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“The Hunger Games” — Catching fire in rural schools

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As a professor of adolescent literacy, few things make me more hopeful than witnessing tweens and teens waiting outside in the cold for tickets to the newest release of a movie based on a young adult novel. And so it was with the release of “Catching Fire,” the second of four movies based on “The Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins.

My own precocious tween reader was among them! The self-proclaimed “Harry Potter freak” begged for permission to read the books a full year before the Mom-imposed acceptable age. We read and discussed the first novel together. She questioned the Capitol, examined the absurdity of a dystopian society, considered why hunger was used as a means of oppression, and she admired the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteered as a tribute for the hunger games. As she constructed knowledge from the text and her inquiry, I realized how fitting a novel this was for use across disciplines, including social studies, science, language arts, agriculture, etc.

Upon completing the first novel, we curled up on the couch for the movie and within minutes of watching Katniss hunt in the woods surrounding her home, my daughter said, astonished: “I didn’t realize we live in District 12.” There it was, my rural learner who has grown up in the shadows of the Allegheny mountains made a “place-to-text” connection! Katniss explains early in the first novel that “District 12 was in a region known as Appalachia,” but it wasn’t until my daughter saw the images of “mountains like ours” that she connected Katniss’ home to ours in the Appalachian region of Southwest Virginia.

While educational challenges in rural schools are well-documented — geographic isolation, limited resources, funding — rural students often enjoy a richness of community, extended family living nearby, the passing down of stories and traditions and a connectedness to the land. This rural lifeworld contextualizes their experiences and creates a place identity for students, a lens through which they come to know and understand their worlds. Katniss knows this rural lifeworld. She grew up in a tight-knit community with intimate knowledge of the natural world, and a unique understanding of norms and expectations. Her sense of place is her greatest strength.

While many rural teachers intuit how to use place-based pedagogy to engage readers, few can justify using what they may perceive as “creative” strategies to motivate students, especially in an era of high-stakes tests and time consuming Common Core State Standards. Dewey, however, argued that an education should deepen and extend what students already know. Therefore, Collins’ trilogy presents an opportunity for teachers to use a popular, engaging novel in the language-arts classroom as a scaffold for more complex, canonical texts, to forge meaningful connections with the curriculum, and to have students think critically about the ways rural people and places are depicted in popular media.

Tapping into a student’s sense of place can serve as a powerful critical literacy tool in the classroom, teaching students how to read the word and “their world.” This notion of political-literacy instruction, made popular by the work of Paulo Freire, is ever important for rural learners. A critical stance toward rurality is vital for the sustainability of rural communities, and the onus is not just on rural educators and students but on society at large. Urban and suburban students are waiting outside in the cold for tickets, too; after all, sustainability issues like mountain top removal and fracking have huge implications for rural communities but they are nonetheless national energy, environmental and economic issues.

Katniss didn’t need the hunger games to understand how District 12 was being exploited; however, we may need this trilogy to incorporate place and rurality as part of a critical and culturally-responsive literacy pedagogy for all students. Despite reports telling us that adolescents can’t or don’t read, they do crave relevance in the curriculum, and place-based pedagogy can strengthen students’ personal connections to what might otherwise seem irrelevant. We need not replace the canon with young adult novels, but rather invite students to debate the symbolism of “mockingbirds” in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “mockingjays” in Collins’ novels, all the while asking them to consider how place influences their reading of those texts, their own sense of place and ultimately, what are the mockingbirds and mockingjays in our own communities.

Place-based strategies at work:

“The Hunger Games” trilogy provides teachers with an ideal opportunity to wed an engaging and popular young adult novel with a rural heroine to an English curriculum that might seem otherwise irrelevant. The heroes of District 12 hail from “a region known as Appalachia,” and the young adult series provides educators with opportunities to teach students critical literacy skills as they consider place and explore how rurality is depicted in popular media. Consider using the critical questions below to guide instruction.

P: People & Politics:

Who are the people in my place? How are these people portrayed? Who makes decisions about my place?

L: Life & Literacy:

What is it like to live in my place? What discourse communities am I part of? Which ones am I not part of? What are the literacies and critical literacies needed in my place?

A: Access & Affect:

How does my place afford or hinder my access to other places or spaces? How do I feel about my place? How do others feel about it?

C: Community & Citizenship:

What does it mean to be part of the collective consciousness of my place? What does it mean to be a citizen here? What did it mean to be a “good citizen”?

E: Engagement

How do I engage with my place? Am I an agent of change? What questions do I need to explore to become critically engaged now and in the future?

Place connections

Place: Self connections

What is my own sense of place? Students can describe their own discourse communities. What are the words of our community? Who keeps them? Who tells our story to the outside world?

Place: Text connections

How does Katniss represent District 12 as a tribute? How was Katniss or other characters portrayed? What evidence do we have to suggest that she had a special, critical knowledge of the people and spaces in her place?

Place: World connections

How is my place perceived? What is happening in my place that has implications for other places (e.g., coalmining)? Which decisions, policies, practices made about my place have implications for my community?

Amy Price Azano is a professor of adolescent literacy at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @ruralprof.