Understanding the World through Literature

Grade level: 8th; would also work with older students

Duration: ~5-6 class sessions

Background: Look, I’m a librarian. I’m deeply invested in the idea that reading makes us better people, opens our eyes, expands our sense of empathy. Both nonfiction and fiction texts help us understand the world around us.

It was with that belief in mind that I worked with a social studies teacher and our gifted coordinator to develop this short, powerful unit. Our 8th grade social studies classes were studying dictatorships, and North Korea in particular, and this teacher was looking for another way for them to access the material.

In this project, students choose a work of dystopian fiction and think, write, and discuss the parallels they see between that work of fiction and a real-life dictatorship. Students are expected to find evidence for their claims by locating supporting nonfiction articles.

We gave students the option of selecting a work they’d already read – many of our kids gobble up dystopian novels – or something new. We included a list of short story options for students who didn’t already have a text in mind, since the timeframe was relatively short.

Instructional plan

Day 1: Introduce assignment. Share example of completed graphic organizer. Have students discuss, in groups, some possible texts; if necessary, offer suggestions of texts or connections. Hand out short stories if needed.

Day 2: Students should come to class with their text and at least one or two possible connections. Give students a quick reminder of how to use Google News. Start research using graphic organizer and making sure to cite all sources.

Day 3: Continue research and writing.

Day 4: Finalize graphic organizer and conclusion paragraph. Review and edit with peers.

Day 5: Students present their ideas in groups, in a round-robin format, or in front of the class.

Day 6: Flex day, if more time is needed for research or presentations.


A few that worked well for our students: Hunger Games, The Red Queen, Legend, Matched, Little Brother, Incarceron, Fahrenheit 451, the short story “Old Glory” by Bruce Coville

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