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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Book Thief

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We've had a long chat with our pal Death, and we've come up with some ideas on what to focus on when teaching The Book Thief.

In this guide you'll find

  • an activity exploring the meaning of courage.
  • discussion questions about storytelling, gravedigging, and book thieving.
  • historical and literary resources, including info about Anne Frank, Art Spiegelman, and Elie Wiesel.

And much more.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: We all like to think that we could be brave under stress, like the heroes of a comic series or like, say, Winston Churchill. But the fact is, most of us haven't been tested. How do we know that we'd save the day if we had the chance, or that we'd even stand up for the right side?

For this light project, students will create "tests" that let them identify modern hot spots and measure their abilities to stand up for what's right. The idea here is not to make anyone feel bad but to make everyone more aware of how difficult it can be to choose the right side and act the way we'd like to.

Length of Lesson: This exercise should take 60-120 minutes.

Materials Needed: Just pencil and paper. Or laptop and fingers.

Step 1: Ask your students the following:

What examples of courage do we see in The Book Thief?

You'll want to list their responses, on the board, or a projector screen, so they can see just how many there are. And don't forget to sweat the small stuff. The point is, courage comes in many different forms—not all of them heroic.

Here are some examples of courageous moments your students might drum up:

  • Liesel, for stealing, hiding and generally loving people when her heart's been broken.
  • Hans, for dealing with Rosa, making good on his debt to Max Vandenburg's father, helping the Jews and others, and, oh, a thousand other things.
  • Rudy, for stealing, befriending Liesel, comforting the dying enemy pilot, begging for a kiss, etc.
  • Ilsa Hermann, the mayor's wife, for getting up every day after tragedy and taking care of Liesel.
  • Max Vandenburg, for so many reasons…

Step 2: Now, take a step back with your class and brainstorm some situations in which we have the opportunity to be courageous in our daily lives. Keep track of your class's ideas in a prominent place by writing them on the board or an overhead projector, or typing them up on the projector screen.

Here are some typical responses:

  • Standing up to a bully.
  • Talking to the new kid in school.
  • Signing up for a new activity.

Step 3: Break class up into small groups of 3 or 4. Give them the task of creating a 10-question multiple choice courage test that will help them determine how willing a person is to go out on a limb to help someone else.

  • Encourage them to think about the types of courage you've already discussed and the opportunities they have to be brave on a daily basis. 
  • Ask them to create questions that vary in levels of seriousness and difficulty (i.e. begin with questions about everyday things—"Your dad finds out you've used all the gas in the car again. Do you...?"—and move on to more extraordinary things—"Your elderly neighbor is wandering around the neighborhood with his clothes off. Do you...?")
  • Let them have free reign over the situations they describe and the questions they ask. But hey, you know your students best. Set parameters if you must to keep things running smoothly and make sure everything's above board.

Step 4: Gather the "tests" together and make enough copies for each student to have his or her own bundle. Give them time to take the tests (a good option for homework) and to report their experiences with it back to the class. Bring your sense of humor out to play: work together to create a "Spine-O-Meter" to score their efforts and give them a sense of how willing they are to step up and help out.

Step 5: Wrap up with a discussion on their findings. You'll definitely want to ask questions like the following:

  • What kinds of things or people are hardest to stand up for? 
  • What keeps us from doing the right thing?
  • What makes us "follow the herd" instead of our gut moral feelings?
  • Were there any surprises on the tests? Was it hard to be aware of the things that challenge us on a daily basis?

Step 6: Finally, have your students do a 10-minute freewrite in response to this activity. Remember: The only real rule of freewriting is that students must keep their pencils moving (or their fingers typing) for the entire 10-minutes, even if that means writing "I don't know what to write" 522 times. Seriously. Spelling and grammar don't matter, and there should be no editing or correcting during the process. They should just take a few seconds to think about the activity and then start writing. 

When they're done, collect their freewrites to get an idea of how this activity went—what students liked, what they disliked, and what they learned. The old check/check-plus/check-minus system should be sufficient for assessment. 

TEKS Standards: §110.31. English Language Arts and Reading, English I b: 5B, 13A, 13B, 18A, 18B, 19, 24A §110.32. English Language Arts and Reading, English II b: 5A, 13A, 13B, 18A, 18B, 19, 24A

Instructions for Your Students

We know you've done it. You step out of the theater after watching a movie where the young protagonist does the right thing and saves the day—despite horrifying risks and odds—and you think "Yeah, I could do that!" But could you?

Here's your chance to figure out just what it means to be courageous in our time, and whether or not you really have the right stuff.

Step 1: Talk about the idea of courage with your classmates. Since you've been reading The Book Thief, you can use that as your jumping off point. And don't forget to sweat the small stuff. The point is, courage comes in many different forms—not all of them heroic. So, with that in mind, what examples of courage do we see in The Book Thief?

Step 2: Now fast-forward to your own time in history. Brainstorm some situations in which a person your age might be called on to stand up and do something courageous. Remember that bravery comes in many forms and doesn't have to be huge. What happens on a daily basis at school or in family life that requires a little pluck and ingenuity? As you and your class suggest some options, your teacher will write them on the board so you can keep them in mind during the next step.

To get you started, here are some typical examples that might sound familiar to you:

  • Standing up to a bully.
  • Talking to the new kid in school.
  • Signing up for a new activity.

Step 3: Group-up with 2-3 of your classmates. Together, you'll create a 10-question multiple choice courage test that will help you determine how willing a person is to go out on a limb to help someone else. As you and your group write it up,

  • Think about the types of courage you've already discussed and the opportunities you have to be brave on a daily basis. 
  • Start with questions about everyday things ("Your dad finds out you've used all the gas in the car again. Do you: a) blame your sibling b) deny any wrongdoing and hide c) own up to it, take the car to the gas station and fill it back up?"). Then move on to something harder ("Your elderly neighbor is wandering around the neighborhood with his clothes off. Do you...?")
  • Use your imagination and have fun. But remember, even through the fun, you're trying to challenge anyone who takes your test. Make sure you've got some questions in there that will really make them think.

Step 4: When you're done, hand in your group's test to your teacher. Once your teacher has them all, you will get copies of everyone's test to take for homework. See how well you do in the really tough situations. Be honest in your responses—it's more fun and more accurate when you put yourself out there.

Step 5: Share your experience taking the tests. You can even work with your classmates to create a "Spine-O-Meter" scoring tool to find out if you have the right stuff—or if, like many of us, you still have a little work to do.

As you talk it over, make sure you ponder the following:

  • What kinds of things or people are hardest to stand up for? 
  • What keeps us from doing the right thing?
  • What makes us "follow the herd" instead of our gut moral feelings?
  • Were there any surprises on the tests? Was it hard to be aware of the things that challenge us on a daily basis?

Step 6: Finally, do 10-minutes of freewriting in response to this activity. Remember: The only real rule of freewriting is that you need to keep your pencil moving (or your fingers typing) for the entire 10-minutes, even if that means writing "I don't know what to write" 522 times. Seriously. Spelling and grammar don't matter, and you shouldn't be re-reading, editing, or correcting anything. Just take a few seconds to think about the activity and then start writing. When you're done, hand-in the freewrite and shake out your hands. 

Phew. Nice work. 

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.6

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