Since I teach Senior English, I get to read dystopian novels in the the late winter and all spring. One of my colleagues used a genius assignment this semester: he had his students report cheating, skipping, or other unsavory behavior and he made them name names. The purpose was to pull students into the paranoid mindset of Winston Smith. I spend two days going over the idea of Big Brother versus Little Brother, because I think it’s important for my students to see the real world parallels in the things that we read. Some books lend themselves more easily to the application of ideas. One of the things I’ve noticed in the last two or three years is that my students have an intrinsically different understanding of technology and personal information than I do. They think nothing of taking someone’s picture with or without (or even against) their subject’s wishes and posting it online. They either don’t realize or care that their phones and other devices are passively monitoring everything they do.
My generation is more aware of these things happening and our response (at least based on facebook and instagram) is to heavily curate our lives for the audience of our peers. These kids will happily post pictures of themselves in bed on day three of the flu looking like crap. I’m not really sure what their meter for shame is most of the time. They are also in a generation that has learned how to monetize their online presence. I can’t begin to fathom how people make money off their blogs or Instagram feeds; the video entries I sometimes get. Other times, I’ll see a video of an old man doing weird things while shouting Lady Gaga choruses. I just don’t get it.
While my seniors get overloaded with various types of indoctrination (which could never happen to people here and now), they also look at the other small ways freedoms are limited or learning is inhibited. A few of them understand what I’m talking about; a few of them shut down weeks ago, because “they are so much smarter than this”; and a few of them will carry the seeds of what I’m teaching into the future with them. [I’m not sure which is worse: “I’m too smart for this, so I don’t have to pay attention, because you can’t teach me anything anyway” or “This doesn’t matter in my career as a __________, so I’m not going to do anything more than the bare minimum to get a D”.]
I want them to read The Scarlet Letter and understand that single parents have been around a long time and they have a tough road to follow. I want them to read Beowulf and think about what people are hiding behind their personas–and why they have those personas in the first place. I want them to read A Separate Peace and realize teenagers do stupid and damaging things all the time, but we can learn from our mistakes. I want them to read Brave New World and be horrified by erotic play and open indoctrination while they look for the hidden indoctrination around them. I want them to read Huck Finn and recognize that the people we marginalize have something to say and a lot to offer the world. I want them to figure out that every story is an opportunity to learn about human nature and the world around us; then, I want them to apply those lessons in their daily lives.
One of the two most disheartening things about my job is, that there’s a whole world between what I want and what happens. I do my best to teach my students how to be active readers, how to pull information out of various texts, and how to use that information. I can’t force them to learn.
I keep teaching these stories and searching for new articles that relate to the novels, I keep tweaking what and how I teach, in the hopes that I am making a positive difference for the majority of my students.
Ultimately, I want them to learn how to be true to themselves. Yes, I do this by showing them a variety of characters who are true and untrue to who they really are. I also show them characters who choose the darkest truth or the most evil version of themselves to be true to–they need to know how to control their darker selves in order to be true to themselves.