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  • Writer's pictureAshley Dickson-Ellison

Teaching Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT: YA Lit Ideas and Research Projects

Updated: May 10, 2021

This post comes from my previous blog, Teaching the Apocalypse, and details ways that I used Veronica Roth's Divergent in the classroom. The materials I mention in this post can be found here.

Original Post:

As you are likely aware, Divergent by Veronica Roth is a young adult dystopian novel that was first released in April of 2011. The second in the series, Insurgent, was released in May of 2012, and Allegiant came out in October of 2013. The first novel, which is what I will focus on in this post, revolves around the choices that a teenage girl must make as she moves toward adulthood. It is set in a dystopian futuristic Chicago where the society is divided into factions based on which attribute they most value (bravery, truth, peace, knowledge, or selflessness). At the beginning of the book, the main character must choose her faction, and once she makes that choice, she must learn to live with the impact of that decision. Meanwhile, the world around her is rapidly changing and deteriorating in ways she only begins to discover. For more information about the book series, you can see Veronica Roth's page. Here's the trailer for the movie that was released in 2014. Above all else, I judge teen lit by how much excitement it generates in my students. We read Divergent in August, and I still had students talking about the movie and showing me images of the new book cover as late as May. I had three copies of Insurgent for the classroom, and they were constantly in demand and read (voluntarily) by almost half of my students. This book series resonates with the students and generates a tremendous amount of interest and excitement in reading. It is exciting and dares students to consider their own bravery, but it is also the story of a teenage girl discovering love and romance, which the students enjoy as much as they do the intensity of the action. Last year, I began the year for English 9 with Divergent. The unit revolved around active engagement and how to make choices in the classroom and in the community. One of the things I loved about beginning the year that way was that students used Divergent during our SSR (sustained silent reading) time. That made it easier for them to adjust to SSR, and it was also nice because it allowed students who flew through the reading to move on to other books while giving students who took longer to read the support and time that they needed to get through the novel. The novel focuses on choice--the fact that above all else, the choices that we make determine what happens in our lives. It also highlights the interrelationship between choices and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Because it was the beginning of the year and the beginning of my students' high school careers, we focused on parallels between choices in the novel and choices that they were making in their own lives and as citizens within the school community. I used nonfiction and poetry supplements to enhance the novel and highlight the skills that we were developing.

The unit revolved around three essential questions:

  • What does it mean to be an engaged learner?

  • Why is it important to understand your role in society?

  • How do we make choices and how do those choices impact our community?

As far as skills are concerned, I focused on point-of-view, characterization, tone, inference and close reading skills (including annotation). As we moved toward the end of the novel, we focused on theme and finding textual support to prove theme statements. The students completed plot questions and double entry journals for homework. For assessment, I used quick reading quizzes and daily formative skills checks. We had discussions and practiced the skills with supplemental readings. As far as major assessments, I used two skills assessments. The first was an excerpt from a major scene in the novel and the second was a cold reading passage. We also had a Socratic discussion at the end of the novel for which the students prepared, and the students wrote responses to some guided questions on Schoology prior to the discussion. For more information about Socratic discussions, see my previous post. The document available here includes the way that I broke up the reading, a description of their homework and a model of the double-entry journal. It also includes the homework for chapters 1-4. In the journals, the students moved from practicing inferences to tone and finally to theme statements. These journal entries could certainly be modified to use in class as a way to reflect on and respond to the reading.

The final project required students to create their own factions. It was a research project and it included a group presentation. The students had to come up with the faction characteristics and create a name with a complex meaning. They had to find a possible representative from real life of that faction and research the person's life as an illustration of how that person demonstrated the traits of the faction, and they had to make connections to the novel with passages from the book.

Phew! That just about sums it up, I guess. As far as changes for this coming year, I will likely NOT teach tone as one of the main skills with this novel. I discovered that because the novel has so much dialogue, many students became confused between characterization and tone. They would focus on a character's specific tone in his/her words instead of finding the tone of the passage, and it was challenging to explain the nuances of the difference. They found clarity as we looked at descriptive passages, but it was perhaps an unnecessary confusion. I might also drop the double entry journal entries down from two entries to one (or have them do one at home and one in class). The length of the novel was overwhelming for some students, so I will do more next year to help them with modifications as needed. We have a couple of copies of the audio of the novel, and one of our ELL teachers created chapter summaries of the novel that we'll use for struggling students. I'm also considering teaching Romeo and Juliet first this coming year so that students can take a field trip to see the play at the amazing Staunton replica of the Blackfriar Playhouse before it leaves in November, so I will likely introduce some of the concepts such as inference and close reading skills at an earlier time. As a final thought, I'd like to encourage teachers considering teaching YA lit in the classroom to take the plunge. At my school, many people are very supportive--in fact, this last year, we purchased Divergent and the whole school read it at some point during the year. I know that may not be the case everywhere, but I find that we as educators can continue discovering the balance between classical, canonical texts and contemporary texts written for teens. Many students (both boys and girls) told me that Divergent was the first book that they had honestly read from cover to cover, and that paved the way to a much more prosperous year as far as silent reading and setting individual reading goals. What I love most about YA lit is the way that the stories address complex issues (such as why wars happen and how to make difficult choices and face your fears) in ways that are accessible and appealing to teens. I've read SO MANY amazing YA books that would work well in the classroom. The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare is amazing, as is the Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion would be an awesome novel to teach, and it would work nicely as an exploration of text-to-text comparisons with a focus on audience since the film and novel are quite different. I also love the idea of teaching the first book in a series because that gives students a great jumping off point for their own reading. As far as realistic fiction, I just read Hold Still by Nina LaCour, which addresses the impact of suicide on a community, and our department discussed teaching John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, which includes teen romance, the role of fate, and illness. Have you taught (or are you considering teaching) any YA lit novels in your class? Please share your comments and ideas! I look forward to learning what others are doing with this amazing genre.

2021 Update: I wanted to share this post from Teaching the Apocalypse because it has been widely read, but as I reflect on the choices I made when teaching this unit, I would certainly make changes before teaching it again. (I'd also choose a newer text if possible as there are many great series that have come out since then, but sometimes we need to work with the books we have on hand!) One of the biggest changes I would make is that I would not give anywhere near the quantity of homework I gave at the time. I loved the double entry journals we did, but I'd be sure to build in more class time for students to work on those.

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