After spending six years teaching my favorite class novel, The Great Gatsby, in high school, all I had to do was teach The Giver once to fall head over heels for a new favorite. I’m not exaggerating when I say that The Giver is the perfect class novel, and I’ve never seen kids more engaged with a text!
Here’s why this small but mighty classic deserves a spot in your middle school curriculum and how you can take advantage of it to create an engaging, memorable whole class novel study:
It’s the perfect introduction to dystopian literature.
If your middle school students are anything like mine, they already LOVE dystopian or they don’t know that they love it…yet. Many of them are exploring The Hunger Games for the first time and then jumping headfirst into the proliferation of YA dystopia that dominates bookshelves and even movie screens today: Scythe, Divergent, The Maze Runner, Matched and more. Others are quietly reading their beloved realistic fiction, fantasy, or sci-fi, wondering what all the dystopian hype is about, not realizing that the genre is closer to their favorites than they think. And certainly a few are sitting in class saying, dystopi-WHAT? without a clue as to what it means.
Even if your students have already dipped their toes into dystopia, what they may not realize is that the “original” YA dystopia was published 15 years before The Hunger Games set the genre on fire. And while it may seem counterintuitive to backtrack in time to teach a classic like The Giver, it’s actually the perfect introduction to the genre. Because the story is set in what’s supposed to be a utopia, the book gives the readers the opportunity to explore the difference between a utopia and dystopia. Chapter by chapter, readers get to witness Jonas peel back the layers of the deceptive “utopia” and grapple with the gradual, frightening reveal of the dark dystopia. This experience is much more powerful and truly helps students understand the slippery slope between utopia and dystopia.
It piques students’ curiosity from the start and keeps them guessing until the very end.
With its strict rules, intriguing dynamics, and seemingly utopian structure, the setting of The Giver piques students’ curiosity from the start. As Lowry immerses readers in her clever world-building, she leaves a trail of unanswered questions (and even a few breadcrumbs for the most observant readers).
To capitalize on the kind of natural curiosity The Giver cultivates, I encourage my students to ask lots of questions. I tell them that The Giver is part dystopian and part science-fiction…but also part mystery. Playing up the mystery element, I tell students that The Giver is one of those books where you have to pay attention and question things. It’s one of those stories where you shouldn’t overlook those “wait, what?” moments you have while reading. It’s one of those mysteries where there are tiny little clues along the way and lots of foreshadowing that will all make sense later. In other words, you have to be observant, inquisitive, and curious, and treat it less like a story and more like an investigation.
This kind of challenge instantly engages students and involves them in more active reading. During the first few chapters, we are constantly asking questions, drawing inferences, and making predictions. When students ask if their inferences and predictions are correct, I relish replying, “I can’t tell you that! You’ll have to read to find out, so stay tuned!” It becomes this fun (and maddening) guessing game that keeps students wanting to read the next chapter and see if their predictions come true. Because students have invested so much time in thinking about the text, it makes the reveal of colors, memories, release, etc. all the more dramatic and memorable.
It’s accessible & just the right length for a novel study.
At just around 200 pages, The Giver is one of those books that hits that sweet spot of “just right” for a whole-class novel study. With a lexile of 760, the language is accessible, but not without a healthy dose of new vocabulary words and context clues. The Giver is accessible enough that struggling readers can find success with scaffolding, and complex enough for advanced readers to dive deep in literary analysis.
Even though the text itself can be easily understood by a majority of middle schoolers, the content and themes are rich, complex, and mature. You can scale it up or down, use the text across a wide range of reading levels and grades, and adapt your novel study based on your students’ needs. In other words, it’s every English teacher’s dream!
There is so much you can TEACH with it!
Hopefully you are beginning to see just how rich, compelling, and versatile The Giver is. It’s truly one of those books where you can do anything and everything with it. You can practice every single standard, hit every literary element, and discuss every last detail. There’s almost too much you can do with it that it even feels overwhelming, right? Ah, the paradox of the perfect book.
In all seriousness, it can be challenging to chisel down your novel study to a handful of essential learning targets. But rest assured that you can do whatever you want with this powerhouse of a novel! Here are just a fraction of all of the wonderful possibilities:
- Practice making inferences, generating questions, and offering predictions with Lowry’s ambiguous prose.
- Examine the way Lowry structures the novel to gradually reveal the dystopia lurking beneath the utopian illusion.
- Study the novel’s language and euphemisms, analyzing the relationship between power and language.
- Compare and contrast the point of view of Jonas, The Giver, and the rest of the community, as well as the way Jonas’s perspective shifts throughout the story.
- Explore the elements of dystopia and the warnings the story offers for readers.
There is so much you can DISCUSS with it!
In addition to all of the essential skills you can teach with this text, there are so many powerful discussions you can have with it. The Giver may have been written nearly three decades ago, but the questions it raises are just as relevant to readers today. Once again, there are so many ways you can frame your novel study, but here are a few essential questions to help you get started:
- What is the difference between a utopia and a dystopia?
- What are the dangers of Sameness?
- How do memories shape our lives?
- To what extent should a government protect its people?
- How much government control is too much?
- How do dystopian governments use language to maintain control?
Because The Giver raises so many complex universal questions, it’s the perfect book for a Socratic seminar. To learn more about how to facilitate seminars, head to this blog post. For student-ready resources to make your first seminar a success, check out my resource HERE.
There is so much you can DO with it!
Not only can you discuss until your teacher’s heart’s content, but you can do so many unique and engaging activities with The Giver! It’s one of those books that’s SO MUCH FUN to teach. Like I said earlier, it’s even more fun if you can capitalize on students’ curiosity and really play up the mystery, tension, and suspense in the text. If you want to do just that, here are a few of my favorite activities:
- Pre-Reading Learning Stations: My goal with any novel unit is to hook my students before they even have a chance to read the first page, and these stations are no exception! In addition to building essential background information, these stations will get students debating essential questions and responding to the community’s strict rules. But my favorite station is probably #5, a fun word game that challenges students to explain words (such as love) without using specific keywords (like heart or feeling).
- Mock Ceremony of 12: If you do nothing else during your novel study of The Giver, try hosting a mock Ceremony of 12! It does not have to be complicated, but it will be memorable and engaging for your students. You can find student-ready materials and instructions in my bundle for teaching The Giver HERE.
- Utopia Dream vs. Dystopian Nightmare Game: To help my students explore the slippery slope between utopia and dystopia in The Giver, I created a fun speed-debating style game. There are a few different ways to structure it, but essentially, students are given a topic card (example: Sameness) and a side (utopia or dystopia) and must debate the topic from their side. It’s loads of fun and it gets students critically thinking about perspectives, propaganda, and dystopian settings.
- Film Analysis: Because you tell me you hate the movie and refuse to show it to your students, hear me out and read more about this below in the following section. 🙂
There is so much you can PAIR with it!
If you’re looking to build a rich, multifaceted thematic unit, The Giver is the perfect anchor text! Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- “Examination Day” short story by Henry Slesar and Twilight Zone adaptation (use this to introduce dystopia or compare/contrast with The Giver)
- Why Color Blindness Will Not End Racism video (connect to colorblindness in The Giver; lesson available in my novel study resource)
- Nonfiction articles about the psychology of memory, censorship, euthanasia, conformity, identity, etc.
- Common Lit’s content pairings for The Giver (even more options)
- NPR Interview with Lois Lowry
- The rest of The Giver quartet
- Other dystopian novels…keep reading for more info on that!
It makes for a great whole-class novel before launching into dystopian literature circles/book clubs.
In fact, this is what I’m planning to do later this year! Students love The Giver so much that I want to take advantage of all of the momentum that comes with our novel study. After reading the novel as a whole class, students will be able to choose another dystopian novel to read in book club groups. Here are a few texts that I will hopefully have as options: The Hunger Games, Scythe, Unwind, Matched, The City of Ember, and The List. Let me know if you have any other suggestions in the comments!
For more information about how to set up & facilitate lit circles/book clubs, check out the following blog posts:
Students will love analyzing the film adaptation and you’ll love the analysis skills you can teach through it!
I know this is an unpopular opinion among ELA teachers, but I like the film adaptation of The Giver. Sure, there are some major changes, but guess what? That just means there is more to explore, question, and analyze! The more that’s different, the more you can analyze the effect of the film director’s changes. I’m looking at you, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.7.
I’ve always been a big fan of using film analysis to scaffold literary analysis, but it’s even easier to do this when there are substantial changes that impact the story in a more tangible way. For example, one of the first things viewers notice is the setting in the film: the isolated plateau that rises above the ring of clouds that obscure any view of Elsewhere. It’s usually nothing like my students pictured while reading, so we take the chance to analyze this. We discuss how this change impacts the story, what it emphasizes, and why the director likely made this choice. We do the same with other changes and choices throughout the film. Practicing this with the movie helps students become much more comfortable with the intimidating, elusive skill of “literary analysis.”
When it’s structured in this way, film analysis is a rich, challenging exercise that reminds students that both directors and authors make deliberate choices that impact the story and affect the audience. You can check out my film analysis worksheets for The Giver HERE or find them in the unit bundle HERE.
The Giver is about a KID questioning the norm, thinking critically, and creating change.
Need I say more? Jonas is the hero we all need!
I hope this blog post has helped you get excited about teaching The Giver! For more information on some of my favorite activities for teaching the book, head to this blog post. For engaging resources for the whole book, check out this unit bundle full of learning stations, quickwrites, graphic organizers, group work, activities, and more.