Orwell’s 1984 and the importance of teaching fiction: Response to Grant Wiggins part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of fiction in structuring our world views (in contrast to views expressed here by educational support guru Grant Wiggins — IT HAS SINCE BEEN REPORTED TO ME THAT THIS ARTICLE WAS A HOAX. REGARDLESS THE POINTS BELOW STAND WITH APOLOGIES TO MR. WIGGINS).

Today’s post considers the importance of fiction, especially fictional literature for helping students meet a specific set of academic goals: 1) developing cultural capital; 2) learning the science and art of analysis, close reading, synthesis, interpretation, analytical writing, metaphor, bias, propaganda, figurative language, and more; 3) teaching students to think and think hard about topics, themes and ideas that are important to our culture, politics, and government.

I’m an English teacher, so it seems like an example is appropriate. I taught George Orwell’s 1984 with my 12 grade students one year and it makes an apt point for discussion.

Using many of the practices detailed in Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design (
UbD), I began, as I do for all my courses, by creating a unit plan that outlines my outcome goals for students and the “essential questions” and “enduring understandings” (this is UbD terminology) that students will investigate during the unit as well as detailing the assessments I used to measure progress towards these goals and the learning experiences that ensured students met them.

The unit had two major features. The first was that I turned my class into a mock totalitarian state with class distinctions, new rules, harsh penalties for minor rule infractions, incentives for turning on their classmates, and even a mock expulsion of a student from class.*** The second was a Reading Group Assignment that intertwined with the first feature as can be seen in the following experts from this assignment sheet:

Rules: The New Rules will apply to all students during this project. However, Proles and Party Members are NOT allowed to report on the rule violations of Party Leaders. Only other Party Leaders may report Party Leaders.

..and…

1)      Reread each chapter together and outline a summary of the chapter

2)      As a group, discus the chapter you read. How would your group members (Prole, PM, PL) feel about what happens in this chapter? Do the events of this chapter positively or negatively effect the members of your group? If members of your group actually appear in this part of the story, what role do they play and why?

3)      Write a well-written paragraph or two explaining your answers to the questions in number three for each chapter you have been assigned.

4)      Create your own Utopian government. In the final part of the project, which we will begin next week, you will be asked to create your own government and society. Including the bureaucracy and the laws and policies. Instructions will follow shortly.

The unit was designed to simulate some of the social content of the fictional work while connecting its story and thought-provoking lessons to existing mental schema and developing new mental schema for interpreting future experiences. Furthermore, the students are asked to apply their learning in the personalized creative exercise of inventing their own model governments.

My UbD unit plan for the text focused on two key “big ideas” or “enduring understandings” as Wiggins and McTighe call them:

1) Students will understand the major implications of this vision of totalitarianism for individuality, free thinking, and creativity.

Students will understand the significance of the concept “big brother is watching you” (students will understand what the bumper sticker that says Bush I + Bush 2 = 1984 is implying)

Students will understand Orwell’s arguments that if you narrow the language and access to stories for the people, you narrow their range of thought–you limit creativity and, perhaps counter-intuitively, you undermine the individual’s ability to separate truth from fiction

2) Students will read 1984 as a literary text and analyze it for literary technique, narrative structure, theme, purpose, and relevance  in order to understand the central struggle of authority against personal freedom in the context of their own experiences and beliefs about governance and liberty.

I was fortunate to have an outside evaluator in my class for one day of this unit. In her observation notes she reported that I actively taught important vocabulary words both explicitly and embedded in the lesson. The words that day were all intended to give students cultural capital–they were words I believe people who have access to the culture of power know and use–pedantic, purges, and heretic.

Her second finding is even more relevant to why we might want to teach fiction (just ask any of my former students–Students, write in!). She wrote:

The section Gabe read to the class related to cutting down language and the “destruction of words,” in order to narrow the range of thought. As the class discussion continued there was one very interesting exchange between Gabe and the students when he asked why Big Brother (BB) would want to eliminate literature. He said, “Think of what we read this year…Why wouldn’t BB want us to read Shakespeare…Think of Hamlet.” At this point one girl called out, “Hamlet killed the king.”…”Yes,” he said, “Hamlet killed the king. BB wouldn’t want people to read stories about subjects killing the king…”and then he continued the discussion on the “slippery slope” to totalitarianism.

In the end, of course, my selection of Orwell’s 1984 is no accident. When someone famous and important who’s work has deeply influenced my own practice begins writing about “banning fiction from the curriculum” I hear the echoes of Orwell’s dictionary writer, Syme:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be now words in which to express it…The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron–they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed in something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be…In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

I certainly hope that we do not intend to create schools that serve the purpose of narrowing the range of thought to the point at which students need no longer be concerned with thinking. We should remember that authoritarianism is a slippery slope.

***For those who are concerned, all of the students were made completely aware that the entire experience was an imaginary simulation, although that didn’t stop it from being powerful and I did have to monitor how seriously the students were taking it and intervene occasionally as necessary.

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