Teaching The Lord of the Rings: A Common Core Unit for High School Students

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is probably one of the most important texts written in the 20th century.  It is also a text that most students can read without much difficulty if given proper time.  Most teachers do not realize that the epic saga can be used to teach most of the Common Core Standards.  I have devised a unit for English teachers to use which is based on a unit I taught a few years ago when I was experimenting with using Advanced Placement style instruction in an at-level classroom.  It will work well for Common Core and will work for a freshman or sophomore class as juniors focus on American literature while seniors focus on British literature.

1.  Unit Thematic Questions – I ask several questions (meant for free-writing sessions) before we begin reading the text: What does power mean to you?  State several types of governments that you know about and explain whether they are effective or ineffective?  Why or why not?  What does it mean to sacrifice something for someone?  List three reasons why you would give up your life for someone and why?  Would you give up your life for someone? Do you think people have a destiny or are we made up of a set or random occurrences? These questions cause students to think about the issues that will arise in the text.

2.  Whole Text Reading – Yes, I know it takes a long time to read the entire saga, but students need to read the entire thing before discussing the text.  Would you go see a movie and then stop the movie every five minutes to discuss?  Break the saga into three sections (The Fellowship, Two Towers, Return of the King).  Give the students two to three weeks to read the first two sections and one to two weeks to read the third.  We read some days using sustained silent reading, some days I pair them off with students who are at the same speed (one strong reader with one weak reader) and some days I read the text to them as they follow along.  I give periodic pop quizzes to ensure they are not being lazy. No one is allowed to discuss the text until we finish a section.

3.  Talking to the Text – (Note: I use this method for all of my reading assignments anyway)  As students read, I have them “talk to the text” by writing about their experiences and thoughts. Comments must first ask a question framed in the format provided them and then they must answer their own question using text evidence.  I also grade for spelling and grammar.  They have three options (in increasing difficulty and points possible) since I cannot allow them to write in their books (the option I wish they had):

A)  Post-It Notes – Students may use this format to receive a grade of “C” but more detailed post-its can garner a higher grade.  It all depends on the detail of the commentary.  Every time a student has a thought about text that is poignant to them, they write their Socratic question and answer them on a post-it note and then place it on the page of the text they are referencing.

B)  Journaling – This method will garner a “B” grade but more detailed journals are capable of a higher score.  Students must make a two column journal in which they state the page reference and maybe the quote of text in the left column with their Socratic question and answer in the right column.

C)  Graphic Organizer – This format is the most detailed and ensures an “A” grade if the student does their best.  The following website gives several examples of different types of graphic organizers.  I review all of this information with my students in the first few days of school to ensure that they understand the format of a graphic organizer.

All three of these formats are designed so that any student of any learning level may participate in the unit and gain something from it.  In the U.S., we also teach students who are on Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) because they are learning disabled or have other disabilities.  Common Core is requiring us to mainstream these students more and more and they are expected to perform at the same level as at-level students with help from special education team-teaching.   This method allows for flexibility so that all students can participate in the discussion which comes later.  The Tolkien Society provides some resources for students with special needs.

4.  Discussion – Depending on class size, I try to keep discussion groups to a maximum of seven members and I mix them based on reading level.  I do not participate in discussion other than keeping students focused on the text for support of answers to other student queries.  I also point out literary terms that students may recognize the author using but for which they do not know the name.  Discussion of each section lasts for three days, but be flexible with this time.  If students are engaged and learning, don’t cut them off.  Let them explore.  I usually follow the following format:

Day 1 – Each student first presents one thing about the novel that they discovered through “talking to the text”.  If students have comments, they are to write them down and save them for when group discussion occurs.  Comments may be about something students liked or hated, a character or scene upon which they wish to comment, their favorite Post-it note, or something that confused them.  After everyone has stated their one point, the discussion can begin in an orderly fashion.

Day 2 – Review the notes of the previous day’s discussion.  Re-read controversial or difficult passages of the text.  Examine evidence for student findings and seek further insight in the language of the text.

Day 3 – Focus on the overall message or author’s purpose concerning the text.  This may be the day that I shift the focus toward something that everyone has been touching on in discussion but have not quite scratched the surface.  For example: “Everyone seems to be discussing the character of Aragorn more than others.  Why do you think you are so focused on him?” or “The ring seems to be the center of your discussion most of the time.  What do you think the ring means?”

5.  Daily Writing Prompt – Post a question on the board each day that has to do with the issues and themes that surface in The Lord of the Rings.  Have them write for 10 minutes without talking.  Do not clarify the question.   I use the following website and sprinkle some of my own questions or questions that students raise when they come to my desk because they just can’t hold it in anymore.  The questions on the Tolkien Society website are tough ones, and will make them think (especially high school students).  What better way to prepare them for college than to give them college level questions?  Grade the prompts using the following rubric:

A) Grammar and Spelling (5 points) – Yes.  This is highly important.  They will never learn from their mistakes unless you point them out.

B)  Did They Address the Question? (5 points) – Some students like to go off on tangents.  Did they address the prompt by restating the prompt in their answer?

C)  Did They Answer the Question Using Text Evidence or Examples? (10 points) – Students must answer the question using logical reasons and tie it back to what they are reading.  They may not have read the entire text yet, but they have read enough of it to answer intelligently.  This will be good practice for the exam.

  • 6.  Projects – I give students a choice of interactive projects which they must share with the class at the end of the unit.  Some of them are allowed to work in groups depending on the project.  These projects are worth a large grade like a test or essay grade.  Students are given an adequate amount of time to work on the projects in class and away from class.  I have allowed at least a week or sometimes more depending on the project and depending on the student in most cases.  Be flexible.  Here are some project ideas:
  • A Movie – Students produce an mpg movie as a group and then show the film in class.  The film must be created completely by the students and must teach an aspect of the novel that arose during student discussion.  Students must provide a screenplay.  It must teach as well as entertain.
  • A Playlist – Students may devise a playlist of songs (at least 10) which illustrate characters, themes, symbolism or any other literary devices found in the novel.  They must print out the lyrics and provide a paragraph for each song giving a rationale for the inclusion in the playlist and what each song is illustrating.
  • Craft Project – Students who are creative usually love this one.  Students may make a wearable Crown of Gondor from Tolkien’s description (it looks a little like a dunce cap with wings…no kidding), an original painting, make clothing described in the novels and then wear them to class, create a sculpture of the Balrog as it is described or a multitude of other art projects.  Three guidelines: 1) It must be completely made from scratch.  2) It must resemble an object that Tolkien describes as he describes it in the text. 3) They must provide a written explanation for why their craft project represents some aspect of the novel.

These are only a few that I have used for other novels in the past.  The Tolkien Society has several other projects, from writing using Tolkien’s runes to writing original short stories and poetry inspired by Middle Earth.  I also use this list of projects and let students decide what they will do.

7.  Vocabulary – Students provide a weekly vocabulary list of words that they find in the text of which they are not familiar.  Students must define the word and use it in a sentence.  I do not include names of places or people in this list, but some students have in the past made note of any places or names of characters in the margins of their graphic organizers or journals.  Each list should be different depending on the reading level of the student.  If students are turning in identical lists, you will know something is up (wink).

8.  The Test – My test is an essay exam, and I use one of the questions listed on the Tolkien Society website to theorize a question.  The question must start with the key words on the top three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I grade for grammar, spelling, organization, support of ideas with text evidence and logical sequencing.  Students have the entire class period to write.  I use a rubric like the following pdf.  It contains a middle school and high school writing rubric designed for Common Core.

Common Core Standards Taught With This Unit: The beauty of this unit is that it has the potential to teach ALL of the common core guidelines except for W.8 and W.9 which are research based.  However, students can research anything they wish about Tolkien or about the text because there are literally thousands of scholarly articles written about the text as well as his life.  It only takes a bit of creative work on your part, and isn’t that what teachers do best?

If you have taught The Lord of the Rings using the Common Core standards, then please post any methods you use below.  I am sure many teachers reading this blog (including the one who wrote it) will appreciate it.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “Teaching The Lord of the Rings: A Common Core Unit for High School Students

  1. I SO wish I had a teacher like you when I was in high school!! This is quite possibly the greatest assignment idea I’ve ever seen! 🙂

  2. I think being taught something like LOTR during lower high school years is a great idea. In general I was quite disappointed with the books we studied in grades 8, 9, and 10; none of them were challenging, and I felt were being underestimated. Your unit looks just fantastic, and your blogs at giving me the LOTR itch – have to re-read soon :).

  3. Hi Roger thank you so much for following my blog. I am honored. I am a follower of yours too. It’s very interesting and I enjoy reading your posts. cheers Judy

  4. Wish I taught down the hall from you, Roger. If this is an indication of the way you structure units and lessons, we have very similar processes and expectations. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of reading the entire text! I love that you use so many methods for reading, including teachers reading TO students. Students NEED to hear a more advanced reader read aloud, even in high school (and beyond, I would argue). Recitation and reading aloud is so foundational for developing cadence, pacing, and an ear for language.

  5. I don’t often wish I was back in high school, not that I didn’t enjoy it at the time, but I really wish I could take your LOTR class. I know you are a busy guide, but I’d be very interested in doing some kind of online version if you were to create one. You sound like a great teacher (or I sound like a big nerd (or both)).

  6. I was teaching when the movies first came out and so many students- and my own children – were complete LOTR addicts. Most had read the books on their own. This is a terrific unit. Though I taught quite a few “class” books, I usually tried to present a theme using several texts to allow choice, to allow students to read at their own pace, and to broaden the exposure to authors and titles. I’m loving your LOTR posts.

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