Can Hamlet and the Kardashians coexist in an educational environment?

Keeping your curriculum relevant is the key to student motivation, but it is also important to maintain an appropriate balance.

Recent studies show that incorporating popular movies, music, television and literature into your lessons helps students understand classic material in a more accessible and enjoyable way. Mona Choucair, professor at the Baylor University School of Education, recently researched the positive correlation between contemporary music and classic literature. Choucair found that middle school students had a greater understanding of the universal themes in Romeo and Juliet when they were juxtaposed with Beyoncé lyrics.

21st Century Skills

Incorporating pop culture into the classroom motivates students.

Technological innovation is changing the culture of education; it’s important that educators take advantage of these changes and allow technology and media to become useful tools for instruction.

In a time where curriculum and Common Core Standards exist to help students become 21st century learners, incorporating pop culture into the classroom motivates students, and prepares them to be successful adults in today’s multimedia society.

This idea of 21st century learning standards has become an important part of educational discourse, but what exactly do these standards mean? Pearson School identifies that 21st century skills teach students to “think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively using technology...become more culturally aware with content that exposes them to different cultures, historical figures and events and become more self-directed learners with lessons and activities that empower students to make choices and apply what they learn.” When placed in the context of 21st century learning skills, utilizing popular movies, television and literature allows students to become technologically adept, culturally aware and motivated to learn.

“The Hunger Games”
Incorporating a balance of technology, popular culture and student motivation is demonstrated in Tracee Orman’s Hunger Games Lessons, an education initiative that has adapted Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy for classroom use.
Set in the dystopic country of Panem, Collins’ tale tells the story of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Melark, two “tributes” chosen to represent their home of District 12 in the Hunger Games — a deadly televised tournament meant to instill fear in the 12 districts of Panem. But Katniss and Peeta’s victory in the Hunger Games is a defiance of the totalitarian Capitol and ignites the spark that will begin a revolution.

Over the years, Tracee Orman has produced a plethora of teaching guides, lesson materials and multimedia content on “The Hunger Games” and how to incorporate the books and films into your regular curriculum. She notes that these books are rich with teachable moments, especially in teaching English Language Arts skills such as metaphors, personification, hyperboles and symbolism. She also uses "The Hunger Games" to connect similarities in the novel to historical events, and to aid in discussions of government control and desensitization. What began as an initiative to increase reading motivation in her male students, Hunger Games Lessons demonstrates the important usage of humor, pop culture and personal interests to pique student motivation and comprehension.

Sparking Their Interest
to engage your students with “Catching Fire.”



My name is Tracee Orman, and I’ve been teaching high school English for 14 years in Illinois. I first read “The Hunger Games” in 2009, and I knew immediately I had to share it with my students. When I couldn’t find any teaching resources for the novel online, I did what most teachers do: I made them myself. Soon, I started getting requests from other teachers for these resources, so I joined TeachersPayTeachers and began my blogs, Hunger Games Lessons and Mrs. Orman’s Classroom. I love sharing my ideas and materials with other teachers; teaching is hard enough on its own!

When I’m not at school or at home on my laptop snuggling with our dog, I can probably be found at a high school sporting event watching my son play and/or my husband coach (he teaches high school social studies and coaches baseball). “Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins offers multiple ways for teachers to engage students in meaningful learning activities and discussions. Here are a few of my favorite activities:
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. Create a map of Panem. Figure it out. Brush up on your art history. Totalitarianism and theology. Talkin’ ’bout a revolution. Too much PDA? Just eat it. 9. The symbol of the rebellion.

10. Please pass the grubs. 11. It’s all in the genes. 12. Survival of the fittest. 13. The healing power of salt water. 14. It was all an allusion. 15. This beat goes on.

8. Alcoholism.

1 Create a Map of Panem

There are 12 districts in Panem, and “The Hunger Games” left us a little high and dry with information about the other 11.

“Catching Fire” gives us more clues about the location and features of each district while Katniss and Peeta are on their Victory Tour. Have your students practice their geography skills while they look for clues in “Catching Fire.”

We know from the first book that Panem is actually located in North America—in the ruins of the former

United States. In order to make informed choices, students will practice reading maps, analyzing different regions of North America for geographical features similar to the ones mentioned in the novel, and creating their own maps. I’ve collected many student-created maps of Panem HERE and created my own HERE.

2 Figure It Out
Many clues in the novels have indicated that District 12 is located roughly in the Appalachian Mountains.
Using this as a starting point, expand on the mapmaking activity by actually having students use their math skills to determine the sizes of the districts and the distances between each. From the books, we know that the trains to the Capitol travel an average of 250 mph, and we are also given estimates of how long it takes to get to each district. Students can use these facts to roughly estimate the size of Panem, exercising skills that they can apply to more specific, real-life geographic examples, as well as similar problems they may encounter on standardized tests.

3 Brush Up On Your Art History

While reading the first few chapters of “Catching Fire,” one thing that stood out was Cinna’s mention of ermine fur, which he uses to design Katniss’ coat as she departs for the victory tour in chapter three. I asked my students if they were familiar with the fur—they weren’t. We went online to search for examples, and once they saw a few pictures of it, they easily recognized it as “royalty fur,” similar to mink. Digging a little deeper, we came across Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Lady with the Ermine. The subject of the painting is about Katniss’ age and holds an ermine. Another artwork of interest was Emblem 75, which is a drawing of an ermine being hunted. My students found it quite interesting that “Catching Fire” was set during the year of the 75th Hunger Games, and even more symbolic because Katniss is forced to compete in the Games again, where she must hunt to survive. The books are rife with vivid descriptions of Panem fashion, especially Katniss’ wardrobe. What other instances seem inspired by real-life paintings, historical figures or customs?

4 Totalitarianism and Theology
In chapter five of “Catching Fire,” Katniss describes “small, fat children with wings” on the ceiling of District 11’s Justice Building.
We, of course, recognize these images as cherubs—tiny angels from religious renaissance paintings. But to Katniss, they’re just “small, fat children with wings.” What would an image like this represent for somebody who wasn’t familiar with angels, or religion? Students can discuss why they think dystopian novels typically exclude religion from their themes, and

how this affects the characters. How about totalitarianism in real life? We know that the fascist and totalitarian governments upon which the fictional Capitol is based are adamantly anti-religious. How has Suzanne Collins translated this to her world?

They can also research the symbolism of the cherubs. I like to show the bottom portion of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and ask students what their impression of these creatures would be if they were Katniss.

5 Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution

The mood in the districts is like “a pot about to boil over”
As Katniss and Peeta learn about the rest of Panem on their victory tour, the mood in the districts is like “a pot about to boil over” (Chapter 5). This mood, to me, is reminiscent of Tracy Chapman’s song “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution.” Students can read the lyrics to the song and discuss how it might apply to the mood in the districts. Better yet, they can find their own “revolution” songs to discuss the connection between these songs and the atmosphere in “Catching Fire.” Discuss famous revolutions with students, the causes of those revolutions and the effects. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss different historical instances of revolutions and what caused those uprisings.

6 Too Much PDA?

Public Displays of Affection (PDA) is definitely more prevalent these days than when we were growing up (so it seems, anyway). Peeta and Katniss are forced to throw themselves on one another to show their “love” for one another as an attempt by the Capitol to stave off the revolution. What are the negative consequences of too much PDA? (Believe me, this is a topic teenagers love to talk about). What is the general reaction to PDA in our culture, and how have celebrity relationships or public/televised engagements (“The Bachelor”/ ”The Bachelorette”) affected our collective view of PDA and romantic relationships?

7 Just Eat It
Katniss and Peeta’s arrival in the Capitol for the festivities offers an opportunity to talk to students about eating disorders.
When Katniss’ prep team offers the solution to “all you can eat” (drink an elixir that makes you throw up), Peeta and Katniss are disgusted. It’s not just the wasting of the food and the act of throwing up on purpose that sickens them, but the fact that there are people in the districts who are literally dying of hunger. The irony is appalling. Partner with a health teacher or the school nurse to discuss eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, and how students can work to resist cultural attitudes (similar to the Capitol’s) that promote such disorders.

8 Alcoholism

Haymitch’s drinking problem reaches new heights in chapter nine when he desperately goes for the rubbing alcohol when his connection to “white liquor” is cut off.

Have the health teacher or school nurse stick around to discuss alcoholism with students, its causes (Haymitch’s alcoholism is caused by trauma endured during his own participation in the Games), and its lasting effects.

9 The Symbol of Rebellion
The Mockingjay—a genetically modified bird in the Hunger Games universe—becomes the symbol of the rebellion, as Katniss learns from Bonnie and Twill in chapter 10. Have your students research real symbols of rebellion in history. How and why did they come to represent the rebels? What is the power of symbolism? You can even have students create their own symbols to represent an important theme or concept to them.

10 Please Pass the Grubs
Have a lesson on entomophagy, or insect-eating. Katniss checks out the edible insect station during the tribute training in chapter 16, but we never really learn which insects we can eat for survival. Students can read up on the tasty buggers HERE or find other articles about the crunchy cuisine.

11 It’s All in the Genes
“Mutation” is the act or process of genetically altering DNA to produce something new. A “muttation” (“mutt”) in the novel is the product of that act—most often a hybrid between several different organisms, or a single organism whose natural features have been heightened. In "Catching Fire," we are introduced to a plethora of mutts. Partner up with your science department and have students study genetic engineering and the ethical issues associated with the manipulation of different species.

12 Survival of the Fittest

The tributes in “Catching Fire” must utilize nature in order to survive.

On the flip side, the tributes in “Catching Fire” must utilize nature in order to survive the arena. Once again, you can connect with your science teachers to discuss how nature has adapted to its environment.

Amy Brown, Science Stuff founder and blogger, wrote a guest post on my blog about this topic. Students can try to find examples in their own backyard and show examples from the novel of how we must adapt to survive.

13 The Healing Power of Salt Water
In chapter 21, Katniss, Peeta and Finnick find out that the salt water in the arena has a healing effect. Discuss with students how we use salt water (saline) today in modern medicine. With the proper parental/guardian permission and school approval, you can bring in a neti pot and allow students to try it out, to see how salt water is put to practical use. You can also show them this video of the neti pot’s use by Oprah and Doctor Oz.

14 It Was All an Allusion
Collins includes an allusion to the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” when the tributes realize the arena in which they’re competing is designed as a large clock. Are there any similarities between the mouse in the song and the tributes in the arena? Let students hash it out. What about other songs, poems or stories—are there more allusions in “Catching Fire”?

15 This Beat Goes On
Allow your students the opportunity to be creative. Have them compose playlists that the characters would be listening to if they had access to an mp3 player. Which songs would they listen to? More importantly, why would that song be appealing for that character? They can select certain events in the chapters that would call for It also gets them to re-read the material.

different songs, and require them to justify their choices to help them think critically about their own interpretation of the novel.

These are just a few of the endless possibilities for translating “The Hunger Games” trilogy—on film and on page—into an array of teachable moments that can get students excited about reading and learning. These activities and many more can be found in my teaching unit for “Catching Fire.”

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.