Truth is Stranger Than Fiction: Teaching George Orwell’s 1984
I started teaching George Orwell’s “1984″ last week with a few of my classes. Since we redesigned our curriculum this year, our choices for books have completely changed, and I was faced with a list of wonderful books, none of which I had ever taught before.
Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive about teaching “1984.” Not only had I never taught it before, I had never actually read it before.
When I read and fell in love with Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” my teacher at the time handed me “1984″ immediately when I had finished. I read the first few pages and it just didn’t hook me like “Fahrenheit 451,” so I put it down. Throughout the years, I’ve picked it up again, trying to read it all the way through, and I’ve failed every time. This year, during Banned Books Week, I made it my goal to read the book all the way through, and I did. When I got to the end of it, I realized just how relevant it is for our time — from Big Brother constantly watching to brainwashing through propaganda to a seemingly constant state of war – and I couldn’t resist teaching it to my students.
For those of you who need a small refresher on this classic novel, “1984″ takes place in dystopian London during a futuristic age when a dictator, Big Brother, has control over all of the citizens. They are constantly reminded, “Big Brother is watching” through devices called telescreens that are mandatory in each home. Citizens can be punished, or even “vaporized” for any action or thought — called a thoughtcrime — against the government. As the novel opens, we meet Winston, a reporter at the Ministry of Truth whose job it is to alter past news reports so they match up with whatever Big Brother says at the time. He keeps a diary about his complaints against the government — a crime punishable by death, to be sure. He meets Julia, a fellow dissenter, and, in a world where everything is controlled, including who you love, they fall in love and attempt to join the revolution.
I was a little worried, though, that my students would put the book down after the first few pages, like I did, never to be picked up again. With this in mind, I spent a good deal of time introducing the book before we started reading. I made a big deal about why the book has been banned in schools and libraries across the country (because, after all, kids will always want to read books that have been banned), and we focused on some of the controversial themes, exploring how students felt about them before we even started reading.
Once we started reading, the students were hooked. They immediately jumped on the concept of the telescreens that always have to remain on and which also recorded your every move in the name of Big Brother. They couldn’t believe that Winston is asked to rewrite history every time something changes so that the government looks as if it is always right.
However, that momentum only took them so far. After a while, they started to complain. “This is interesting and all,” they said, “but it could never happen. We wouldn’t let it!”
Our redesigned curriculum focuses not only on important themes and literature, but on making the curriculum relevant to students through the use of nonfiction articles that pair up with the novels we teach. When my students wanted to know what this book had to do with their lives, I set out to show them.
The answer to this teaching dilemma fell right into my lap. I was reading through some of the wonderful articles here on Care2, and I came across this one about schools using computer chips to monitor kids’ locations throughout the school day. If this isn’t Big Brother in real life, I don’t know what is. The next day, I started the class by asking students to make a list of all of the ways they could think of that the society represented in “1984″ is similar to ours. They came up with great examples, such as the advertisements we see on television, the war each of our societies is fighting, and issues with truth in reporting. None of them, however, mentioned tracking chips in student ID cards, so I handed out copies of the article I found, along with some of the other related stories it links to, and had them read quietly. It didn’t take long for the students to be come outraged. “This really happens?” they asked. “No way! How is that even legal?” they wanted to know. One student shouted, “It’s like Big Brother watching them all the time!”
More than anything, though, the students wanted to know why schools might implement a policy like this. I told them that it’s good for school funding, because schools receive money for every day each student is in class. I also told them that it can be useful for safety; knowing where students are in times of crisis can be invaluable to schools. With this information, we came up with a list of pros and cons to such a policy on the board. To my surprise, the students were able to come up with just as many positives as they were negatives. I looked at the list, realizing that my students were truly able to see both sides of the issue, even if they didn’t agree with the concept at all.
“Let’s have a debate,” I said. The students emphatically agreed. We split into teams of “pro,” “con” and “judges,” with many students volunteering to test their debate skills by joining the pro side, even though they couldn’t disagree more. The next day, the students were able to have a lively, yet civil debate about the issue. They not only impressed me with how civil they were, but with how well they argued both sides. I was worried the con side would win each time because the students so obviously disagreed with the concept of tracking students, but in several classes, the pros won based on the sophistication of their arguments.
The best part of the day, though, was when my students were filing out of the room at the end of class and I heard one student say to another, “I hope we keep reading tomorrow. I can’t wait to see how this book ends.”
It’s vitally important for students to think about these issues as the play out in their lives. Big Brother might not exist in real life but, as my students discovered, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Photo Credit: colindunn