Why Sci Fi (and Fantasy)?

With the rise of "Geek Culture" in the past few years, science fiction and fantasy novels (and movies) seem to be finally starting to gain a level of respect they haven't had in the past.

Science fiction is more than just space battles and robots. Fantasy is more than swords, sorcery, and quests.
So what can these genres offer us-  and our students? Why are they worthy of being respectfully added to the curriculum in language arts classes from elementary through collegiate studies?

Today I exchanged thoughts and ideas with a woman who wants to explore the ideas of using science fiction in education. She had heard that I use fantasy and science fiction in my classroom extensively, and had a few questions for me. As I jotted down my responses quickly, I got to thinking more about the topic. Today, I'll share my answers to her questions. In the future, I hope to make this an ongoing series about the value of using Science Fiction and Fantasy in classrooms, as well as sharing some of my favorite titles.

(If you can read Spanish, this is the link to the blog Cristina is working on http://blogs.libros.com/literatura-ciencia-ficcion/)

1) Can you tell me a little bit of your professional background? Where do you live and work?
I live in Pennsylvania, in the US. Just west of Philadelphia. I've taught on both ends of the academic spectrum - for about 6 years with students who have learning disabilities and now for about 6 years with gifted learners. Both groups were mostly upper elementary (though I also have some younger students now, as I work with students who are identified as gifted from Kindergarten through 5th grade. That's from 5 years old through about 11.) 
2) What did you used as sci-fi materials (books, movies, etc)? What did you try to teach with it/them?
I've used a variety of sci-fi and fantasy with my reading groups. I consider Hobbit and Book of 3 to be fantasy, though I've also used Wrinkle in Time and City of Ember which are more science fiction. I use them to work on a lot of reading comprehension ideas. 

With the Book of 3 (with 4th grade)  and Hobbit (with 5th grade) I use them as a way to experience the Joseph Campbell concept of the Hero's Journey literature analysis. I introduce the Hero's Journey steps through discussion of the Star Wars saga (mostly the original trilogy, since Anakin's journey is more of an anti hero tale) and the Harry Potter stories (which almost all of my students have read and/or seen). I generally show the animated version of the Hobbit after they've read it, and we do compare and contrast work. 

Wrinkle in Time (I've done this generally with 4th grade) I usually focus on the "big themes" in the text as well as emphasizing character analysis - since Meg is such a marvelously well done character. In the past, I've had students also get very attached to Charles Wallace. One year they even began a huge debate about the styles of intelligence, and dove into comparing Charles and Artemis Fowl. I often bring in the concepts of multiple intelligences theories with this book. (my students are gifted, and I like to make sure they know that they are all different in their strengths, and that there ARE many types of intelligence styles). 

I generally use City of Ember with 3rd grade. I love the foreshadowing in this one, and get the kids to do a lot of prediction about what they think is going on in the story. I also do work on creating the mood of a story through setting. It's a dystopian/ post apocalyptic book that is a rare one that is really appropriate for the younger set. 
3) What was the result of your experience/s?

The students mostly love these books. I get mixed reactions on Wrinkle (some adore it, some not) and on the Hobbit (it's a pretty long read, and not all the fifth graders adore it yet). City of Ember is almost universally loved, as is Book of Three.

My students love the characters, the humor, and do well with the responses to text in these books. 

4) Why did you decide to use science fiction?
Mostly - because I love it. I think I teach better when I use texts I love. The kids pick up my passion and it helps fuel their interest.

Even without that teacher passion, though, I think science fiction and fantasy are vital for students. They need to experience the way humanity IS and CAN BE - and taking humans and putting them into these kinds of situations emphasizes the commonalities of humanity. How WOULD we react in situations that haven't actually happened? This is just as valuable as historical fiction which explores how we DID react. (I think historical fiction is equally valuable, as is realistic fiction, but just explores different aspects of who we are as a people). 

I also explore these ideas in relation to what value dystopian and post-apocalyptic texts have for readers in this blog post on my site http://www.mariaselke.com/2012/03/confessions-of-dystopian-reader.html
5) Would you recommend it as a teaching tool? Why?
Yes, yes yes!! 

Science fiction and fantasy explore the "What If?"s of life. This is so incredibly valuable. Science fiction is the way humanity starts to create new ideas for science and tech that eventually becomes reality. Kids absolutely need to think this way if our society is to continue to move forward. Both of these genres build creative thinking in kids, in my opinion.  (and see this information about a study on the topic, though I'd like to search for more detail on this study http://www.torontosun.com/2012/03/20/fantasy-movies-boost-creativity-in-children-study

They also help students think about the moral and ethical implications of science and technology - especially if they are exposed to very well done stories (Ender's Game jumps to mind. I haven't used this one with a group, though, as I think it might be better for early middle school instead of elementary). All of Asimov's work would also fit the bill... 
6) Do you know about any other similar initiative?

Not that I'm aware of, no. I'd love to see what you write (if you can also post or have it translated into English!)

I hope to make this an ongoing series. If you are interested, let me know! Also, leave me comments about the books you love, and the ones you've used with students. Thanks!


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