Dystopian lit circles for high school English can add variety and fun to literature lessons. If you are organizing lit circles around dystopian literature, I’ve included some ideas below.
Dystopian lit circles for high school provide plenty of opportunities to discuss important topics, to explore a fun genre, and to meet standards. Previously, I have written about high school lit circles. In this post, I am narrowing my focus and hopefully, providing some usable tips and links along the way. High school literature thrills me because I am working with young adults about to engage with the world independently. We can discuss their futures with our stories.
Students love dystopian literature and with good reasons. Often, the stories center young adults as the protagonists. The characters have agency and are smart about their methods of surviving. Plus, teenagers are currently angry at our world, and dystopian literature gives them hope. We can use all of that momentum with lit circles.
In teacher-land, I’m kinda new to lit circles. As always, I am sharing my honest experiences—fumbles and successes—with my blog readers. In this post, I am mapping out how I arrange dystopian lit circles for high school students. Getting literature lessons right takes some time, so be patient with yourself!
The process starts before I present options to students. I choose my books and prepare a presentation that explains the genre and the books.
Then I plan out the reading schedule and activities. A dystopian lit circle runs about 3-4 weeks. Dependent upon the activities you do and the in-class reading time, you can make it longer or shorter.
The dystopian genre is huge, and students will have questions about close relatives of dystopia. Be prepared to discuss speculative fiction, post apocalyptic, and sci-fi. Generally, I use those questions as an opportunity to share my excitement about literature as we hunt for answers together. The TED-Ed video on dystopia is great support too.
Before you start dystopian lit circles with your high school English classes, you have some work. Below is my teacher’s guide for organizing dystopian lit circles, previous mistakes included.
Choose your books.
When I consider books for a dystopian lit circle, I look at:
- Books students have previously read. For instance, The Giver and The Hunger Games are often taught in middle school. I ask students what they have read. Generally, I don’t add previously taught books to our list.
- Diverse stories. I want students to see different worlds and different authors.
- Ease of acquisition. Unfortunately, we teachers face limitations. Digital books are making access easier for some schools, but not everyone has such a luxury as easy access. As you plan your lit circles, consider where and how to get books.
Examples of books for a dystopian lit circle could include:
The Grace Year
The Fifth Wave
Never Let Me Go
Depending on your class size, choose 3-6 books. Take your class’ abilities and interests into account as well.
Learn from my mistake: The first time I ran high school lit circles, I included too many books in the mix. (I wanted to read ALL the books!) Some students had no partner or group reading the same book, and that problem limited discussions. Sure, I could discuss the book with a student, but to me, a benefit of lit circles is that students can connect with their peers over literature. Decide how many students you want in each group, and choose the number of books accordingly.
Prep your students.
Organize your books and be ready to introduce them to your students. If you properly prep your students, you will have “sold” the books properly! At this point, I have decided what books I will use, and I am ready to introduce them to students.
First, set up a form for students to choose their book. I use a Google Form because it records their emails.
Second, prepare your presentation of the book for the dystopian lit circle. I bring a copy (or more if I own them) of each book. As students look through the selection, I show clips of author interviews or book trailers. Sometimes I find interesting pieces on the author’s or publisher’s websites. My goal is for students to discover an interest, a potential connection with a book.
Third, I book-talk each book. I explain what characters and themes moved me. If I was not crazy about a part, I am honest and share that too. What I don’t enjoy about a story, a student might find enjoyable, so I try to be as honest as I can. If a book contains an upsetting concept (like child abuse), I tell students in advance.
Finally, I ask students to choose a book. Rarely do I talk a student through options. Normally, students have found one by this point that sparks their interest.
Learn from my mistake: The first time I conducted lit circles, I did not prep students enough. An excited, “let’s go!” was my message, and that was a mistake. I should have prepped my students more. Giving background to authors and short interview clips really helps prepare them for choosing a book.
Create a reading schedule and activities.
After I have the data, I organize the reading schedule why I order the books. (Often, my librarian does this work for me with inter-library loan.) This process is not fancy: I take out my calendar, and I start penciling in reading and activity days.
I typically divide books into fourths, perhaps fifty pages per chunk. Then I decide on an activity for each chunk. I do allow students to read in class, and normally, we have a group meeting on the third or fourth day of each reading “chunk.” During those discussions, students get with their group members and talk about the book.
So, my first step: divide out the books. (Don’t worry if the pages are uneven for books.) For assignments, we might focus on language, author’s purpose, complex characters, theme, or connection to society. I make those assignments generic—that is, every student has the same assignment, and every assignment will work with every book in the lit circle.
Then, I type out what our schedule looks like for students. Give students an overview of your expectations and a layout of how you will run high school lit circles. For instance, many teachers use “roles” in lit circles. I do not have roles with my seniors, as I try to lead them toward natural discussions as they are almost adults! Since I give students time in class to read, I expect them to read and work on the assignment for each chunk.
Dystopian lit circles lend themselves to many fun activities. I do provide information for students (see below) for about fifteen minutes, and then students read the rest of the class, so short bursts of direct instruction are part of my activities.
Overall, I am flexible with our reading and assignment schedules. If students simply need more time to read in class, I give it to them.
Learn from my mistake: Pace yourself and don’t be afraid to give some structure. Students do appreciate reading check-in dates so that they have a goal to work toward. Also, students don’t mind activities. The problem, in my experience, is in giving one due date for all assignments to be due. Like so much in teaching, due dates and assignments and fairness to students require a balancing act.
Synthesize the information.
A culminating activity for the closure of lit circles is imperative. Previously, I have given an open-book test. This method allowed students to think about the questions and find support from their book. (The “test” was all short answer and essay questions.) Other times, we have written literary criticism or studied a certain theoretical lens.
With dystopian lit circles, I purposefully look at the language of the story. When we analyze the sentence structure and purposeful word choice in dystopian literature, we can meet language standards alongside literature. Students essentially analyze the literature they were reading in lit circles with a language lens, from a linguistic perspective. We break down sentences like this:
- Choose and look at the sentence.
- Deconstruct it.
- Find the message.
- Tie the meaning to the language.
This simple process allows students to understand literature in a new way. So for instance, we could use a sentence from The Hunger Games:
Suddenly a voice was screaming at me and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the Peacekeepers and how sick she was of having those brats from the Seam pawing through her trash.
Katniss is recalling Peeta’s mom yelling at her. If we deconstruct that sentence, we can notice that it is a long sentence with multiple phrases and clauses. What is the effect of that? Students might note that the quick movement of the sentence—the fast pacing with very little punctuation—adds to the momentum of how Katniss feels. The meaning is that Katniss feels she does not belong, and the hurried and rushed momentum of this sentence shows that.
And, we keep analyzing. One of my favorite ways to analyze language in dystopian literature is to choose a sentence from the beginning, middle, and ending of the story, perhaps by the same character or about the same topic. What has changed in the author’s approach? Has the presentation changed?
Before long, students have written an essay about the story’s language. Literature lessons CAN help you meet language standards.
Learn from my mistake: Once, we finished our books, and I started the next unit after a brief discussion. I should have done a synthesis, a culminating activity. Students appreciate wrapping up their thoughts about what they have learned.
Overall, dystopian lit circles in a high school English class take me 3-4 weeks with books that are about 200-250 pages. I break the books up into chunks of four and assign four assignments throughout student reading. The assignments include student choice so that students may choose (for example) what prompt to answer or what area to research. Then at the end, we complete a culminating activity. I enjoy running lit circles, and I hope these ideas and mistakes help you in planning yours.
Looking for more ideas for literature lessons? Look at how I narrow high school literature essential questions, when I provide alternatives to the literary analysis essay, and how I teach character arcs.