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Rock Hill teachers use ‘Hunger Games’ to stir thirst for reading

Savvy educators are known to seize on a current event – the Egyptian revolution, the inauguration of America’s first black president – to enliven a lesson and make it real for students.

Eighth grade teachers at Saluda Trail Middle School in Rock Hill are taking that notion further.

They banded together and latched on to the pop culture phenomenon that is “The Hunger Games,” crafting lessons and activities that have captivated students and united the entire grade level.

“It made school more interesting,” said Chris Smith, 14. “It made us sad when class was over. If they would do it more, it would get students more involved. I would recommend the book to every middle school.”

From essays and reading assignments in English class to probability lessons in math to archery in gym, teachers built much of the semester around the young-adult novel that Bloomberg Businessweek magazine called “the new ‘Lord of the Flies’.”

Weeks of work culminated with a field trip to see the film followed by the school’s version of “The Hunger Games,” which teachers orchestrated as a field day of competitive games.

The experiment was an unparalleled success, which the teachers said they hope to replicate.

“We’re trying to get away from ‘sit down, take notes, take a test, be bored,” said Jason Hunsinger, who teaches language arts and math.

With the explosion of adolescent fiction following the blockbuster “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, educators are capitalizing on hype surrounding such books to turn teens onto reading.

But it’s unusual for teachers across subjects to come together like those at Saluda Trail did, said Robert Prickett, a Winthrop University assistant professor of English education.

Their work is encouraging and should be copied, Prickett said.

“What’s amazing to me is the number of teachers and size of the group,” he said. “We’re pushing that cross collaboration (among teachers). This is a prime example.”

‘So much spirit’

“The Hunger Games,” published in 2008, is the first novel in author Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy.

The plot unfolds in the future. America is now a country called Panem, comprised of 12 districts and ruled by autocrats in the Capital. There was once a 13th district, but it was demolished decades earlier when districts rebelled against the Capital.

Each year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are drafted in a lottery and sent as “tributes” to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised spectacle in which the children must fight to the death. The lone survivor is crowned the winner.

Katniss Everdeen, the self-reliant, 16-year-old heroine, comes from District 12, Panem’s poorest, and faces an onslaught of obstacles.

The novel has drawn wide acclaim and spawned a film, which took in $155 million during its opening weekend – the third-highest grossing debut in history and the most ever for a movie that isn’t a sequel.

Fans and critics alike are praising both.

“‘Hunger Games’ is an amazing book,” said Cor’Tionna White, a 13-year-old Saluda Trail eighth-grader. “It has so much spirit and culture.”

‘Begging to read’

Saluda Trail English teachers Angie Creagh and Jean Stillman were chatting about basing a novel study on “The Hunger Games” nearly a year ago.

With all the attention the book received, plus an upcoming film release, they saw an opportunity to spark interest in a book that fit perfectly in the curriculum.

“The book is just rich with literary devices we are responsible for teaching,” Creagh said.

Hunsinger, a first-year teacher, brought sample lessons based on the book. They began to see ways to tie in other subjects – the 13 districts could represent the American colonies taught in history; the lottery in which tributes are chosen hinges on odds, perfect for a probability lesson.

Before long, the teachers had tied the adolescent novel to many of the standards they’re required to teach.

“It was definitely a huge group effort,” Creagh said. “We work with a great group of teachers who are willing to branch out.”

Teachers introduced the book in mid-February.

Students read together in class, but many couldn’t resist reading ahead at home.

“I’ve never had 86 kids engaged, begging to read,” Stillman said.

They divided eighth grade into 12 districts, each headed by a teacher. Math instructors simulated a lottery in which two student “tributes” were chosen.

In gym class, students learned to shoot a bow and arrow, Katniss’ weapon of choice.

Photo portraits of the tributes holding their bows adorn a wall on campus.

“The Hunger Games” dominated chatter up and down the halls.

“We’re doing something together, and it’s really interesting,” 14-year-old Yancy Sanders said. “People get together and talk about books. I didn’t like to read, but this changed my mind.”

“It’s really helped the eighth grade unite,” said Miranda Newell, 14.

‘Grab the next thing’

The excitement reached a fever pitch on Thursday, after students saw the film.

Several hundred eighth-graders, cheering and holding banners representing their districts, filled the gym.

Humanities teacher Emily Warner entered, wearing a red dress, tights and a bright, blonde, curly wig topped with feathers. Her face was painted white with rosy cheeks.

She led the opening ceremony as Effie Trinkett, a character in the book who escorts the District 12 tributes. She called down the 24 tributes who would be the first to compete in the school’s inaugural Hunger Games.

For the rest of the afternoon and the following morning, students competed in a variety of contests based on events in the novel.

In one, students raced to fill a two-liter bottle with a sponge. There was a relay, three-legged race and tug-of-war. Before each event, Warner read the passage in the book upon which each was based.

Back in class, students worked on essays reviewing the film and comparing it to the novel.

That afternoon, the teachers were already plotting how to fan the fervor in the future.

With films based on Collins’ two sequels – “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” – already in the works and seventh-graders buzzing about what they heard the eighth grade was up to, Hunsinger and Creagh are confident.

There are plenty of opportunities, Hunsinger said, “if you’re willing to go out there and grab the next thing – especially with a group of teachers who are willing to adapt and work together.”

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