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The City of Ember is considered a “post-apocalyptic” novel. This means that it describes a future of the world after civilization as we know it has been destroyed. This sub-genre of science fiction has recently been very popular with teenage audiences. In preparation, before even introducing any content (or even title) of the novel to your class, you might have a class discussion or individual journal write about why post-apocalyptic fiction is so popular with youth. In order to do this you will have to ask them about different books they may have read or movies they may have seen in the genre to get their minds thinking.
Knowledgerush.com is a website that gives a brief definition of post-apocalyptic fiction and examples of such in different media.
On Jeanne DuPrau’s official website faqs, she explains that the basic concept of the novel came to her based off of her experiences growing up in the 1950s when there was the public fear of a worldwide nuclear warfare. This led to the idea of what a city might be like that only had electricity as a source of light—and what might happen if that power source was beginning to fail.
Thinking about an underground city completely dependent upon a generator lead DuPrau to write The City of Ember. As part of the introduction to the book, challenge your students to imagine what such a city would be like. Remind them that a city underground with a generator would have different problems that they are used to. This can be used as a class discussion or an individual journal write.
Read DuPrau's “About” webpage to your students to familiarize them with the author. Ask them how various aspects of DuPrau’s life may affect her writing, such as her passion for gardening. Is this something we could expect to show up in one of her books? Ask students why she formatted her page as she did, using primarily her first name rather than her last time, displaying amateur photography, and presenting all of the information in a very informal and causal manner. You might also discuss why she may have chosen the three quotes on the page in particular to represent her. For example, why did she decide to quote a writer, a political activist, and her dog? What does this let you know about her?
Booktalks are short introductions to books giving a few exciting plot details but keeping the conclusion hidden. The idea is similar to a movie trailer—it entices the audience to actually watch the movie (or in this case, the book) without spoiling any of the surprises or final excitement. The following webpage has various booktalks about The City of Ember, compiled by Nancy Keane. Some are small and very brief; some are longer and a little more detailed. While booktalks aren’t great for long activities, they are good to motivate students to begin to read the book. If you are providing students with several books to read from which they may choose one, booktalks can be very useful in helping them to commit to a book which they will be more likely to follow through with.
The following prereading activity is part of a website prepared by Jennifer L. Hart to give teaching ideas about the novel: “Mock Assignment Day—Explain that today is ‘Assignment Day’ and students will get a job placement that will determine their future within the community. Distribute mock job assignments to students and give a talk about service to one’s community. Ask students how they feel about being assigned to a profession. Ask them to speculate on what kind of world they are going to read about, where people are assigned jobs to work as messengers, laborers, electrician’s helpers, and supply clerks.”
While this prereading activity is especially good, Hart’s Teacher’s Guide to The City of Ember has many other ideas for activities that could be used both during the time that students are reading the book and afterward.
Gay’s website contains quizzes, activities, writing lessons, and vocabulary that corresponds to every chapter or two. The content is pretty basic and perfect for younger students who would be reading this book (perhaps a little too simple for older students). The quizzes are very simple and well-written, containing mostly multiple-choice questions which will check students’ comprehension of the reading. Some of the activities include researching what a generator is, decoding codes, explanations of moths, etc. They give background information into different aspects of the novel or present students with real-life applications. Also included are writing lessons already planned out which tie the lessons (such as quotations, settings, etc.) back into the novel.
Walden Media, responsible in part for the production of the movie based off of the book, has a portion of their educator website dedicated to activities related to The City of Ember. Included are activities that help students become acquainted with various aspects of the book, including underground cities, time capsules, etc. The activities generally involve learning about
real-life applications and then have instructions on how students can build small-scale models or otherwise apply the information in a hands-on manner. The many activities explore various aspects of learning such as creative problem solving and group projects using different basic subjects ranging from science to social studies.
This website, though giving ideas for a final exam related to the novel, gives many good ideas of activities that could accompany the reading. There are writing activities, but others branch out into other subjects, such as art, music, science, etc. If you (as a teacher) haven’t already read the novel, you will need to read it first to know which activities are appropriate for which part of the book (this is important as the website is designed as offering ideas for a final, though many of them don’t include any essential information from the final chapters).
It is good to note that many of the activities listed on this website are not ideal for the entire classroom to participate in simultaneously. Rather, they are more designed as personal (or perhaps small group) projects which students will need to develop on their own.
The following PDF file is an action-research plan prepared by Kathleen M. Poe. The plan is designed with heavy emphasis on science, though it can be useful to an English teacher (or could even be used to create an inter-department project through English and science collaboration). Much of the article focusing on reporting results that Poe found in her teaching and studies, though it does focus primarily on The City of Ember. Thus it doesn’t work well directly as a lesson plan or activity, but it can give many good ideas upon investigation. It focuses on generators and alternative power sources, both in the real world and as they are used in the book. Page 4 includes a test of 10 short answer questions based on both the novel and power sources in general.
The following link contains two responses by teachers explaining (very briefly) different activities that they did related to The City of Ember. The inquiry was originally posted on a teacher online chatboard, to which both “Dianne” and “Jeanius” responded. The details are scarce; you’ll largely have to fill in where they just mention certain things. Nevertheless, it can be refreshing to read what other teachers (as opposed to some of the more formal education references heretofore listed) have come up with and be good to spark some ideas of your own.
Sanes’ website contains a chart that has mapped out different elements of false utopia fiction (which oftentimes is closely related to post-apocalyptic fiction). The chart specifically has various movies in the genre, but the most of the categories used can be applied to The City of Ember. In its current form, the chart is rather useless, but by simply using the different categories and ignoring the information on each movie already in the chart, it can be quickly modified to be a useful study of the novel as a post-apocalyptic work. It can be used either as a class project or made into an individual worksheet. The chart is also good at comparing various post-apocalyptic novels, which can be good for class discussion if there are certain novels or movies than many of the students are familiar with.
The following is a simple quiz asking different questions about the book, made by “Agent M.” Although it is a quiz, it has more of a feeling of a trivia game. The format is far below professional level, apparently having been designed by an amateur, but students at this grade level will probably not mind anyway. The main detraction to this website is that each student must have a computer available to participate, at the quiz is completely electronic. If all students do not have computer access, consider using a single computer and play as a class, allowing one or a few students to represent everyone. Or it could be possible to manually transcribe the quiz into paper format.
This website is a list of discussion questions compiled by “Mscognato.” According to the homepage, some of the questions are original and some are gleaned from other reading guides. While a few of the questions listed here could be used while reading the book, many of them are best discussed with a class that has completely finished the novel. The questions are higher-level questions, requiring analysis and evaluation. Although listed as discussion questions, they could easily be adapted to a short essay assignment to provide students with writing exercises. Furthermore, the author invites questions via e-mail using the address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kenan, Gil, dir. City of Ember. Writ. Jeanne DuPrau. 2008. DVD. 20th Century Fox, Walden Media, and Playtone, 2009.
You might want to obtain a copy of the DVD of the 2008 movie and show it to your class. Not only is this a good way for students to visualize certain elements of the book, but it also could serve as a reward for completing the novel. After watching as a class, discuss the differences between the novel and the book (for example, the presence of giant bugs and rodents in the movie, various differences in character names or actions, etc.). After the class comes up with various differences, discuss why the filmmakers decided to make changes to what DuPrau wrote in the novel.
Smith, Brian, Dir. The City of Ember. Writ. Jeanne DuPrau. Narr. Wendy Dillon. New York: Random House, 2004.
See if your local library has a copy of Random House’s audio version of the book. Let students listen to different parts of the novel in audio format and ask how this helps or hinders their individual visualization of the book. You might discuss specifically the voice acting or the occasional environmental noises. A good part to discuss the voice acting is any part of the novel that contains short statements of dialogue between two or three characters. The environmental noises are more difficult as they are only heard in certain parts of the book. One of the best is at the end right after Doon, Lina, and Poppy come out into the night sky.
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