Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why are so many novels about death? A PBL Unit for HS

Cutter Man Dead Death Skeleton Bony Spirit

I once taught a 6th grade English class in which a student complained loudly that we read too much about death. Reflecting on this comment served to broaden my curriculum significantly.  But the fact of the matter is, much of great literature deals with death.

In this month of death in the Philippines and remembrance of death in the veteran's cemeteries (including the one in which my dad lies), I find myself returning to the topic.

Begin with this list from a blog comment by Shiny Red Robocalypse (that blog post has the same topic as this one - some overlap):

It is reassuring to know that I am not alone.  Others commenting in the above stream recommend additional great middle school titles: Bridge to Terebithia, Tuck Everlasting, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bless Me Ultima, Charlotte's Web, The Graveyard Book...  As Zoomba comments, "Great children's books and death are practically synonymous."  Ditto tween books and YA fiction.  It seems to me that death is absolutely trending.

Why is this so? I can offer up my own theory, but it seems to me that high school students are the ones who should be addressing this question; the fact is that the synonymous relationship between death and fiction extends into pre-adult and adult book lists as well.  

The challenge of answering my question - "Why are so many novels about death?" - would make an excellent PBL unit at the HS level.  These students will have read a wide range of mid-level books for background and there are endless great YA and adult titles to extend understanding.  Oh, and informational text as well.  

Kickoff: a speaker or better yet a panel: a religious, a psychologist or counselor, a survivor, perhaps a courageous terminal patient

Product: What might be an authentic learning product?  Perhaps a student designed all-day event on the topic. A print product (graphic novel, poetry collection) for a younger audience would be useful. Perhaps a media product (interviews or i-Journalism would be my choice, but an original video or stage play would be fascinating).  Perhaps a counter-death product, such as a comedy, or an investigation of "black comedy" and "dark" superhero movies.  It is not, after all, just in novels that we find so much death.  For the activist student, perhaps a Twitter-based "Read Something Funny Today" (#readsomethingfunny) would be interesting.  Last, a look at death within a student's own culture would be important and relevant. 

Assessment: Use the BIE (Buck Institute for Education) free Critical Thinking Rubric for PBL - follow the link to the appropriate rubric (grade level, CCSS aligned or not)

I give you below some of my recommendations for texts. It is a white-culturecentric list, I'm afraid, and I apologize for that; I am gradually expanding that lens. 

I have not included many films, but death and film seems to be a natural fit these days.  Some students might want to look at the culture of violence in film and gaming, especially gun violence.  I also have not included most graphic novels, but I have attached to this blog a page of recommendations in this genre.  Many of them are (no surprise) about death in some way.  

Apps - zombie apps, war apps - death is hard to avoid if you are a gamer who likes more than candy, but here are some interesting takes on the genre:
  • Day of Death - Google download for Android devices - with your name and birthdate as input, tells you when and how you will die
  • The Death App - you will need a QR reader to access the URL for this app, which looks promising but does not work on my IOS devices

Quirky Fiction
  • The Machine of Death - also available in a less expensive edition - This is How You Die is the sequel - all available from Amazon -  short story pieces, all with the premise that The Machine of Death has generated a slip of paper telling someone how he/she is going to die, but not when or where or any other important details - darkly delightful work from Wondermark's David Malki and friends - a neat extra is the card game that Malki produced after a Kickstarter campaign
  • "Singing My Sister Down" is a masterful short story about death in a tar pit - Margo Lanagan
  • A Monster Calls - this moving gem from Patrick Ness does not neatly fit into a category
  • "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" - a short story from Poe - who elsewhere writes darkly and horrifically about death, but who here is witty
  • Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty - Neri's graphic novel reflects on the death of a Chicago youth
  • Nation - Terry Pratchett - the recent horrific typhoon in the Philippines is a natural twin for this alternative history novel - death appears early in the story and never leaves it - much fodder for discussion, a different place to find deep loss and, perhaps, hope after disaster
Children's Books - the best children's books are for all audiences - rather than introducing cutesy picture books, I would begin here and perhaps some students will follow up with the cutesy
  • The Giving Tree - OK, so you can spin it positively, but this is really about death
  • Pierre - Sendak's "cautionary tale" and his Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life
  • Rose Blanche - Innocenti's grim allegory of the Holocaust should pair with other Holocaust readings
  • Klassen's This is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back present death as a natural event, albeit resulting from dark motives
Realistic Fiction - not that these are totally realistic - students might consider why and how elements of imaginative fantasy appear in each
  • As I Lay Dying - Faulkner's glorious, difficult walkabout with the family of Addie Bundren
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey - Wilder's exploration of the randomness of death - a little read classic
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Foer - not a difficult read, but like Foer's Everything is Illuminated this is a sensitive, somewhat magical, emotionally powerful novel
  • The Fault in Our Stars - Green - a bit oozy for my taste, but many teens love it
  • Going Bovine - Bray - running from death?  running with death?  wonderful Cervantes-style romp across America
  • The Orphan Master's Son - Johnson - Pulitzer prize-winning novel of North Korea - I have been pummeled by this book; it should be read
  • Thirteen Reasons Why - Asher - suicide
  • Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions - Daniel Wallace - not really a novel, but also not totally true narrative - focused upon life and death of the father
  • Tinkers - Paul Harding's novel about the life that came before the deathbed - haunting and mellow
A Holocaust book must also be read - I suggest Weisel's Night (not fiction, but grouped here as well as below), Everything is Illuminated, Once, The Book Thief,  and Milkweed - be sure to discuss how style and narrative voice are used to effect in each title

Suicide is another topic that should fall into this unit - this Goodreads listing is a good one for HS (with the exception of Gatsby, which should not be on the list)

School shootings are well covered in this Goodreads listing

And always there is war: Atonement, Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Things They Carried (to list a few great ones), and a tough graphic novel from Japan: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

SF and Fantasy - the dystopian and monster genres walk arm-and-arm with death, but a few titles rise to the top.  Some of them:
  • The Giver - Lowry's classic about both giving death and escaping a deathly life - high schoolers who have not read it must read it
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes - Bradbury deals with death in just about all of his work, but this one takes it head on - I like to pair it with Morgenstern's The Night Circus
  • Dualed - Elsie Chapman outdoes Shusterman (who of not multicultural at all) in this take on twin-twin battles to the death
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane - death is both tired and noble in this little wonder from Neil Gaiman
  • Hoban's Riddley Walker treats with the death of not just characters, but cultures - ditto A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also has the undercurrent of religious salvation gone awry
  • Never Let Me Go - powerful dystopian look at death in a high tech, low morality world - The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Unwind are easier on the same topicany one of these will shock students deeply
  • The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly's young protagonist enters a world of fractured fairy and knighthood tales, fraught as always with death, and confronts his own grief at a mother lost

Mysteries, Detective Fiction - these genre almost always involve death - I list here my favorites, books that treat death not as curiosity or spectacle, but with sensitivity and cultural understanding

  • Collin Cotterill's Dr. Siri Paiboun series - The Coroner's Lunch is the first of these magical mysteries set in Laos - read them in order
  • Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series - A Test of Wills is the first in this series of a Scotland Yard inspector haunted by the ghost of a battlefield execution
  • Antonio Garrido's The Corpse Reader explores death, class and deception in 12th Century China.
  • Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache mysteries - death with a hint, always, of salvation

Drama & Other Narratives - I have included a few poems here just to remind you to include them - they are not hard to find
  • Greek tragedies used to have a place in HS English and death figures in most of them - I prefer Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, or Medea - these treat death differently, but both are deeply concerned with life-taking - The Oresteia is another choice
  • The Death of a Salesman - Miller seems to have disappeared from the classroom - a tragedy, as Willy Loman is a contemporary figure
  • Shakespearean tragedy - for the classroom, MacBeth, R&J, Hamlet and Julius Caesar - but obviously most will do, and what is more deeply felt than Lear or more horrific than Richard III - performances (viewed and done) are necessary
  • Beowulf - it is not really that long and ranges from truly graphic monster-death to the poignant death of the hero - I suggest Ian Serraillier's Beowulf the Warrior - the western hero-warrior is one aspect of our death-centric culture
  • The Iliad - pick and choose from many deaths and contemplations of death - I like the Fagles translation
  • Russ Kick's Death Poems anthology is a good place to start your search for poems, but don't miss: 
  • Field of Dreams just might be the uplifting film you have to show
  • The Seventh Seal just might be the dark film you have to show
Non-Fiction - the daily news is an endless source of material for the classroom, but here are some print titles to consider
  • How We Grieve: Meghan O'Rourke on the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with Loss - a review, commentary from Brain Pickings - great companion piece to any other reading
  • Marley and Me or Marley - it is important to include pieces about the deaths of our pets and other animal companions
  • "Death of a Pig" - E.B. White's essay/memory piece about a real pig
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo - almost unbearably blunt recounting - not all of death, but it is the deaths that linger
  • Night
  • The Devil in the White City - Larson's intertwined history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a horrific serial killer begins and ends with one of the most poignant contemplations of death's finality that I have ever read - it is worth sharing selections with students - soon to be a major film
  • In Cold Blood is Capote's revolutionary documentary of a family's murder - just one of what is now a genre (including The Devil...)
  • May of the titles I listed in my i-Journalism post would fit into this unit
Is this really a good idea?

I think that discussion has to be enjoined, especially in light of today's endless reporting of global death, teen suicides, gun violence, sports violence, and ubiquitous onscreen/movie death.

Why as a culture species are we so fascinated by death? How do cultures differ in views and representations of death?

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