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  • Writer's pictureMegan Mariano

Dystopian Literature in 6th Grade: Opening Minds and Critical Thinking

Dystopian literature is by far my favorite genre. I'll dabble in other genres, but always find myself right back into this genre. When I found out Lucy Calkins was developing a unit for middle school I was so excited to check it out. I was eager to see if I could use it with my 6th graders and I was happy that I could!

Why 6th Graders Thrive with this Literature

I had a lot of hesitations and reservations at first. Most of the books I read are young adult and

I often ask myself, why do I love these books so much? Why do I dive into these dark and often depressing worlds? Why do I love settings that are apocalyptic? I know how extreme these books can be, can 6th graders handle this?

Upon lots of reflection the short answer is YES, they can. Here is the thing with 6th graders. They are 11/12 years old and LOTS of things are going on developmentally. They are at that awkward age where they are still enjoying their little kid activities, but slowly transitioning into a process of discovery and identity-finding. They start questioning everything. They want to know what's going on in the world, but their brains can't quite wrap their heads around it yet.

These books are a great way to trigger their need to investigate and discover, while doing so in a safe way. Also, while dystopian books are pretty much defined as stories that have a negative view on the future, I do not think the books are trying to send negative messages. At the heart of these books are the characters. Characters faced with unimaginable struggles. Struggles that could happen in our world if we don't do things to change it. These characters deal with loss, impossible tasks, and more...but, here's the bottom line, they don't give up. Their resiliency is tested constantly. But throughout the entire text, they learn to work together with others. To unite together to fight injustice. To strive for hope and happiness. All of this is key to building empathy.

Not only that, these books are ripe with setting, imagery, character development, symbolism, flashback, themes, and all the other good stuff we E.L.A. teachers want our kiddos to know. They provide so much inspiration for story-writing, too. These stories are also SO relevant today.

What Books?

So, this is the real tricky part. As I've mentioned, lots of these books are young adult. My first introduction to the genre was 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale; yea, definitely not good for 6th graders. The thing with young adult is that a lot of 6th graders are ready to read those books and they absolutely devour them. The fact that they are a little edgy makes them fill that need to "grow up". I remember reading Go Ask Alice when I was around their age. Super intense. Drug abuse and much more. It freaked me out, but I absolutely loved that book and it taught me a lot. It actually gave me perspective once I hit high school. I had a handful of friends who started using drugs, some of these kids had some major issues with it, but this book always popped into my mind. I never gave in and had a lot of empathy for those kids.

It's also important to know that young adult literature is classified as 12 and up. Middle grade reading is considered 8-11. Do you see the deal here? 6th graders are smack dab in the middle.

Carefully choosing texts is very important here, as well as keeping parents in the loop, and knowing your students. I do this unit in January. So by then, I know the kids, I know the parents, I know what's up. I share the list with parents so they know what they're in for. I then let the kids choose the books they want to read with a group of their choosing. With their group members, they pick from the list. I then compile that information and share it with parents again. If I receive any pushback, I accommodate.

My list does contain some edgier young adult, but I try to steer clear of the PG-13/almost R books. While most of the books on my list do include violence of some sort and the occasional curse, honestly, I know most of these students have heard and seen a lot worse in video games and on YouTube.

I definitely avoid anything that touches upon sexuality in a borderline R-rated way. Most of the books I've read really don't get too crazy in that area. Although one year, I had the book Eve on the list. I had a student come up to me and show me some lines that were, well, racier than I was expecting. At the time, I said stick with it, but if you are uncomfortable and/or mom is uncomfortable we can switch. It actually turned out wonderfully because she LOVED the book and mom and her had some great discussions! Needless to say, though, I took the book off the list!

There are also some really tame ones out there. Some of these are my go-to's for the students not quite mature enough yet and that's okay!

Here is my list.

Students get the books from the public library.

How to Introduce It

I've been kicking off the unit lately with the movie The Truman Show. You could also use Wall-E or The Lorax, but I like using The Truman Show because most kids have never even heard of it and again, it has a slight edge that gets them interested. We analyze the dystopian components of the film to get them familiar with the genre.

Next up is my Origin of a Dystopia activity. The kids really love this. It really gets their minds around the concept of the worlds they are reading about. (I should also add, my kids start reading the books a week before we start the unit during independent reading time). First, they think of things that are troubling in our worlds. Next, they think of the problems associated with those problems and then think, if those problems continue, what could happen, hypothetically, to our world.

Then, they determine how they could fix that problem if it DID come true. What rules would they need to make? From there, they get into how these rules would be enforced and who would have issues with these rules. The ultimate conversation leads into how it's extremely difficult to have a perfect utopia.

I haven't done this yet this school year. It is certainly going to be interesting, that's for sure!

You can get this activity below!

What I Focus On

If you are using the Lucy Calkins unit, there's lots of ground to cover, but I definitely lighten the load for my 6th graders. I've used Among the Hidden by Margaret Haddix as my read aloud the past few years, but I am trying to find another one. I LOVE Scythe by Neal Shusterman and have hesitated using it, but I might dig into it more this summer and choose some not too intense excerpts. Here is what I focus on:

  • Setting: This is a major component of this unit. The big aspect being how is this world different, but also the same as ours? Students have to dig for text details to prove both of these.

  • Mood: This goes along with setting. At this point of the school year, I've done lots of mood activities, especially my mood vs. tone digital activities. We mostly focus on finding strong text details and words to identify mood. I also do an art activity with them. It's similar to blackout poetry, but instead, they focus on mood. In a normal school year, they find a page that shows a strong mood. I take a picture with my phone and print out all the pages. They then set off words that show the mood and draw an image around it. Here are some examples:

  • Power & Systematic Problems: We touch the surface for this one. The goal is to mostly identify how characters deal with power and control. I also focus on how characters deal with the systematic or political problems going on in their books.

  • Archetypes: Hero, villain, mentor, anti-hero, sidekick...those are the major archetypes of focus. Students determine if their characters fit into those archetypes.

  • Symbolism: This is always hard for my 6th graders, but we give it a go. I like to play this game with them first to get them thinking about symbols. They find a variety of objects and think about when these symbols were present in the story and what the meaning is behind a specific object.

  • Flashback and Foreshadowing: I love flashbacks! I think they are so important to the story. I have them go back into their books and sticky flashbacks and how they could connect to things that happened later in the story. I've actually written a sequel to "The Pedestrian" by Ray Bradbury for this exact reason. Click below for that!

  • Character Change: These books focus on character change SO much. The metamorphosis of characters is so I have the students think about what moments lead to the change and what pressured him/her to change.

When the unit is done, the students come together to do a one-pager! I actually have them do it on poster board so they can all work on it together

Bottom Line

6th graders CAN do dystopian literature as long as it is dealt with delicately, while also getting them to think and ask questions.

You're not teaching them what to think; you're teaching the how to think. You want to be careful not to push any sort of political opinions, especially in this fragile word, but you want to encourage them to question.

You can get this unit below! Just keep in mind that it aligns with Lucy Calkins' unit so no lesson plans are included.


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