My Crash Course in Dystopian Literature

[Fabulous print from Kevin Tong]
After the last ten days of reading, researching, and unit-building I'm fairly confident that we're all going to end up robotic, brainwashed servants of the government devoid of morality, ethics, and originality. Guys, we're screwed. Let's just all pop some soma and watch everything burn.

I'm on a committee that's redesigning the curriculum for The Common Core changes- I'm sure you've heard me complain about it before. This month's task wasn't so bad, though. Dare I say... fun? The unit we decided we'd work on next dealt with dystopias, suggesting that the tenth grade teachers in our district use the texts Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, 1984, and Brave New World. I had only read Fahrenheit 451, but know enough about the other three to BS my way through basic conversation. Knowing we'd have to get a little specific I decided that I'd hurry up and read the three I never had, both because I'd need the knowledge, but also because it was pathetic and strange that I had not.*

I read Animal Farm first and of course appreciated the allegorical and satirical aspects. Orwell is a genius and his book has become so engrained into pop culture that most people don't even realize how heavily it's referred to. I do have to confess that I hate the notion of talking animals. And animals that build things. Animals that write. Animals that sing. You get the picture. This is a "me" issue- I have  deep-rooted dislike for cartoons, so I think it's connected. 

1984 was next, and while it took me awhile to get into it, I ended up really enjoying it in the end (not quite as much as I like Fahrenheit, but probably more than the other two). I adore reading what the future is like when the future being written about has already gone. The propaganda component would provide an infinite number of possible lessons, and so many great conversations could arise in a classroom about the government's influence over us (plus the idea of spying and the NSA).

Finally, I read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Sex! Drugs! Rock and roll! Machines that emit sound and smell! The idea of creating a "designer population" was disturbing and the juxtaposition between London and New Mexico well done. Watching the changes in John (aka The Savage) and Bernard was simultaneously predictable and fascinating. I am curious how a more reserved, conservative teacher would approach this, though, since there is a great deal of promiscuity and drug use.

After reading these three and reviewing Fahrenheit 451, I met with my team and we designed a series of lessons that were centered around dystopian literature. The goal is to create four (or so) tasks and a larger project that could be used with any book, or series of short stories (like "The Lottery," "The Waters of Babylon" and "The Pedestrian"). Basically, they have to be generic... but specific. We ended up having students do some basic activities like a Socratic Seminar, using a graphic organizer to compare what was going on in the writer's time period to the events in the text to our current time period, and some deep reading activities. At the end of the unit they will be given a scenario about the government wanting to put tracking devices into citizens and will have to either create a series of editorials or commercials arguing for or against (along with providing textual support and all those other things English teachers require). We found a lot of interesting non-fiction resources and I'm thinking that there's potential for the kids to actually really like this one. Unfortunately, I'm not teaching it, since IB has their own curriculum, but that's another story for another time. 

I don't want to launch into a huge discussion of Common Core, but I will say there's a lot of misinformation floating around out there, both within the educational community and outside of it. I am by no means an expert, but I think this sort of unit is a good representation of a sort of shift that is occurring, and for the better. We're still using literature, we're still teaching important reading and writing standards, and we're still bringing in creativity. We are bringing in informational text, though, and we are trying to bring in real-world aspects (like creating more than just a standard written essay). Just my take. 

As a whole, I enjoyed catching up with some classics. This isn't my normal genre of choice (although I do love Atwood), so it was a nice opportunity to get outside my literary comfort zone. While reading I became really reflective on the idea of patriotism, though, and what it means to love your country... or love your country. How does intellect connect? Can you love your country and still hate the government? How much control should the government have? At what point to we sacrifice safety for privacy? Or vice versa? Obviously thought-provoking literature. 

*I hate the idea of feeling guilty for not have reading a certain text that "everyone" who is well-read has. Guys, there are a lot of books. We cannot read them all. 


  1. As a homeschooler/"nontraditional" educator, I know next to nothing about common core, so it's interesting to hear a few of your thoughts. Anything that helps make education relevant to students sounds like a win to me. My 16 y/o son and I will be reading some of the same books as part of his home education, including 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 (I'm still on the fence about Brave New World) :-).

  2. By the way, the first paragraph of this post is priceless. You sound like somebody I'd want to hang out with. ;-)

  3. I LOVE Brave New World. I read it senior year of high school, and it made me think so much more than any book I'd read up to that point. I don't remember the sex aspect being too controversial when I read it. I was (and kind of still am) a bit of a prude, but I guess my teacher did a good job of navigating it. (I think The Handmaid's Tale is significantly more sexually explicit and would have made me uncomfortable in school had I read it back then.) I think we focused on how the idea of intimacy and what's inappropriate were flip flopped in the book (the idea of family is taboo and sex is mundane).

    I would love to teach (or study!) a dystopian unit!

  4. This kind of makes me want to read Brave New World since I never did read it for high school or college. And I don't know a whole lot about Common Core other than some anecdotal stories from frustrated parents & kids (which I'm sure is not the whole story), but at least from what I am hearing, it seems like most of the criticism and frustration centers around Common Core math. I'm having trouble seeing a problem with the direction Common Core seems to be going for English though, especially since there is still an element of creativity which I know a lot of people are afraid Common Core will squash.

  5. I really wished I had read all of the titles you had mentioned in high school; I heard from other people that they did and I sort of felt left out at the time (my school took a different approach with the themes every year; at the end I think we were exposed to quite a varied selection of titles that were different from other high schools). At the same time I'm glad I had read them after I did my undergrad because I find I appreciated it a lot more, especially from a historical standpoint (though I only got around to Fahrenheit 451, errr, early this year :3). That's cool that you're taking part with the curriculum changes and the approaches in teaching these classics :)