Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections.
“Wait, why do I have to die?”
“Well, somebody has to die.”
I know this sounds weird, but when I heard two students say that to one another in the middle of class I knew that my lesson was working. We had broken into groups and were working on the plots to stories that involved a real-world, authentic scenario that had them using vital 21st Century skills.
Earlier in the year, when we were preparing for a benchmark test that had a section of functional reading, I wanted to find some test prep materials that was more interesting than what we usually have to deal with, like a driver’s license application or the VCR manual troubleshooting page that prompts students to ask “What’s a VCR?” So I went to the school library and found Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide, copied part of the chapter about the best weapons to use when fighting zombies, wrote up some multiple choice questions, and passed them out. It worked as a practice and the test scores were pretty good but we had more fun with the reading and flipping through other parts of The Zombie Survival Guide that I wanted to do more.
Money being scarce, I didn’t have the ability to order a class set of ZSGs and I didn’t necessarily want to go bit by bit through Brooks’s book (plus, I returned it to the library so a student could take it out and read it); however, I did have a copy of the sequel at home and a photocopier and what ensued proved to be one of the more worthwhile parts of my English classes so far this year.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is Brooks’s more serious follow-up to the tongue-in-cheek survival guide, as Brooks uses the central “narrator” of a reporter interviewing various people who played major and minor roles in a war against the undead that almost wiped humanity off the map to tell that war’s story. While it does have its racy parts, the novel’s structure is such that it is more like a series of separate stories with an overarching narrative than a single story. So it winds up becoming one of the few novels that I have no problem excerpting (you can find a great summary of the book on Zombiepedia).
I chose two particular stories which make up a vignette of their own, and both of which take place in Japan (I don’t know if I was trying to fulfill a “world literature” curriculum requirement or if I simply like this part of the book). The first is that of Kondo Tatsumi, who is a teenager who does nothing but sit on his computer all day and communicate with friends over the internet where they try to one up each other regarding the facts of the zombie plague. When the internet goes down completely, he is forced to turn his attention to the outside world, which is aflame. The second is that of Tomonaga Ijiro, a blind gardener who manages to not only survive, but becomes an incredibly effective zombie killer. The two meet up at the end of the section with Tomonaga becoming a sensei of sorts to Kondo.
It’s a great way to look at character development, plot, tension and suspense, and even problem solving as both characters are rather incapable of combatting the zombie hordes and manage to survive based on their own resourcefulness. We discussed all of this after reading it, but as I was drawing up lesson plans for this, I decided I wanted to try to take our look at World War Z one step further.
Now, I could have gone a pretty easy route and said “Tell your own zombie survival story” and that would have definitely seemed creative. But I wanted to challenge the class, so I went ahead and created a role-playing game. I created eight different scenarios that were “starting points” for a group to tell their own story of how they were able to survive the zombie war. The starting points were various locations across the globe, all with different climates and potential issues, ranging from the Sahara Desert, and suburban Long Island to Disney World. Each student picked a slip of paper out of a hat that had a set of coordinates on it and then were asked to put those coordinates into Google Maps and assess their location. Once they finished that assessment, they were given a piece of paper with crucial details. Here’s the one for the group stuck in Disney World:
The Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World, Orlando, FL
(28.42 N/81.58 W)
What your group has with you:
- A Nikon D60 Digital SLR camera with a 200mm zoom lens
- A map of the Magic Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom resort area
- A set of car keys
- A walkie-talkie that was swiped from a parks employee.
- Each member of the group is wearing shorts and a T-shirt as well as a “Mickey Mouse Ears” hat. Everyone is wearing sneakers.
Each member of the group has a backpack that contains:
- A 32-ounce water bottle
- A pen
- A Disney World character autograph book
- Several packages of Lance cracker and cheese sandwiches
- A Disney World T-shirt
- An iPhone
- $200 in cash
- Multi-Day passes to Disney parks
What is nearby:
You are in the middle of the Magic Kingdom when the zombie outbreak occurs. While there is mass confusion, you are able to listen in on Disney World employees via the walkie-talkie and think you hear the following:
- Space Mountain, the famous ride in Tomorrowland, is a secure and safe place, as several employees and Disney World guests have driven out the zombies and barricaded themselves within. There isn’t much in the way of weapons or food but clearly it is an immediate safe haven.
- The “underground” (Disney World’s vast system of employee-only tunnels) has been secure the whole time and Disney World security is clearly in charge and it is unsure if you were able to find the entrance to the Disney underground that security would let you in.
- The Disney Contemporary Resort , which is located on an island in the middle of a lake, is secure as well, and a monorail pilot named Scott as well as several of his fellow pilots and some guests have managed to secure a monorail train that they are using to shuttle any survivors they can find back and forth from the Magic Kingdom to the Resort. There is plenty of food and the hotel is not at capacity so you may be able to survive for a little while; however, the monorail station is at the front gate and that has been overrun by both zombies and panicked guests trying to make a run for it.
- Aside from this, your car is in the parking lot and you have enough gas to get off the resort and onto the interstate.
Your immediate decision:
You’ve checked out the map and listened to the walkie-talkie. Which path do you choose? Space Mountain? The underground? The monorail and the resort? Your car? Make a choice and see what happens.
There are many possible outcomes to this scenario.
There are two definite facts about your outcome:
- The zombie war will last two years.
- At least one of your group members will survive.
From there, things could go in any direction, both in terms of students’ creativity and the task itself. In my general-level classes, we had multiple options for a project that included writing a short story, shooting a film, setting up a Twitter feed and telling the story in Tweets (nobody took this one, which was a bummer because it would have been cool), or playing a zombie survivor who comes to class as a guest speaker (one I might eliminate next year because it wound up being an excuse to create bad PowerPoints). In my advanced class, since were simply killing time between two novels, we took two days to just sketch out a plot and each group then told the rest of the class what happened.
With the exception of a few students who just didn’t feel like handing anything in (something I’ve come to accept as certain no matter what the project), it wound up being a lot of fun. There were arguments over who lived and who died, a lot of problem solving and critical thinking (yes, we found a gun store but what’s to say that any guns were left?), and a real application of some of the basics of storytelling (plot, character development, etc.). This is definitely one I will refine and do again.