The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?
In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.
Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.
Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.
So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?
With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.
The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
WORLD 1: SURVIVING LIT ISLAND: THE TRIALS OF DURSTOPIA
General Concept: Freshmen will be welcomed to high school English with an invitation to “take flight” in their learning and see where it leads. But the transition from middle school to high school is full of turbulence. Consequently, their plane crashes on Lit Island where students will have to work together (community building), discover each other’s strengths (learner profiles), learn the language of Durstopian survivors (academic vocabulary focused on literary analysis and argument), and conquer challenges (What do good readers do?) to earn their way off the island.
Preview: On day one, students will receive a plane ticket inviting them to take flight on day two. I used a similar hook last year (however, the unit took place near the end of first semester).
We boarded the plane and were ready to take flight. Safe travels!
Here is the outcome…
Fortunately all will survive! Now we find ourselves in a new world, the first quest begins…
Learners will receive some guidance from a mysterious presence on the island, but they will have to acclimate to the environment and work together without relying solely on the teacher (adult)—a natural means of releasing responsibility as early as unit one. As students are introduced to high school Literature and Composition, they will keep the fire lit! (by reading Lord of the Flies) and navigate paths toward desired outcomes (earning pieces of a boat for safe passage to the next stop in Durstopia).
Exciting, right? Stay tuned for updates throughout the year. Where do we go from here?
WORLD 2: TRANSCENDING TIME AND TRAGEDY IN FAIR VERONA
General Concept: Boats from Lit Island will deliver us safely to Fair Verona, but the adventure is just beginning. With our common language established and equipped with necessary skills, we explore timeless themes in poetry and Shakespearean tragedy (Romeo and Juliet) to answer the question, “What does it mean to read like a writer?” Prepare for a thumb-biting, action-packed experience like no other!
WORLD 3: ESCAPING CULTURAL CONFINES
General Concept: We brought poetry to life and explored timeless themes. We know what it means to read like a writer, analyze literature, and create credible arguments. After overcoming tragedy, we seek no more drama, but Mary J. Bling has other plans in store. There are literary treasures to be discovered. We travel to more modern times, but is this a world of fiction or reality? Society’s cultural confines seemingly blur the lines. We have to ask, “What does literature teach about what it means to be human?” More specifically, “How does fiction reflect society?” and “What lessons can be learned from reading fiction?”
WORLD 4: THE REALM OF REALITY
General Concept: The route to liberation from the cultural confines of fictional themes is to travel the seemingly endless Humanity Highway, which forces us to the depths of human nature. Facing the coldest, darkest point in Durstopia, we enter The Realm of Reality (nonfiction). The only chance we have to survive is by attaining the power of knowledge. We will have to connect past to present if we are to impact the future. While we cannot alter history, we can learn from it. The key to escaping The Realm of Reality is by addressing the question: “How can we use research to arrive at conclusions about our world?” Only then, may we move forward.
WORLD 5: THE VOID
General Concept: While there are colorful stops along Humanity Highway, there is also white space on the map. This emptiness is called The Void. It requires explorers and innovators to fill it with something meaningful, authentic, enduring… In fact, making or designing original content is the only way to climb out of The Void. We need to build something solid to stand on if we hope to reach new heights. The question is, “What can we make to impact our world?”
WORLD 6: THE ESCAPE FROM DURSTOPIA
If you are reading this you have performed admirably, but many questions about humanity linger. Your thinking is forever changed; there is no looking back. Escape from Durstopia is within reach, but there is one final world to conquer if you are to earn passage to Blissful Brogeland (Ms. Brogelman’s amazing sophomore American Literature and Composition course). Authors use dystopian themes to critique society and provide warnings, but what are they trying to communicate? Persevere through your final challenges to find the answers!
Do you have what it takes to survive Durstopia? Only time will tell…