Friday, May 15, 2015

Dystopian Fiction: 7th/8th Grade Fiction Project/Seniors' Final Project

After reading Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal" with my seniors, I decided it would be a great idea to make their final project revolve around dystopia.

In fact, I liked the idea so much that I extended the lesson over to my 7th and 8th Grade classes as well. That is the beauty of dystopia: the central ideas of the genre can be understood by people of all ages.

What is a dystopia?

A dystopia is a world that is marketed as a utopia but which really, well, sucks. To get a better grasp of the genre, checkout this flowchart from Erin Bowman's blog:

Because we had had such an in-depth discussion of "A Modest Proposal," I briefly covered dystopias with my seniors and then turned them loose on their fiction assignment (with idea generation and worldbuilding help, of course).

Understanding dystopias in middle school

With my 7th and 8th Graders, I eased them into the concept of a "dystopia" by first reading Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron" and Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day."

After reading both texts, I had students compare the two short stories in a class discussion. Students were throwing out great observations like:

  • Everything seems perfect, but it isn't
  • People are told what is happening to them is for their own good, but they are suffering from it in some way
  • Both stories take place in the future
  • There is one character who is different from everyone else and gets punished for being different
  • Technology plays a big role in both stories

After our class discussion, I passed out this handout on dystopias from ReadWriteThink.

We spent a good deal of time talking about the characteristics of a dystopia and relating those characteristics back to both Vonnegut's and Bradbury's story. Because students were struggling with some of the large, complex terms on the handout ("bureaucratic," "totalitarian," "propaganda"), we then adapted the list of dystopian controls to read as follows:

Corporate control: when a large corporation controls an entire society by controlling the products the society can buy (I used the Umbrella Corporation from Resident Evil as an example).

Bureaucratic control: when the government prevents you from doing what you want to do with "red tape" (I understand labeling "bureaucratic"as "governmental" is too generalistic, but I needed something my 11-to-14-year-olds could comprehend easily so the lesson could continue).

Technological control: when society is controlled by technology (I referenced I, Robot and The Matrix as examples for this one; I had to explain to them the premise of The Matrix, but I think my point got across).

Philosophical/religious control: when a single religion is forced on the society, and the society is governed/punished by the "laws" of that religion (I put this in perspective for them by roleplaying, claiming that I was a Pastafarian priestess, and all students who did not worship Our Great Spaghetti Lord in the Sky would be drowned in a vat of tomato sauce. They laughed a lot, and it was a fun way to give them a religious example without pulling traditional religions into the conversation in an offensive way).

We spent some time over the next couple of days illustrating our personal utopias and how our utopias could be someone else's dystopia (which is the underlying problem with any utopia).

Next week, students are going to start writing their own dystopian short stories. I look forward to having some great worldbuilding conversations with them, and giving out great homework like "The Creeper Assignment."

BONUS: You can rent "2081," a short film-adaptation of "Harrison Bergeron," from YouTube for 2.99!

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