Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sketching out some thoughts about my next unit

Been thinking a lot about my next unit, which involves the novels 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It seems like the two novels present golden opportunities to examine some of the critical issues facing us today. And like I did last year, I'm thinking of using this unit to introduce students to individual blogging. Not sure if it's my tendency to stick with what I am familiar with or if there is something intrinsic about this unit that lends itself to such endeavors. What is it about a pair of books - both over 50 years old - that would steer me to naturally pair them with use of the latest 21st Century digital learning tools?

Ok, I admit that I am focusing my planning around a digital tool (a blog) rather than deeper deeper critical thinking skills, but it's a start...

Both novels were written as warnings. Warnings about the dangers that the authors envisioned for our societies. In both novels, questions concerning individual privacy, government power, use of propaganda, and social interactions are all raised. Orwell's 1984 focuses on the dangers of a totalitarian, omnipotent government that seeks to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, even their thoughts. Fahrenheit 451, on the other hand, takes a little more indirect approach in its attack on the perils of government power. Bradbury's warning seems to be more focused on what happens when the citizenry loses its desire - and ability - to think for themselves.

For this unit, I'm interested in places I can find common ground. I've taught both novels before, and usually as a tandem: students have a choice of either novel, and we use a Literature Circles model for classroom discussions. Students are grouped according to their novel choice. This year, things are a bit different. The English 10 classes now have an honors option element. The class is still heterogeneously grouped, but students can opt to demonstrate more breadth and depth of understanding to earn an honors distinction on their transcripts. As a result, the students taking the honors option are required to read both novels, while the other students only need to select one. A different challenge for me, but one that I think has helped prod me to focus on tightening the connections.

Then I got to thinking of what I'd like students - both honors and non-honors - to get out of this unit at the end. I, of course, want them to be awed by the powerful style in which Orwell tells his disturbing story, and I want them to appreciate the symbolism and figurative language Bradbury uses in his tale. That's typical high school English class fare, which is fine, but I need to push them (and me) to frame these issues and ideas in our world. I narrowed down their messages to four common threads, or issues:

  1. The threats to individual privacy

  2. The dangers of governmental power

  3. The power of information, propaganda, and language distortion

  4. The potential for mindless entertainment to stifle individual thinking (this one is more tilted towards Fahrenheit 451, than 1984, but...)
All four of those common threads/issues seemed to open a doorway between the societies in the novels and ours today. Aren't we still grappling with these issues almost every day? Or if we are not - as maybe is the case with the students - then maybe we should be, right? These ideas will serve as a focus for when the students start reading and researching relevant issues in our world today. The blog, as mentioned before, will help them achieve that purpose.

I'm still fine-tuning the details, but it's beginning to come into clearer focus...

No comments: