Academic journal article English Journal

Teaching Students the "What-Ifs": Conversations on YA Speculative Fiction

Academic journal article English Journal

Teaching Students the "What-Ifs": Conversations on YA Speculative Fiction

Article excerpt

of YA speculative fiction is now, because these stories raise questions very relevant to an increasingly unsafe and intolerant today. Stories, which build a vivid world, one which is all too real, and yet somehow "off." - LAXMI


Tuesday morning, and a group of tenth graders is gathered around a piece of poster board trying to describe why the society in the novel they are reading is an example of a utopia: CHARLIE: So,

we are writing down that they have solutions to most problems. WADE: They

have that pleasant-contentness. FRANCES: They

don't have happiness, but that would be something that society needs. There is

something about the way young adult (YA) speculative fiction addresses moral and ethical issues that exist in an imaginary world that students want to talk about. As Laxmi Hariharan notes, the questions raised in speculative YA fiction are relevant to students who live in a world that seems unsafe, impenetrable, and intolerant. Speculative YA fiction features characters that students can relate to and serves to help students think through what it means to take a stand, to be unique, and to try to make the world a better place. Often that means the young adults in these novels destroy the "pleasant-contentness" that exists in these societies, which our students describe in the opening conversation. In this article, an ELA teacher, a teacher educator, and a graduate student examine a group of tenth graders who read Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman in their English language arts (ELA) class with their teacher Emily Peters. We found that students held deep conversations about death, equity, and the value of life to speculate on, and perhaps better understand, their own worlds and decisions that adults make. However, students'

responses to two questions- "What happens when a society has solved all of its problems?" and "What does it mean when we have become eternally, and pleasantly, content?"-did not provide definite solutions for the betterment of society. If speculative questions are those questions that address the "what-ifs" humans might take to advance society, then speculative answers are those that examine why the world is imperfect. Although the students never used the term speculative answers, the term characterizes their conversations about issues that must be mediated for society to be content. The students who engaged in conversations about their reading of Schusterman's two novels wanted society to become better; however, they found that their ideas of change have to come from their world-not the speculative worlds found in the novels Scythe and Thunderhead. They were unsure what that change should be, but they relied on the logic of the what-ifs to generate their conversations. their conversations.


Emily teaches tenth grade at a K-12 laboratory school affiliated with a university and located on its campus. She and Jacqueline are fans of Neal Shusterman, and when we saw the excitement some students had for the Scythe series, we were curious to know what they found fascinating about these books. Josh, a graduate student, and Jacqueline observed the two units Emily taught in fall 2018 on Shusterman's novels. The three of us met frequently throughout the semester to discuss ideas for the units and reflect on students' engagement with various aspects of the novels. Together, we examined which activities encouraged students to talk about the what-ifs in these fictional societies, in our society, and in their lives.

Speculative fiction says, "We've done it, we could start doing it tomorrow" (Atwood 92). While we are hesitant to argue that speculative fiction is superior to other genres, we believe it deserves a prominent place in our ELA curricula. Speculative fiction offers an important distance from present-day reality, including students' realities, and so promotes questioning big ideas. …

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