How Students Connect 4 Novels From Across Time To 2020-2021

Course: Reading 7th Grade 

Department: Reading 

Institution: St. Hilary School (Fairlawn) 

Instructor: Sean Gadus 

Syllabus: Reading 7 Introduction 

Number & Level of Students Enrolled: 60 7th Grade Students 

Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Google Forms 

Author Bio: Sean Gadus is a graduate of Cleveland State University. This is his fourth year as a teacher and his third year at St. Hilary School in Fairlawn, Ohio. In his free time, he also writes about popular culture as a volunteer writer at Zelda Dungeon and The Artifice 

The past two years have been incredibly tumultuous for students across all age-groups. The social-emotional effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, tumultuous political events, and various humanitarian struggles will all have long term effects on how our students view the world and the people within it. During the past two years (the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years), Reading/Language Art classes have occupied a strange place as both safe havens from the struggles of life outside the classroom while also serving as venues to explore and discuss ideas relevant to students’ experiences in the past two years.  

With this in mind, it has been critical that students reflect on their experiences in Reading classes and find connections between the texts they are engaging with (both fiction and nonfiction) and the world they see around them. In an article for ReadWriteThink, Cathy Allen Simon asserts that when students find authentic connections, they gain “a deeper understanding of a text” and become “more engaged in the reading experience”. This case study explores the connections that a class of 7th graders made between life/events in 2020-2021 and the themes/main ideas of four class novels. The case study uses anonymous quotes from students to delineate the thematic connections that they made.  

St. Hilary School is a parochial/Catholic school in Fairlawn, Ohio. The school is a thriving community with 3 classes per grade level. In terms of technology, St. Hilary is fortunate to be a 1 to 1 school, with each student in grades 6 through 8 having a Chromebook for their own use in class/at home during the school year. Due to circumstances related to the pandemic, students had the option to attend class in person or to learn remotely through Zoom, a type of video interfacing software. Each classroom at St. Hilary School is equipped with an iPad and digital students were displayed on the iPad during class and learned simultaneously with students who were in class.

In order to complete this case study, students were asked to give written responses to questions on an anonymous Google Form. In order to ensure the information would remain anonymous, students did not write their names on the online form, nor were student emails collected on the Google Form. Students were asked to respond to eight total questions, 2 about each novel. For each novel, students were asked to respond to the questions “what do you think the themes/main ideas of the [novel/text name] are?” as well as the question “what connections do you see between material in [novel/text name] and life in 2020-2021. No other prompting was given. The goal of the form was for all information shared by students to be driven by their own ideas rather than by the teacher.

The Giver By Lois Lowry

In the first quarter, students read The Giver by Lois Lowry. The novel is a seminal middle age/young adult novel that has remained incredibly popular since its publication. Published in 1993, The Giver won the Newbery Medal, an award given for a “distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. The novel focuses on a twelve-year-old boy named Jonas, who lives in an unnamed community. Jonas’ community lives without any memory of the past, which results in a seemingly idyllic existence. As Jonas takes the role of the Receiver of Memory, the individual who shoulders the burden of retaining memories for the entire community, Jonas begins to understand that the world he lives in is much more complicated than he first believed.   

Overall, many students identified “memories of the past” as a key part of The Giver. Taking this concept a step further, students made connections between the events of The Giver and the way that many communities are reckoning with their complicated histories. One student noted that The Giver shows that a life without memories of the past is not “a life at all”. Instead, living without memory is “a form of restraint, from acknowledging what has actually happened“.   

Students also recognized that human imperfection is another key theme within The Giver. The consequences of these imperfections stretch far beyond individuals into the societies human beings have built. Students wrote that the reality of being human is that “nothing can be perfect“. Some individuals want to be “perfect and have things perfect but the world isn’t”. Ultimately the worlds we live in are flawed because we as human beings are flawed. Finally, a student wrote that living in an imperfect world means that people have to “make the best of what we have” in the world.  

Stella by Starlight by Sharon M. Draper

Stella By Starlight, published in 2015, is the most recently released novel that students read in class this year. The novel is historical fiction set in 1930s North Carolina. The novel follows Stella Mills, an eleven-year-old girl growing up in the segregated community of Bumblebee. In order to better understand the experience of a young African American girl living in a racially segregated community, students researched the history of racial segregation in the U.S. and Jim Crow laws. The novel explores the discrimination and inequalities present in the time period, with a focus on educational and political inequalities that permeated the era.  

Observing the experience of a young African American girl growing up in the midst of segregation, students pointed out the need to work towards an end to racism and discrimination in our world today. A student pointed out that “no matter what race, age, sex, or background, all humans should be treated equally and fairly”. Reflecting on the events of the past two years, another student lamented that despite being almost 100 years later, racism and discrimination are still present in our society”. Finally, a student concluded their reflection by asserting that “justice is essential to a fair community that is without tension or hate.” 

Another connection between the novel and students’ own lives was the importance of community and the idea that members of a community need to work together and support each other. One student wrote that Stella Mills uses her skills and abilities to “help the community”, especially when “one of the houses was burnt down by the Klan [Klu Klux Klan]”. Additionally, a student wrote that in order for life to improve (both in the novel and in life today), communities should embrace “our differences because differences aren’t a bad thing”. Some students also saw parallels between a scene where “the whole black community marches down to city hall [to vote]” and some of the peaceful demonstrations that have taken place over the past two years in a variety of cities.

The Fellowship of the Ring By J.R.R. Tolkien

Published in 1954, The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy story The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s story proved to be the most difficult novel taught in the class. With a plodding pacing structure, long chapters, old-fashioned language, and a high concept setting, the book was an extremely challenging read for many students. That being said, the novel is hugely influential, helping to develop the fantasy science fiction genre and inspire a host of writers. While the text is extremely challenging, many students still found ways to connect the fantasy novel and its theme to life in 2020-2021. 

Several students focused on the ideas of hope and perseverance that are part of the story. One of the key quotes within the novel is Frodo’s statement that he wishes the difficult circumstances surrounding the story “need not have happened during my [his] lifetime” (Tolkien, 51). One student asserted that like the hobbits, who struggle with overwhelming obstacles beyond their control, people can all “feel hopeless at some point in our lives”. The same student asserts that together we can overcome that sense of hopelessness”. Another student asserted that the first part of Tolkien’s trilogy illustrates how “ordinary individuals” like the Hobbits stay strong and how these characters “protect what they love”.        

Some students also drew some comparisons between the Hobbits leaving their home in the Shire and the disruptions seen in the early months of the Coronavirus pandemic. A student asserted that when the pandemic began, students had to “go to a different world like Frodo and the Fellowship”. Much like Frodo, who leaves the comfort of his idyllic home, students were confronted with “safety precautions that were all new to us [them] and were outside our [their] comfort zone”. Both the hobbits of The Lord of the Rings and students living through the pandemic had to adapt to new rules and challenges, unlike anything they had seen previously in their lives.    

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The final novel students read in 7th grade is The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. Published in 1967, The Outsiders tells the story of a brotherhood of young men who are part of the violent and socially charged struggle between the Greasers and Socs (Socials). The Outsiders is an intense novel that deals with violence among teenagers and serves as a gateway for the more mature 8th-grade curriculum.  

Students recognized the divisions between the Greasers and Socs as a fundamental part of the novel. These two groups are divided not only by style and clothing but also by social class and economic opportunities. Discussing the novel’s connections to our current world, students recognized that social, political and class division still play a huge role in life across the world. One student wrote that they recognized a variety of divisions between groups like “democrats vs republicans, BLM vs ALM, etc “. Another student noted the hostility related to the 2020 election, asserting that the “U.S. was divided into groups and not many of us respected what other people had to say”. With events playing out across the massive canvas of social media and 24-hour news, many students are keenly aware of divisions within the world.    

Students also recognized how social and economic opportunities (or lack thereof) can shape a person’s life. There is a huge difference in the opportunities available to Greasers and the more wealthy Socs. A student noted that “misfortune does not always come to the ones who deserve it”. Characters like Ponyboy and Johnny Cade discussed the unfairness of circumstance throughout the book. Another student reflected on The Outsiders by saying that  “no matter where your life is going, it can always change”. Going through incredibly tumultuous moments in human history, students were brought face to face with the idea that life is always changing. 

Conclusion 

Overall, it is critical that educators and other stakeholders do not underestimate students’ capabilities to make connections between texts read in class with events happening in their own lives or events happening in the world around them. In a speech for the ALAN Conference, author John Green wrote that literature can help us to “imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people”. As teachers, we have to remember that middle school students have been confronting many of the issues that permeate our society. Our students are capable of engaging in meaningful discussions and making meaningful connections between the books they read and the world they live in. 

Work Cited Page 

Green, John. “A Speech I Wrote for the ALAN Conference…” John Green: Author of An Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska, 2011, johngreenweblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/speech-i-wrote-for-alan-conference.php.  

Simon, Cathy Allen. “Making Connections – ReadWriteThink.” Readwritethink.org, 2021, www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/making-connections-30659.html.  

Tolkien, J. R.R.  The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005.  

“John Newbery Medal.” Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), 12 Apr. 2021, www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newbery.  

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