One of my favorite moments as an instructor happened in 2011 after a composition class. During class, we analyzed Vincent Bzdek’s 2005 Washington Post article “More Powerful than… Ever” before watching clips from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in order to determine if the latest portrayal (at that time) of Batman and the Joker also proved Bzdek’s claims. Before leaving, one student stopped to tell me, “You know, you just ruined The Dark Knight for me. Because now I won’t be able to watch it without thinking.”
This student’s response was exactly what I wanted to hear. Even though I jokingly apologized to him for “ruining” one of his favorite movies, I was excited that my plan for expanding my students’ perceptions of what a “text” is had worked. When lesson planning, I often pair assigned readings with texts from popular culture as a way for students to reflect on how they think about these texts. This type of pairing is a great strategy to not only, as my PALS colleague Brianne Jaquette discussed in a previous post, bring “some excitement to the classroom,” but also to teach students critical thinking strategies.
I decided to pair Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with The Hunger Games in my Literature and Composition class after hearing repeatedly from students how often they thought of this movie while reading Jackson’s short story. In many ways, this pairing is quite obvious: both texts literally depict a lottery that results in dangerous consequences for its winners. I knew, though, that I wanted to focus my lesson on how finding and discussing important details in each text can lead to a richer discussion of both texts’ larger themes. The rest of this post will outline a group activity that has students compare “The Lottery” with part of The Hunger Games in order to help them develop critical thinking skills.
I start this lesson by placing students into five groups. Using “The Lottery,” each group’s main task will be to find and write down at least five sentences or phrases from the story that relate to one of the following:
- The Mentioning of Stones
- Details about the Rituals Surrounding the Lottery
- Details about the Black Box, Specifically
- Descriptions of the Townspeople’s Behavior
- Any Dialogue that the Townspeople Say
I emphasize to my students that each group should pay special attention to word choice. I also tell the class that after completing this part of the activity, they should, while still in their groups, discuss the point of view that Jackson uses in “The Lottery.” During this discussion, their goal is to determine how the point of view influences the ways that readers perceive the village and how the ending might read differently if it was told from a different point of view.
I initially created this group activity because “The Lottery” is almost always the first short story I assign since it is both accessible and popular. However, some students often become fixated on its ending. When taken into consideration with the fact that this may be the first short story many of my students are critically analyzing in some time (or possibly ever), I realized that it can be hard for some students to think past that final scene. Instead of focusing on why Jackson wrote this ending, I want students to first understand how she constructs the plot to foreshadow the ending.
This part of the activity thus enables students to practice close reading and taking notes as ways to engage with the rest of the text. In each group, students determine which examples are the best to share with the class. In addition to requiring students to critically think about the text by finding and selecting these examples, this activity emphasizes how even one word can hold great significance. For example, Jackson reveals Mr. Summers and Mr. Adams “grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously” before participating in the lottery. The use of the words “humorlessly” and “nervously” clue readers in that this lottery may not be one that someone would want to win long before the story’s ending.
When each group reports on their findings, I usually write shorthand notes on the board while directing the class to take note of each specific example as it appears in the story. After each group has shared their examples, we have a class discussion that focuses on the role of tradition in “The Lottery.” Using the examples on the board as evidence, students answer larger questions: Why did the lottery start in the village? Why does the lottery remain a part of the town’s tradition? What does the lottery say about the people who allow it to continue? And what about the fact that they also willingly participate in it?
The Hunger Games
While the students are still sitting with their groups, I show the first eighteen minutes of The Hunger Games, which concludes with Katniss and Peeta being named the Tributes for District 12. Before turning on the movie, I assign each group one of the following categories:
- The Characters’ Clothing
- The Design of the Buildings
- How Characters Talk About the Reaping
- Why the Reaping Exists
- Anything the Seems Odd or Out of Place in District 12
Each member is expected to take their own individual notes on the assigned topic, which they will then discuss with their small group. It’s important to note here that none of the topics above relate directly to comparing the Reaping with Jackson’s lottery or discussing the plot of the movie. Instead, they are designed to have students think about the atmosphere of District 12. Most students who have seen The Hunger Games will remember Katniss yelling “I volunteer as Tribute!” as the climax of this scene. Students also usually catch the elements of foreshadowing, such as Primrose’s nightmare, and mention them during class discussion. The goal of this activity is for students to think beyond plot. I want them to consider how director Gary Ross uses certain visual cues for the same purpose that Jackson uses word choice: to construct a society that is familiar, but also one that enables traditions like the Reaping or the lottery to exist.
After discussing what examples they wrote down while watching the movie, I have each group determine the three best examples that relate to their assigned category. I again write these examples on the board as each group shares their findings with the rest of the class. Students often cite the old fashioned clothing, the decaying buildings, the appearance of Effie, the fear that Primrose has for her first Reaping, and the video from the Capital as just a few important examples. These lists then become the starting point for our larger discussion about District 12. How, for example, can these people be “free” if they must sacrifice two of their children each year for the games? Why are the Hunger Games called a “pageant” in the opening description of the movie? Throughout this discussion, I have students point out how their examples connect to the movie’s larger themes of power, freedom, and tradition. We then conclude the lesson by making connections between District 12 and the village in “The Lottery.”
Using a familiar text like The Hunger Games in the classroom is a way to make a more “difficult” text, even one that is taught as frequently as “The Lottery,” more approachable for students. Not only does this lesson help students to make connections between the literary and the popular, but it will also help them to practice their note-taking skills and critical thinking abilities. By the end of this class, students will leave with a better understanding of “The Lottery” and The Hunger Games as well as an deeper awareness of why it is important to think about how they analyze texts, regardless of the text’s medium or popularity.