Why You Should Teach Dystopia to Your Middle & High School Readers

While The Giver may have ignited the spark for young adult dystopia, The Hunger Games set fire to the genre in 2008, heating up the market for teens ready to read about these dark, frightening worlds that reflect our society’s faults. Since then, the genre has exploded in unprecedented popularity. Whether you’ve seen these stories come to life on the big screen, picked up a book from a bestseller list, or checked out the YA section of your local library, chances are you’ve encountered at least one of these plot lines in the last decade:

Teenagers are forced to fight to the death for the sake of entertainment and control.

Humanity is divided into five feuding factions with no room for individuality or divergence.

The entire population is microchipped and tracked, and undocumented immigrants are ruthlessly hunted. 

 A society that has conquered death appoints scythes to kill innocent people to control the population. 

An unprecedented west-coast drought turns deadly and spirals into anarchy. 

As far-fetched as some of these dystopian settings may feel, the truth is that they are an exaggerated, distorted reflection of reality. They hold a mirror up to society and force readers to examine our world’s flaws. That’s precisely why these books are so compelling–and why they deserve a spot in our curriculum, too. Dystopian stories demand to be taught–to be discussed and dissected, whether that’s via a whole class novel study, dystopian book clubs/literature circles, a short story unit, or even independent reading. The genre is so ripe for reading and teaching that there’s no reason not to teach it…unless you’re running some kind of terrifying totalitarian classroom rooted in control and fear. 😉

In all seriousness, consider this blog post your permission to teach that dystopian unit you’ve started to dream up, that dystopian book you read and immediately wanted to teach, or those intriguing dystopian literature circles you’ve seen floating around on teacher Instagram. It’s your turn to teach some dystopia, friend! Whether you’re beginning to consider it, in the brainstorming phase, or already planning for you, here are a few compelling reasons why dystopia deserves a spot on your curriculum map.

TEENS LOVE IT.

Teens are already reading, watching, and talking about these types of stories, so why not capitalize on the popularity of the genre and teach all the standards while we are at it, too? Some of the most successful novel studies, units, and lessons of my teaching career have had one thing in common: dystopia. It’s a no-brainer: massive appeal = increased engagement. You’ll notice students doing the reading homework without complaining, participating more in class discussions, and rising to higher standards of work–all because they genuinely enjoy the book. English class doesn’t feel like a chore when you’re lost in the immortal world of Scythe or rooting for Katniss in The Hunger Games.

Luckily, there is no shortage of engaging, accessible dystopian literature, whether it’s YA, like Unwind, The Grace Year, or Sanctuary, or the classics, like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale. There are even some graphic novel adaptations of popular dystopias, including The City of Ember, Legend, The Giver, and–coming in October 2014–The Hunger Games. Of course, there are all the film adaptations, too. (More on that later!) The possibilities are endless.

Dystopia Book Display in Classroom

THE REBELLIOUS DYSTOPIAN PROTAGONISTS WILL RESONATE WITH YOUR READERS.

Dystopian protagonists are often curious, angsty, determined, and rebellious. These main characters are constantly questioning authority, fighting against injustice, and searching for themselves in the process. Does that sound familiar to you, middle and high school teachers? Of course it does! 😉 We might as well be that oppressive dystopian government on some days. LOL. In all seriousness, being a teenager in what often feels like a scary, uncertain world is tough. What better way for our adolescent readers to navigate growing up in this uncharted territory than through literature? Whether your teen readers admire Jonas’s curiosity, Katniss’s bravery, or Citra’s drive for justice, chances are they will be able to identify with a dystopian protagonist in some way, shape, or form.

Stack of dystopian books

YOU CAN TEACH DYSTOPIA IN A VARIETY OF WAYS.

The best part about teaching such a popular genre full of so many engaging, accessible stories is that it gives you so many options! You can teach dystopia via a traditional whole-class novel study: Everyone reads The Giver, for example. You can also take advantage of all the titles out there by structuring your dystopian unit in the form of book clubs or literature circles: Small groups of students read different dystopian books, such as The Hunger Games, Scythe, Children of Eden, Sanctuary, Matched, and Legend. Better yet, you can do both! Teach one dystopian novel as a whole-class “anchor text,” and use that to launch into dystopian book clubs where students apply everything they learned from the first part of the unit. You can also teach dystopia via independent reading: Give students a giant list of dystopian options, let them choose what to read, and then teach lessons that will help students focus on the genre and make connections across texts.

If you don’t have time to teach a full dystopian novel or run a round of literature circles, you can also teach the genre via short stories and other “texts.” You can pull in excerpts from popular dystopian books and graphic novel adaptations, show (appropriate) clips from series like Black Mirror, and press play on book trailers and key movie scenes, too. Your dystopian unit can be as creative as you make it! 

Middle grade and young adult dystopian books

YOU CAN SCAFFOLD LITERARY ANALYSIS WITH DYSTOPIAN FILMS.

You know all those dystopian movies I mentioned earlier? There’s a place for these films in your dystopian curriculum, too! Pressing play with a purpose can help scaffold literary analysis. Whether you’re showing Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, or The Hunger Games, you can ask students to analyze the director’s choices–just like they would analyze the author’s choices. 

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I generally appreciate all film adaptations of novels, even when the directors butcher the story, change too much, or leave out key scenes. Why?! That just means there’s more to ANALYZE! The more that is different, the more you can analyze the effect of the changes. (Looking at you, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.7.). For example, most English teachers I know hate the film adaptation of The Giver, but I love showing it to my students after we read. Students get heated about some of the changes, but it leads to fabulous discussions. 

By the way, you can check out my film analysis worksheets for The Giver HERE and my resource for The Hunger Games HERE. To learn more about film analysis, head to this blog post.

Dystopia lesson in classroom

DYSTOPIA HELPS TEENS TACKLE TOUGH QUESTIONS AND GRAPPLE WITH REAL ISSUES.

Dystopian novels reflect current issues, anxieties, and situations like a funhouse mirror.  They exaggerate and distort very real problems and fears to warn readers of what could happen if we’re not careful. And the best dystopian books do this cleverly, without being didactic. In this way, dystopian literature provides a playground for critical thinking and problem-solving. Young readers can think through essential questions about the balance between government control and individual freedom, good intentions gone wrong, the ethics of AI and other technology, human nature, and more. These are serious, relevant questions that teens want to discuss, and dystopia is the perfect platform for it.

Dystopian writing prompt

YOU’LL BE INTRODUCING YOUR STUDENTS TO AN IMPORTANT GENRE -OR- BUILDING ON THEIR BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE.

Both are big wins! Whether you’re dipping your students’ toes into the world of dystopia or building on their background knowledge, teaching dystopia can help your learners feel confident, stay engaged, and think critically.

Middle school teachers, you’ll be doing your students a favor by introducing them to the genre, guiding readers through its common elements and questions, and scaffolding its complex but powerful themes. (I personally think The Giver is the perfect “starter novel” for this.) You can almost guarantee students will be expected to read–and comprehend and analyze–dystopia in high school, whether it’s Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451. These novels can be incredibly intimidating for readers who have not encountered the genre before. Why not give your students the exposure, background knowledge, and confidence they need to dig into classic dystopia with ease?

High school teachers, there’s a good chance your students have read some dystopia, or at the very least, watched The Hunger Games, Divergent, Ready Player One, The Maze Runner, etc. Their background knowledge will allow you to dive deeper into dystopia. You can hook students with these popular stories and leverage this engagement as you challenge students in increasingly complex literary analysis. 

For context, I am currently facilitating dystopian literature circles in 8th grade with the same group of students I read The Giver with in 7th grade. I cannot express how engaging and successful our dystopian literature circles are because of everything we learned, did, and discussed with dystopia last year. I feel incredibly confident sending my students off to high school, because I know they will be more than ready for any dystopian literature their teachers throw at them!

Dystopian excerpt from Scythe

DYSTOPIAN LITERATURE MAKES IT EASY TO TEACH ALMOST ANY 6-12 ELA STANDARD.

Dystopian novels are always ripe for literary analysis. You can teach almost any literature standard, but there are a few that are especially perfect for the genre. For example, here are a few of the 6-12 grade level standards that will seamlessly align with any dystopian unit:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.3 – Students can track how the story unfolds, how the protagonist responds to the dystopian setting, and how characters change throughout the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7.3 – Students can analyze how the dystopian setting shapes the characters and plot, then how it impacts the plot, and finally, how all story elements work together in the genre.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.3 – Students can identify the “turning points” as the protagonist discovers the dark dystopian reality and analyze how these incidents reveal character, provoke decisions, and propel the plot.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.3 – Students can investigate how character relationships, especially those in dystopian novels with dual POVs, are impacted by dystopia and how they advance the plot and theme.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3 – Students can dig deep into the author’s purpose in dystopian literature, analyzing the impact of the author’s choices (and even the director’s choices in film adaptations).
Dystopian lesson plan for The Hunger Games

DYSTOPIA IS THE PERFECT SPRINGBOARD FOR A VARIETY OF WRITING.

You can teach all the reading standards with dystopia, but don’t forget about all the possibilities for writing, too! Since dystopian literature examines real-life issues and raises relevant questions, it’s the perfect playground for a variety of writing. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:

  • Informational: Ask students to explain dystopian elements in our society or from history OR inform readers “how to spot a dystopia.” (If you do the latter, pair it with this TED video lesson).
  • Literary Analysis: Ask students to analyze the book’s warning to readers, use any of the aforementioned reading standards to form a prompt, or assign the classic theme analysis essay.
  • Synthesis: Pair any dystopian unit with my all-time favorite synthesis prompt: “Have we taken science, technology, or social media too far?” (Check out a unit for this HERE).
  • Argumentative: Pull out some of the real-world issues from the dystopian text and ask students to write argumentative essays about these topics (or get a little creative with some debates or a mock trial over moral dilemmas in the novel).
Dystopian lesson plan

Ready to dig into dystopia with your middle or high school students? I hope this post leaves you dreaming up dystopian lesson plans and determined to fit some dystopia into your curriculum next year. Whether you’re ready to add a favorite YA book to your curriculum, breathe new life into the dystopian classic collecting dust on your shelves, or plan for a round of book clubs/literature circles focused on the genre, I’d love to help. You can see some of my dystopian units in action over on my Instagram and leave me questions in the comments over there or right here. If you’re looking for student-ready resources for dystopian novels and/or editable lessons for any dystopian text, check out the following:

Dystopian activities and lessons for any text or literature circles

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