Every year I revisit the novels I want to read with the 7th and 8th grade classes I teach. There are so many new novels out there that middle school students can relate to that cover topics that they are dealing with right now in their lives: bullying, relationships, family dysfunction (or their perception of it). All of these are legitimate in their lives, and allow for great text-to-self connections. But somehow I always gravitate back to THE GIVER by Lois Lowry. Decades old now, but still a winner with the students once they realize how wonderful it is.
I admit, it's sometimes a hard sell as they make their way through the first few chapters. They don't get the idea of a community with so many rules and expectations. I point out to them, jokingly, that they think they have it bad in school with the rules we enforce, but the students can't seem to get past the idea that Jonas stays there. "Why doesn't he just leave?" "Why don't the people fight for more rights and choices?" Because they can't. They don't know any better. And that in itself is a great lesson.
THE GIVER is a great kickoff to so many discussions about human rights, and current events. Why don't victims of domestic abuse flee? Why don't people move out of Communist countries? Why do women not leave Saudi Arabia and marry whom they choose? Why? Why? Wow, once they get going, I wish I had more than 40 minutes a day with them to spend on the questions and comments they have about the world we live in.
By the time they get to the point in the book when Father decides that the smaller of the two identical twins is "no longer needed" in the community, they are so involved in the story that they complain when class is over and they need to move on. As a teacher of Language Arts, I live for those moments, and they are often few and far between. But every year when the next class reads THE GIVER, I am almost assured that I'll hear the same comments again from a different group of students.
We read the book as a class, and we jot down notes in our journals after each chapter. Capturing the nuances of what the characters are feeling and experiencing is key later when we write about our connections and understanding of what this community goes through. And then, we get to the ending. Or what the students refer to as the "lack of ending."
"What? That's it? Did he die? Did he find Elsewhere? Is Elsewhere Heaven? Is Gabriel dead?" The questions come hard and fast, and I wish I could capture their faces as they look up from the page in disbelief that there are no hard and fast answers. It's up to interpretation, and they feel as it they've been duped. But we work on it, together, to establish different scenarios and possibilities to what might have happened. Another life lesson: experiences are not always cut and dried.
I applaud Lois Lowry for writing a book for Young Adults that covers topics such as Euthanasia, Corporal Punishment, Human Rights, Diversity, and everything else that appears in those pages. The book allows me to pull out some current news articles on the same topics, and the students get to have a taste of how close fiction can mimic real life. One of the themes that resonate with my students is "sacrificing for the greater good". I laugh when a student points out a school rule and explains it by saying "we sacrificed for the greater good." I hope they remember that when they become parents.
I think it's a good motto for today's kids to have. Something that we as adults should be teaching to our kids more often. And, at a younger age.