02/28/2012 11:00 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Hungry to Learn

The Hunger Games Trilogy Projects Keep Learning Real

What is it about reality TV? Seems we're all fixated on it. Just a quick glance at the TV listings
and magazines which abound with all sorts of "reality" shows and their stars, and we see just how much we're attracted to content we find "real." Whether or not you think this is reality, it clearly resonates with a broad section of society.

It's not any different for today's high school students. They want what they study to feel relevant. They don't want passive 'sit and listen' learning. They want to be engaged by learning challenges that call for them to produce stuff they can build on and mix in music and video, and create original content, including games.

Rigorous project based learning (PBL) accomplishes this goal of providing students with assignments that are interesting and intriguing, while, at the same time, being relevant and challenging. Teachers can develop projects that track to state standards while engaging students.

PBL is not new, almost all teachers include projects in their teaching mix. What is emerging are compelling ways to combine the PBL pedagogy with a student-centered learning experience that provides an innovative role for the teacher -- that of creator rather than lecturer. It is an interactive process with a role for both teacher and student. Teachers break free of some of the confines of a traditional classroom and let their imagination, as well as their experience, be part of the education process. There is no limit to the creativity that can be achieved through highly effective PBL.

As an example of PBL at its best, schools in the New Tech Network (NTN) invited teachers to create projects using the hugely popular The Hunger Games trilogy* as learning material. NTN teachers collaborate on projects and were able to share ideas using The Hunger Games as a backdrop to create a well designed project that was real, relevant and engaging. It turned out to be a terrific way for high school students to demonstrate creativity, collaboration and critical thinking as well as presentation skills and strong work ethics.

Deborah Brown, English Department Chair at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, teaches a unit on dystopian fiction. She selected a project comparing The Hunger Games and 1984. "I introduced the students to the dystopian genre by asking students to create presentations for a 'fictional' Banned Book Festival, which utilized quotes and complaints taken from actual news reports," she explained. "The students formed teams and were told to create a portfolio that highlighted at least three specific aspects of the fictional dystopian societies shown in The Hunger Games and 1984. The students were also asked to explain how those same issues are still relevant to American citizens today."

Deborah wanted to encourage critical thinking, team work, presentation skills and work ethics such as timeliness and professionalism. "This project enabled me to emphasize everything we want public education to be," she explained. "It was a project that drives learning."

Deborah's project included these wide-ranging and thought-provoking issues for the students to explore:

1. Use and effects of propaganda
2. Effects of reality TV on society
3. The ethical considerations of weapons, military and science manipulations
4. The challenge of maintaining personal identity in a world of conformity
5. The tension between "haves and have-nots" and the growing stratification of society
6. Government surveillance of citizens
7. Control of the media and the importance of a free press
8. Manipulation of language in society

The project has just begun, and final presentations aren't done, but students have already expressed excitement over the book. "One student said he had read three books in his entire life and this was one of them," said Deborah.

Another example of a Hunger Games project comes from Pam Gunkel, a social studies teacher at Bloomington New Tech High School in Bloomington, Indiana, who partnered with Rachel Bahr, who teaches English at Bloomington New Tech, to devise their Hunger Games project. "We based our project on an interview with the author, Suzanne Collins, where she explained how she got the idea for the book -- channel surfing and seeing a "war" fought on reality TV as well as footage from a real war (the Iraq war) on another station. At some point, the two wars blended. The Hunger Games themes of the obsession with reality TV, and a related twisted perception of reality, evolved from her TV-watching experience," explained Pam.

For their project, Pam and Rachel chose to have their freshmen students discuss the impact of civil war and analyze what civil war does to a country. "We paired the reading of this dystopian novel (The Hunger Games) with a study of the period of reconstruction following the American Civil War," said Pam. "The Capitol and the Districts in the book were compared with the North and South in the post-Civil War United States."

Six complex and deeper meaning themes were discussed in Pam and Rachel's project:
1. Death and loss
2. Family and relationships
3. Survival
4. Perspective of reality
5. Society and class (haves and have nots)
6. Power of government and/or the ability to defy a government

Students were asked to select quotes from the main characters and tie those quotes to these six themes. They were also asked to provide context before and after the quote, and explain why the quote fit a particular theme.

"Reaction throughout the project was positive," said Pam. "Students found parts of the book that were very powerful for them. They were able to find deeper meaning in various actions that occurred in the book, and they realized the book is about more than violence and sadness. There were true 'breakthrough moments' for the students," she continued. "Students looked for the aftermath and impact of the violence in the story."

Pam saw that one of the more difficult ideas for the students to grasp was the notion of perception of reality. "To show various 'realities,' one group of students created a set of postcards which depicted the various aspects of the book -- the Capitol versus the Districts. Another group created Facebook pages for one of the key characters."

Students also created "empathy maps" -- analyzing a particular character by preparing a profile and explaining what this person was seeing, saying, hearing, thinking and doing. "The students really enjoyed 'getting into the head' of a character. They were able to see how a character behaves and understand why," said Pam.

Another key component of the project was learning how a country moves forward after a civil war. "We used The Hunger Games to ask the question 'has the United States gotten over the Civil War or are we still working our way through it,'" said Pam.

In addition, the students wrote and mailed letters to Suzanne Collins, telling the author what they thought of the book and what they got out of it. "I feel very gratified about the level of student engagement with this project," said Pam. "In this type of assignment, study questions come from the students as well as the teachers. It is a great way to encourage higher level thinking skills."

This is one way to take fictional "reality" and use it to challenge students to create their own reality -- learning and growing as they go. It's the type of reality that engages students and something we need more of in our schools. Typically, students in a PBL-based school have 12-15 projects per year. This is learning at its best -- where the students are self-motivated and find relevance and purpose in the subjects they are studying. It will be interesting to get feedback on this project from the students.

*FOOTNOTE: The Hunger Games (book 1 of the Hunger Games trilogy) was written by Suzanne Collins. It is about 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world in the country of Panem where the countries of North America once existed. The Capitol, a highly advanced metropolis, holds absolute power over the rest of the nation. In the book, the Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18 from each of the 12 districts surrounding the Capitol, are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive.