Teaching Fantasy--complete with Lesson Plans! (Ellen Jensen Abbott)

Many of us have started out posts this month lamenting the absence of YA in high school classrooms or pointing out that our books are not really contenders for the Common Core curriculum. As a high school teacher myself, I understand the tension teachers feel between teaching the hot book that will engage the students and teaching the book students should read before going to college—not that these are mutually exclusive! Add in the fact that your average English teacher is teaching approximately 6-8 books per year of the thousands published through history and is further limited by what full class sets are available in the book closet. This reality means that the most current YA authors are hoping for is their books to make it onto the list of suggested summer/enrichment reading or onto the personal shelves of those English teachers who buy books and lend them to students. 

And yet, like most authors, I took the time to write a teachers’ guide for my first book, Watersmeet—a fantasy. (If you think it’s tough to get your contemporary YA taught in schools, try fantasy! Aside from The Giver, Animal Farm, and 1984, very little fantasy is taught, despite its enduring popularity.) Why did I bother? Because fantasy offers such a wealth of learning opportunities! I came up with a list of projects students could do that targeted a variety of learning styles, learning modalities, and cross curricular tie-ins. Below are a few sample projects built around my novel, but they are easily translatable to other fantasy/sci fi books, and even realistic fiction. 

Projects/Activities (cross-curricular tie-ins and specific intelligence* noted):
Ø  Build a model or draw a map of one of the novel’s settings: Vigar's garden, Vranille, Watersmeet, the battlefield, one of the homes in a Sylvyad, the Council chamber. How are the values of the community expressed in the way these communities are built/designed? (History/civics, Art; Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal)
Ø  Write a constitution or a set of laws for Vranille or Watersmeet. You will want to consider what kind of government each community has. Look at nations from history or current events to help you design your government. (History/Civics; Linguistic, Logical Mathematical, Interpersonal)
Ø  Reenact the Watersmeet Council meeting allowing students to imagine possible reasons for and against stopping the villain, Charach. Have some students play roles of characters in the book, trying to stay in character even if the debate changes from the book. Other students can imagine their own characters and their particular opinions given imagined histories, backgrounds. (History/civics; Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal)
Ø  Investigate herbal remedies—how they've been used in the past, how they are used today, and the controversy surrounding their use. (Science; Logical-Mathematical, Naturalist)
Ø  Many of the creatures from Watersmeet are familiar from other stories or mythology: fauns, centaurs, minotaurs, hags, dwarves, fairies, trolls, dragons, the Green Man, naiads, dryads. Design your own creature or adapt one you know from elsewhere in a new way. You might look at other novels, in books of folklore, or on the Web. Write about or draw this creature.  (Art; Linguistic, Spatial, Interpersonal, Naturalist)
Ø  Research the celebration of Midsummer as it's been used in other cultures and in other time periods. (History; Linguistic, Interpersonal)
Ø  Make a model of Abisina’s necklace using clay or wire or other appropriate materials (Art; Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic)
Ø  Design your own ritual to celebrate an important event in your community or in the natural world and have your class participate in it. (Linguistic, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Naturalist)
Ø  Create the music of the fairies or the fauns, or write one of the songs sung in the Midsummer festival. (Music; Musical, Linguistic)
Ø  Write a scene from Watersmeet from another point of view. How would Rueshlan look to some of the Vranian refugees? How would Haret describe finding Abisina at the bottom of the ravine outside Vranille? How would Corlin view Abisina? How would Lilas view Charach? (Linguistic, Interpersonal)
Ø  Write a legend from your own community—it may be a story your grandmother has told, a family story that has become "famous," a story from first grade that you and your classmates still remember vividly. (Linguistic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal)
Ø  Interview a member of your family or larger community about legends and stories they were told as children. (Linguistic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal)
Ø  Write one of the stories you might find in the Watersmeet library. (Linguistic)

You can find my full teachers’ guide for Watersmeet and Book group guides for Watersmeet, The Centaur’s Daughter, and The Keeper at my website: www.ellenjensenabbott.com

* I refer here to Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, described in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences [(1983) New York: Basic Books]. I particularly used Thomas Armstrong's book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 2nd Ed. [(2000) Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development]. The eight intelligences at that time were Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalist.


  1. These are wonderful ideas!! Howard Gardner's theories are my favorites and lend themselves to so many terrific ways to engage students!

  2. Thank you so much! I modified this to use with any YA fantasy novel for my Independent Study students! Thank you so much for sharing.


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