Check out Amber’s latest, most up to date resources for her The Giver unit at her Flexible Classroom website. Scroll down to The Giver/Utopia section.
By Amber Chandler
Lois Lowry’s The Giver has always been a teacher favorite, but this year there is the added bonus that the movie was released alongside other movie adaptations of dystopic novels such as Divergent and Catching Fire. Students are aware, more than ever, of the potential for social discord and the implications that it may have for their own lives if government goes unchecked.
I began our unit by introducing our “big project” that we’d be doing at the end. I’ve taken to doing this so that students are able to identify their purpose for reading. Yes, we’d be taking a test. Yes, we’d be writing about the novel. But, they were also tasked with forming a “committee” to create a Community of their own that they would then present to their peers.
Each committee’s goal would be to persuade classmates to move to their Utopia. As we read the novel, I was able to ask questions that helped them grasp the big picture of community building. I also laid the groundwork for a major discussion about “unintended consequences.”
This is serious stuff
One of the concerns I have teaching the novel is that students are not prepared for the true gravity of the topic. Infanticide and eldercide, coupled with genetic engineering that resembles Hitler’s master plan to Aryan-ize the world, are heady topics for 13-year olds.
After a few chapters, I asked them to create a travel poster with their resource group, convincing me to live in the Community of the novel. We talked about persuasive language, as well as biased writing. No war, no homeless, no hunger, no orphans, no jobless. Sounds pretty amazing, right?
As the novel continued, we returned to our travel posters, gradually discovering the unintended consequences. The work I do with the students on the front side here pays huge dividends in their level of understanding and the quality of the communities they eventually create for their summative assessment.
Getting the logistics right
As usual, the logistics are the hardest part, so here is a play by play guide:
1) Distribute the assignment.
2) Teach the novel as you normally would, paying close attention to some of the issues that will arise when students create their own Community.
3) Let students figure out responsibilities. Allow them a day to sort out who will handle the individual pieces of the project. I show this student-made video, Paradox of the Perfect World, to inspire them to create the world they’d like while also appreciating what a difficult task it actually is.
4) Carve out some time. Once groups are determined, students need plenty of time to think, research, and produce a viable Utopia and quality presentation. I gave my students 7 days of library time. If you think this sounds ridiculously long, remember that you are facilitating this project and are able to direct discussions, differentiate your expectations, and allow for critical thinking.
5) Build an audience. Invite parents, family members, other teachers, your librarian, and administrators to the presentations. One of my proudest moments this year—when you know you are doing something right—is when I had two students from a study hall ask for a pass to see their friend’s presentation because they had heard all about it. Teaching doesn’t get better than that!
6) Keep the presentation schedule flexible. The team projects take about 15 minutes to present, so I plan for two per day. I also leave a day at the end for all “make-ups” because inevitably there will be someone absent or a lost-jump-drive emergency.
Project Based Learning is bumpy
One bump: what if a parent shows up to a presentation, but there is someone absent on their child’s team? In my trial by fire—this had never happened before—I had the students do the presentation anyway. When that student’s “part” came up, they were to divvy up the information to be explained. After all, they had been working collaboratively for weeks.
This made the group incredibly nervous, but they rose to the occasion, also teaching them the valuable lesson that “the show must go on.” They were then allowed to come to my study hall and present to students there so that even the absent child had the opportunity for a true audience. It was also very fun for my study hall of seventh graders to get a preview of what they would be doing in 8th grade. The 8th grade presenters were proud and even answered questions.
I also want to be clear that Project Based Learning is not easy to assess. I wanted them to reflect on the experience and their products. Visit the “8th Grade Giver Project” section on my website to find the assessment tool. [Updated Jan. 2017]
Taking a movie break
I won’t kid you—this was an intensive project, and we left it a little out of breath.
So, what did the kids want to do when they needed a break? They begged to watch the movie. This presented a problem for me, as I don’t normally show entire movies, and I never show PG-13 ones.
At first I said no. To be honest, it seemed like more trouble than it was worth. However, I decided I’d look into the rating because that was the number one thing holding me up. I found that the rating was due to the topic, not the content per se. I had seen the movie and had not had any concerns, but I wanted to be sure. After a little trepidation, I sent home the permission slips. Miraculously, they all came back! Isn’t it funny how it works that way?
Well, today we just finished up the movie. I have to say that I am thrilled that their begging paid off. The rich conversations that we are having comparing the movie with the book is really exciting for me, and, I think, for them.
They’ve never really done critical analysis of a movie compared to a book. And, then it occurred to me—and I’m sure I’m supposed to say I planned it this way—that this activity had met Standard RL7.7: Compare and contrast a written story, drama, or poem to its audio, filmed, staged, or multimedia version, analyzing the effects of techniques unique to each medium (e.g., lighting, sound, color, or camera focus and angles in a film).
It isn’t that I’ve never done this type of thing before, but I think that I always jumped the gun—showing the movie when they may not have engaged as deeply with the text as we did with The Giver.
My teaching role in PBL lessons
With five minutes left until Spring Break, I asked my students if they thought I should start next year with this unit. Antsy 8th graders were eager to tell me, emphatically, yes.
It was much more interesting when a grown-up was explaining things and helping them to understand.
My goal in project-based learning is always to facilitate student experiences. They had so many valid points, but I think the most interesting was this: dystopian books and movies are really popular, but it was much more interesting when a grown-up was explaining things and helping them to understand, and that the project had helped them learn to look for “unintended consequences.”
I love curriculum and themes and essential questions as much as any other teacher; however, I can’t help but believe that my bigger calling is to help students connect these dots and become people who think about the world in new ways.
Amber Rain Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and education writer in Hamburg, NY. She leads professional development in Project-Based Learning, Danielson’s Domains, and Differentiation. Follow her on Twitter @MsAmberChandler and visit her website, AmberRainChandler.com.
"Oh, look!" Lily squealed in delight. "Isn't he cute? Look how tiny he
is! And he has funny eyes like yours, Jonas!" Jonas glared at her.
He didn't like it that she had mentioned his eyes. He waited for his
father to chastise Lily. But Father was busy unstrapping the
carrying basket from the back of his bicycle. Jonas walked over to
It was the first thing Jonas noticed as he looked at the newchild
peering up curiously from the basket. The pale eyes.
Almost every citizen in the community had dark eyes. His parents did, and Lily did, and so did all of his group members and friends.
But there were a few exceptions: Jonas himself, and a female Five
who he had noticed had the different, lighter eyes. No one
mentioned such things; it was not a rule, but was considered rude
to call attention to things that were unsettling or different about
individuals. Lily, he decided, would have to learn that soon, or she
would be called in for chastisement because of her insensitive
Father put his bike into its port. Then he picked up the basket and
carried it into the house. Lily followed behind, but she glanced back
over her shoulder at Jonas and teased, "Maybe he had the same Birthmother as you." Jonas shrugged. He followed them inside. But he had been startled by the newchild's eyes. Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren't forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expression, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look--what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn't been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.
He went to his desk, pretending not to be interested in the
newchild. On the other side of the room, Mother and Lily were
bending over to watch as Father unwrapped its blanket.
"What's his comfort object called?" Lily asked, picking up the
stuffed creature which had been placed beside the newchild in his
Father glanced at it. "Hippo," he said.
Lily giggled at the strange word. "Hippo," she repeated, and put the
comfort object down again. She peered at the unwrapped newchild,
who waved his arms.
"I think newchildren are so cute," Lily sighed. "I hope I get assigned
to be a Birthmother."
"Lily!" Mother spoke very sharply. "Don't say that. There's very little
honor in that Assignment."
"But I was talking to Natasha. You know the Ten who
lives around the corner? She does some of her volunteer hours at
the Birthing Center. And she told me that the Birthmothers get
wonderful food, and they have very gentle exercise periods, and
most of the time they just play games and amuse themselves while
they're waiting. 1 think I'd like that," Lily said petulantly.
"Three years," Mother told her firmly. "Three births and that's all.
After that they are Laborers for the rest of their adult lives, until the
day that they enter the House of the Old. Is that what you want,
Lily? Three lazy years, and then hard physical labor until you are
"Well, no, I guess not," Lily acknowledged reluctantly Father turned
the newchild onto his tummy in the basket. He sat beside it and
rubbed its small back with a rhythmic motion. "Anyway, Lily-billy,"
he said affectionately, "the Birthmothers never even get to see
newchildren. If you enjoy the little ones so much, you should hope
for an Assignment as Nurturer."
"When you're an Eight and start your volunteer hour, you can try
some at the Nurturing Center," Mother suggested.
"Yes, I think I will," Lily said. She knelt beside the basket. "What did
you say his name is? Gabriel? Hello, Gabriel," she said in a
singsong voice. Then she giggled "Ooops," she whispered. "I think
he's alseep. I guess I'd better be quiet."
Jonas turned to the school assignments on his desk Some chance
of that, he thought. Lily was never quiet Probably she should hope
for an Assignment as Speaker so that she could sit in the office with
the microphone a1l day, making announcements. He laughed
silently to himself, picturing his sister droning on in the self-
important voice that all the Speakers seemed to develop, saying things like,
ATTENTION. THIS IS A REMINDER TO FEMALES UNDER NINE
THAT HAIR RIBBONS ARE TO BE NEATLY TIED AT ALL TIMES.
He turned toward Lily and noticed to his satisfaction that her
ribbons were, as usual, undone and dangling. There would be an
announcement like that quite soon, he felt certain, and it would be
directed mainly at Lily, though her name, of course, would not be
mentioned. Everyone would know.
Everyone had known, he remembered with humiliation, that the
announcement ATTENTION. THIS IS A REMINDER TO MALE
ELEVENS THAT OBJECTS ARE NOT TO BE REMOVED FROM
THE RECREATION AREA AND THAT SNACKS ARE TO BE
EATEN, NOT HOARDED had been specifically directed at him, the
day last month that he had taken an apple home. No one had
mentioned it, not even his parents, because the public
announcement had been sufficient to produce the appropriate
remorse. He had, of course, disposed of the apple and made his
apology to the Recreation Director the next morning, before school.
Jonas thought again about that incident. He was still bewildered by
it. Not by the announcement or the necessary apology; those were
standard procedures, and he had deserved them--but by the
incident itself. He probably should have brought up his feeling of
bewilderment that very evening when the family unit had shared
their feelings of the day. But he had not been able to sort out and
put words to the source of his confusion, so he had let it pass.
It had happened during the recreation period, when he had been
playing with Asher. Jonas had casually picked up an apple from the basket
where the snacks were kept, and had
thrown it to his friend. Asher had thrown it back, and they had
begun a simple game of catch.
There had been nothing special about it; it was an activity that he
had performed countless times: throw, catch; throw, catch. It was
effortless for Jonas, and even boring, though Asher enjoyed it, and
playing catch was a required activity for Asher because it would
improve his hand-eye coordination, which was not up to standards.
But suddenly Jonas had noticed, following the path of the apple
through the air with his eyes, that the piece of fruit had--well, this
was the part that he couldn't adequately understand--the apple had
changed. Just for an instant. It had changed in mid-air, he
remembered. Then it was in his hand, and he looked at it carefully,
but it was the same apple. Unchanged. The same size and shape:
a perfect sphere. The same nondescript shade, about the same
shade as his own tunic.
There was absolutely nothing remarkable about that apple. He had
tossed it back and forth between his hands a few times, then
thrown it again to Asher. And again--in the air, for an instant only--it
It had happened four times. Jonas had blinked, looked around, and
then tested his eyesight, squinting at the small print on the
identification badge attached to his tunic. He read his name quite
clearly. He could also clearly see Asher at the other end of the
throwing area. And he had had no problem catching the apple.
Jonas had been completely mystified.
"Ash?" he had called. "Does anything seem strange to you? About
"Yes," Asher called back, laughing. "It jumps out of my hand onto the ground!"
Asher had just dropped it once again.
So Jonas laughed too, and with his laughter tried to ignore his
uneasy conviction that something had happened. But he had taken
the apple home, against the recreation area rules. That evening,
before his parents and Lily arrived at the dwelling, he had held it in
his hands and looked at it carefully. It was slightly bruised now,
because Asher had dropped it several times. But there was nothing
at all unusual about the apple.
He had held a magnifying glass to it. He had tossed it several times
across the room, watching, and then rolled it around and around on
his desktop, waiting for the thing to happen again.
But it hadn't. The only thing that happened was the announcement
later that evening over the speaker, the announcement that had
singled him out without using his name, that had caused both of his
parents to glance meaningfully at his desk where the apple still lay.
Now, sitting at his desk, staring at his schoolwork as his family
hovered over the newchild in its basket, he shook his head, trying
to forget the odd incident. He forced himself to arrange his papers
and try to study a little before the evening meal. The newchild,
Gabriel, stirred and whimpered, and Father spoke softly to Lily,
explaining the feeding procedure as he opened the container that
held the formula and equipment. The evening proceeded as all evenings
did in the family unit, in the
dwelling, in the community: quiet, reflective, a time for renewal and
preparation for the day to come. It was different only in the addition
to it of the newchild with his pale, solemn, knowing eyes.