not lexiled 
And a newbie coming out soon: The Fracking King - a debut novel by James Browning (not yet lexiled).

It goes without saying that most of these books will require more effort to read than The Hunger Games trilogy. That effort is one of the reasons that readers find Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men and Gatsby turn offs and Percy Jackson so captivating, and it is probably the real motivation behind TLDR. Educators can give in to this, or they can combat it with titles like those above. One way builds lists of easy, long, page-turners, the other way builds better and better educated readers.  Your choice.

This is, of course, just one solution to our national non-reading dilemma. There are others:
  • If you really want students to be stretched, assign books and articles about fiction and authors.  That's the best place for students to meet those higher lexile texts. 
  • Celebrate the humanities as well as STEM.
  • Write and read.  Introduce students to living writers and their works.
  • Encourage collaborative reading in 11-12 grades.  What?  This means groups encouraged to read like a book club reads.  
  • PBL: Oral histories of the reading memories of parents and seniors; Twitter reading selfies and campaigns
Want to add a book or an idea?  Write a comment or email me directly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

10 Ways to Use 10: The Rule of 10 in the Classroom

A recent piece in the Huffington Post, 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned For Children Under the Age of 12, has gone viral. The post (column, piece) has spawned intelligent criticism from many fronts, very good ones found in the Huffington Post and in Slate (read together, these are a terrific example of how the written word can make both argument and opinion.) Undoubtedly this is largely because of the provocative nature of Rowan's proposition, but I suspect an additional reason is the piece's construction: any post with a title beginning "10 Reasons" will be read.  There are currently 601,000,000 results for a Google search on this phrase.

Why is this?  Maybe because we are a decimal culture.  Maybe because 10 is stronger than 5 or 3, but not overwhelming like 50 or underwhelming like "a dozen." The power of 10 is as great as, but very different from, the power of 3.  


I teach both The Rule of 3 and The Rule of 10 as essential elements of literacy.  "3" is concise. It is a comfortable number of repetitions that can be changed incrementally without the reader becoming lost or bored. It is symmetrical but also edgy. In almost any array of 3, no matter how presented or communicated, one element will come first, one will be in the middle, and one will be at the end, which is both satisfying and suspenseful (variations on this are more interesting).  "3" is the foundation of the standardly taught paragraph and the 5-paragraph essay (BOO to both).  


However satisfying, The Rule of 3 is also childlike in its simplicity. It is the stuff of tales that wrap up neatly and of short-lived arguments.  It is about keeping within the frame.


On the other hand, "10" begs for busting out.  Any list of 10 is really just a tenth of a list of 100. Any list of 10 can easily be expanded. Readers intuitively understand this. A list of 10 is affirming, authoritative, solid, and, potentially, endlessly entertaining.  


The Rule of 10 is about growth and possibility, change and conflict, energy and age.  I have also always found something compellingly chilly in the combination of the loneliness digit and the emptiness digit.  Flipping them creates a neat reduction, repeating them results in a confusion of binary code streaming across a pale green monitor... 10 is the stuff of the digital age as well as The Age of Kings.


The Rule of 10 is a rule for today's students.  

So how can we make it work for us in the classroom?  Here are 10 Ways to Use of 10 at any grade level:


  • I think lists are basically boring, but if you must make lists, require 10 items.  10 favorite...  10 examples of... 10 expressions...  10 adjectives...  10 poems...  10 novels... Where once you stopped at 3 or 5, to make it easy, make it challenging with 10.  Work with ordering or sorting the list in various ways.  4 + 6 is calming.  5 + 5 is a study in antithesis.  3 + 3 + 3 + 1 is a powerful structure for making meaning and conveying emotion.  Write about choices made.
  • 10 letter words are wonderful.  There are many collections online. Study them, record them rolling off your tongue, play vocabulary games with them.  Require them.
  • A great middle school exercise to improve listening and communication is pair-drawing.  Allow only 10 lines.  On partner draws (allow 10 seconds) behind a screen.  He then gives oral directions for his partner(s) to create the same drawing.  Practice!
  • Read 10 (blog posts, articles, opinions, analyses, summaries, novels, poems).  This can also be applied to visual literacy.  Draw 10 connections.  
  • Write (draw, illustrate, record) 10 different/connected/overlapping...  
  • Memorize in groups of 10.  Old school, yes, but it worked then and it works now.  Use the same groupings from #1 to create mental collections.  Very powerful skill.
  • Model the 10-sentence paragraph (most students will quickly see how this can be expanded).  In fiction study, have students seek out 10 sentence passages that convey meaning, theme, etc.  Share them and use them as models.
  • Study The Gettysburg Address.  It has 10 sentences.  Why?  How is it organized?  
  • Apply The Rule of 10 to a longer text as a framework for analysis.  Where is the Rule found?  How does it improve or effect the overall construction?  (characters, chapters, settings, conflicts...)
  • Expand or contract something 10 times.  This is a ripple or pattern exercise that can be used for multiple outcomes: a slippery slope argument (or the reverse, which I call "up the ladder"), brain storming, visual thinking, story-telling, creative narrative, description, development of arguments, coding...  I like to start with If You Give a Dog a Donut and also to use a simple paper-chain group activity to demonstrate how 10-step growth can create a complex or straightforward product.  The math link is obvious (multiplication, division, permutation - and what is a fraction anyway?).  
And why stop at 10?  If you remember playing Crack the Whip as a kid, on the field or on the ice, you know that the longer the whip the more forceful the lash. 3 is simply not much fun. Sometimes it hurts to be at the end of the whip, but it's worth it.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

On Listening to Poetry



The New Yorker has launched a new free podcast series, The Poetry Podcast.  Each episode, hosted by Paul Muldoon, contains a New Yorker poet reading a poem that he/she has selected from the magazine, followed by a conversation about that poem.  The poet then introduces and reads one of his/her own pieces.  

What a powerful tool for the study of poetry!  In this age of poetry minimized as paired text, often read only thematically, it is important for teachers to locate and use tools that support the reading of poetry as essential, elemental, text - deserving of both a leisurely and a personal reading.  

I quote from my own Scoop of this announcement:

Muldoon writes, "the eye is not the only buyer into, and beneficiary of, the poem. The ear has been in the poetry business for much longer, given poetry’s origins in the oral tradition."  What a model for classroom reading of poetry as text!  Share this episode, in which Philip Levine reads and discusses "What did I love about killing the chickens" by Ellen Bass.  A sure winner.  Some students might want to just visualize, some to draw while listening.  The text of the poem is in the New Yorker archive: http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2013/02/04/130204po_poem_bass.  Connections are made to Whitman, Bishop, Harte Crane, Williams, Randall Jarrell and others during the discussion of the power of the poem's structure and diction.  Levine also reads and discusses his own poem, "In another country" :  http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2013/02/11/130211po_poem_levine. You might discuss how much - what, if anything - Levine's introduction adds to a reading of the poem.  Perhaps some students should read the poem before listening to the poet. 

I would add now that a careful listening to the discussion reveals not "close reading" but a very personal closing in on what makes this poem special.  I discuss this a bit in a previous post called Close Reading and Poetry. Were Levine and Muldoon to methodically attack the poem's use of image or antithesis, the poem itself would lose its life.  

There are other apps for listening to poetry.  The Poetry Foundation currently lists 1165 Poems with "related content," which includes a reading of the poem by the poet.  I am listening to/reading Douglas Kearney's "Every Hard Rapper's Father" as I write this - a fascinating experience.  His recording brings sense to the inventive presentation of the text as well an an emotional depth that can be missed without audio.

The Poetry Archive of poets-reading-their-own-poetry is another great source. Students can create and share a favorites list and browse by theme, poetic element or form.  Did you know Margaret Atwood wrote poetry?  Try "The Immigrants" for a contemporary (and historical) connection every bit as powerful as most Holocaust YA novels.  

Poetry Out Loud is another good source of audio. Navigate to the Listen to Poetry archive of readings. Additionally, and perhaps more powerfully for the student, are the videos of the Poetry Out Loud contest winners and finalists.  This used to be housed on the web site, but is now found on a YouTube channel.  I have used this to engage middle schoolers in recitation, oral reading, and (for the feint of heart) choral reading.  It often opens the door to a poet's work.

Student readers, as soon as they can read independently or memorize effectively, can create their own audio and video recordings and discussions of poetry.  VoiceThread is a great tool for this, but there are now many, many others.  In fact, just about any "presentation" or whiteboard app will do the job. 

One interesting tweak, and a useful one for many students, is to charge them to play the role of Paul Muldoon.  Find an adult or older student reader who will select, read, and discuss a favorite poem.  You are moving toward a PBL unit!  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why are so many novels about death? A PBL Unit for HS

Cutter Man Dead Death Skeleton Bony Spirit

I once taught a 6th grade English class in which a student complained loudly that we read too much about death.  It served to broaden my curriculum significantly.  But the fact of the matter is, much of great literature deals with death.

In this month of death in the Philippines and remembrance of death in the veteran's cemeteries (including the one in which my dad lies), I find myself returning to the topic.

Begin with this list from a blog comment by Shiny Red Robocalypse (that blog post has the same topic as this one - some overlap):

It is reassuring to know that I am not alone.  Others commenting in this stream recommend additional great middle school titles: Bridge to Terebithia, Tuck Everlasting, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bless Me Ultima, Charlotte's Web, The Graveyard Book...  As Zoomba comments, "Great children's books and death are practically synonymous."  Ditto tween books and YA fiction.  It seems to me that death is absolutely trending.

Why is this so? I can offer up my own theory, but it seems to me that high school students should be addressing this question; the fact is that the synonymous relationship between death and fiction extends into pre-adult and adult book lists as well.  

The challenge of answering my question - "Why are so many novels about death?" - would make an excellent PBL unit at the HS level.  These students will have read a wide range of mid-level books for background and there are endless great YA and adult titles to extend understanding.  Oh, and informational text as well.  

Kickoff: a speaker or better yet a panel: a religious, a psychologist or counselor, a survivor, perhaps a courageous terminal patient

Product: What might be an authentic learning product?  Perhaps a student designed all-day event on the topic. A print product (graphic novel, poetry collection) for a younger audience would be useful. Perhaps a media product (interviews or i-Journalism would be my choice, but an original video or stage play would be fascinating).  Perhaps a counter-death product, such as a comedy, or an investigation of "black comedy" and "dark" superhero movies.  It is not, after all, just in novels that we find so much death.  For the activist student, perhaps a Twitter-based "Read Something Funny Today" would be interesting.  

Assessment: Use the BIE (Buck Institute for Education) free Critical Thinking Rubric for PBL - follow the link to the appropriate rubric (grade level, CCSS aligned or not)

I give you below some of my recommendations for texts.  I have not included films, but death and film seems to be a natural fit these days.  Some students might want to look at the culture of violence in film and gaming, especially gun violence.  I also have not included graphic novels, but I have attached to this blog a page of recommendations in this genre.  Many of them are (no surprise) about death in some way.  

Apps - zombie apps, war apps - death is hard to avoid if you are a gamer who likes more than candy, but here are some interesting takes on the genre:

  • Day of Death - Google download for Android devices - with your name and birthdate as input, tells you when and how you will die
  • The Death App - you will need a QR reader to access the URL for this app, which looks promising but does not work on my IOS devices


Quirky Fiction

  • The Machine of Death - also available in a less expensive edition - This is How You Die is the sequel - all available from Amazon -  short story pieces, all with the premise that The Machine of Death has generated a slip of paper telling someone how he/she is going to die, but not when or where or any other important details - darkly delightful work from Wondermark's David Malki and friends - a neat extra is the card game that Malki produced after a Kickstarter campaign
  • A Monster Calls - this moving gem from Patrick Ness does not neatly fit into a category
  • Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty - Neri's graphic novel reflects on the death of a Chicago youth
  • Nation - Terry Pratchett - the recent horrific typhoon in the Philippines is a natural twin for this alternative history novel - death appears early in the story and never leaves it - much fodder for discussion, a different place to find deep loss and, perhaps, hope after disaster


Children's Books - the best children's books are for all audiences - rather than introducing cutesy picture books, I would begin here and perhaps some students will follow up with the cutesy

  • The Giving Tree - OK, so you can spin it positively, but this is really about death
  • Pierre - Sendak's "cautionary tale" and his Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life
  • Rose Blanche - Innocenti's grim allegory of the Holocaust should pair with other Holocaust readings
  • Klassen's This is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back present death as natural

Realistic Fiction - not that these are totally realistic - students might consider why and how elements of imaginative fantasy appear in each

  • As I Lay Dying - Faulkner's glorious, difficult walkabout with the family of Addie Bundren
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder's exploration of the randomness of death - a little read classic
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Foer - not a difficult read, but like Foer's Everything is Illuminated this is a sensitive, somewhat magical, emotionally powerful novel
  • The Fault in Our Stars - Green - a bit oozy for my taste, but many teens love it
  • Going Bovine - Bray - running from death?  running with death?  wonderful Cervantes-style romp across America
  • The Orphan Master's Son - Johnson - Pulitzer prize-winning novel of North Korea - I have been pummeled by this book; it should be read
  • Thirteen Reasons Why - Asher - suicide
  • Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions - Daniel Wallace - not really a novel, but also not totally true narrative - focused upon life and death of father
  • Tinkers - Paul Harding's novel about the life that came before the deathbed - haunting and mellow
A Holocaust book must also be read - I suggest Weisel's Night (not fiction, but grouped here as well as below), Everything is Illuminated, Once, The Book Thief,  and Milkweed - be sure to discuss how style and narrative voice are used to effect in each title

Suicide is another topic that should fall into this unit - this Goodreads listing is a good one for HS (with the exception of Gatsby, which should not be on the list)

School shootings are well covered in this Goodreads listing

And always there is war: Atonement, Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Things They Carried (to list a few great ones), and a tough graphic novel from Japan: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

SF and Fantasy - the dystopian and monster genres walk arm-and-arm with death, but a few titles rise to the top.  Some of them:

  • The Giver - Lowry's classic about both giving death and escaping a deathly life - high schoolers who have not read it must read it
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes - Bradbury deals with death in just about all of his work, but this one takes it head on - I like to pair it with Morgenstern's The Night Circus
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane - death is both tired and noble in this little wonder from Neil Gaiman
  • Hoban's Riddley Walker treats with the death of not just characters, but cultures - ditto A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also has the undercurrent of religious salvation gone awry
  • Never Let Me Go - powerful dystopian look at death in a high tech, low morality world - The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Unwind are easier on the same topicany one of these will shock students deeply
  • The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly's young protagonist enters a world of fractured fairy and knighthood tales, fraught as always with death, and confronts his own grief at a mother lost

Mysteries, Detective Fiction - these genre almost always involve death - I list here my favorites, books that treat death not as curiosity or spectacle, but with sensitivity and cultural understanding

  • Collin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series - The Coroner's Lunch is the first of these magical mysteries set in Laos - read them in order
  • Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series - A Test of Wills is the first in this series of a Scotland Yard inspector haunted by the ghost of a battlefield execution

Drama & Other Narratives - I have included a few poems here just to remind you to include them - they are not hard to find

  • Greek tragedies used to have a place in HS English and death figures in most of them - I prefer Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, or Medea - these treat death differently, but both are deeply concerned with life-taking - The Oresteia is another choice
  • The Death of a Salesman - Miller seems to have disappeared from the classroom - a tragedy, as Willy Loman is a contemporary figure
  • Shakespearean tragedy - for the classroom, MacBeth, R&J, Hamlet and Julius Caesar - but obviously most will do, and what is more deeply felt than Lear or more horrific than Richard III - performances (viewed and done) are necessary
  • Beowulf - it is not really that long and ranges from truly graphic monster-death to the poignant death of the hero - I suggest Ian Serraillier's Beowulf the Warrior
  • The Iliad - pick and choose from many deaths and contemplations of death - I like the Fagles translation
  • Russ Kick's Death Poems anthology is the best place to start your search for poems, but don't miss "Death of a Hired Man" - Frost's matter-of-factness is just the skin on the fruit - Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young," Emily Dickinson, and Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est"
  • Field of Dreams just might be the uplifting film you have to show

Non-Fiction - the daily news is an endless source of material for the classroom, but here are some print titles to consider

  • How We Grieve: Meghan O'Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss - a review, commentary from Brain Pickings - great companion piece to any other reading
  • Marley and Me or Marley - it is important to include pieces about the deaths of our pets and other animal companions
  • "Death of a Pig" - E.B. White's essay/memory piece about a real pig
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo - almost unbearably blunt recounting - not all of death, but it is the deaths that linger
  • Night
  • The Devil in the White City - Larson's intertwined history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a horrific serial killer begins and ends with one of the most poignant contemplations of death's finality that I have ever read
  • In Cold Blood is Capote's revolutionary documentary of a family's murder - just one of what is now a genre (including The Devil...)
  • May of the titles I listed in my i-Journalism post would fit into this unit
  • Brian Piccolo: A Short Season is a classic sports bio turned into a classic movie, Brian's Song

Is this really a good idea?  I think that discussion has to be enjoined, especially in light of today's endless reporting of global deaths, teen suicides, gun violence, sports violence, and ubiquitous onscreen/movie death.  Why as a culture are we so fascinated by death? Is it possible to turn this around?