Using Dystopian Fiction to Explore Citizenship
The image is iconic. Edward Snowden, pale and unshaven, sitting in a bright, mirrored hotel room, attempts to explain to the world why he leaked classified information from the United States National Security Agency.
His soft spoken plea for understanding lasts twelve minutes and thirty-five seconds and has more than three million views on YouTube. The interpretation of his actions is polarizing, his place in the historical timeline debatable. How will he be remembered? A hero or a traitor?
In defining Snowden’s actions we also define our views on citizenship. Which seems a little bit backwards, especially in education. We often tell students the general concept and then share the examples. But defining ambiguous concepts like citizenship requires an inductive approach, one where we need to look at many examples in order to define the concept, and more importantly, how each student applies it to their own lives.
I’d like to consider several questions here: How do we approach a definition of citizenship in our classrooms? Where do we find the examples of citizenship in question? What are the criteria we use to evaluate a person’s actions in terms of citizenship? And how does citizenship connect to the massive interest in dystopian fiction among today’s middle schoolers?
Citizenship is not clearly defined in many standards (Common Core or State Level), but in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills teachers are given some guidance in the 2nd Grade Social Studies Objective: identify characteristics of good citizenship, including truthfulness, justice, equality… responsibility in daily life…
Using these four concepts as a guide (truth, justice, equality and responsibility), students might construct criteria for evaluating the actions of others in relation to citizenship. Unfortunately these are slippery words – abstract terms that vary among cultures and resist applicable definitions in real world contexts.
Even in middle school, I’ve found that picture books can provide a shared experience and opportunity for class discussions or socratic seminars on these four components of citizenship. Some examples:
Truth: The Honest to Goodness Truth by Patricia McKissack explores the idea that there are levels of truthfulness. After reading the story you might ask, “Why might you not tell the truth? Should a good citizen be expected to always tell the truth?” You could spend a couple of class periods discussing the nature of truth and even bring in philosophical theory.
Justice: Emily’s Art by Peter Catalanotto opens a conversation about justice, or what is fair. Students share anecdotes about situations that they feel were unfair. These experiences open opportunities to understand different perspectives on justice.
Responsibility: Frederick by Leo Lionni gives students a chance to think about the nature of work and each person’s responsibility in a community. Conversations often focus on how lazy Frederick was, just lying around. Sometimes children may point out what is the use of surviving if you have nothing to live for? Yes, gathering nuts and food is crucial but so are ideas and art stories. Those are what we live for.
In The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, the discussion can focus on our responsibility with the environment as we look at the boy’s interactions with the tree throughout his different stages of life. The bookends of his life are far less invasive than the middle when he takes the apples and branches and eventually the trunk. The conversation might begin with a question as easy as, “Do you think the boy is responsible? Why or why not?”
Johnny Express on YouTube. This comedic and tragic look at a futuristic delivery man can also augment the discussion, as we evaluate actions in terms of whether they are responsible or selfish, at various levels of awareness.
Equality: It’s not a video or picture book, but the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut hooks readers with a memorable opening line: THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. After reading the story (here’s a reading at YouTube), I set up a simulation where I tell students that their grades have been equalized; everyone in the class is going to earn the class average this grading period. Some students rejoice and some rage.
I let students express their dislike for this idea and why they are so opposed and they point out that everyone in the class will stop trying. I counter by saying America was built on the ideal that “all men were created equal.” The usual pushback is that we have equal opportunities, but taking advantage of those opportunities is up to the individual. This is a fairly simple interpretation, and at higher levels the idea of equal opportunity could be explored at a deeper level.
Students synthesize these four concepts into a working definition of citizenship. They combine the four terms to describe what they believe to be a productive citizen.
Citizenship (and Dystopia) in Action
Students need case studies to test and evaluate their definitions of citizenship. This is where literature, and particularly the explosive rise of YA and other dystopian literature , is an ELA (or social studies) teacher’s best friend.
What’s the appeal of dystopian literature? Students love the what if. What if we lose control of this fragile egg we call society? The connection between dystopian literature and the students is that they imagine themselves in these futuristic worlds and test the waters of “Wow, could this really happen?”
Source: Student Infographic – FeedMeBooksNow.com
In living vicariously through these scenarios, students might also gain an appreciation for how well they have things now while secretly expressing their angst and rebellion against authority figures like teachers and parents. (Springen, 2010).
And in these worlds lives the dystopian protagonist, the character whose actions the students are going to place on trial, to evaluate and ultimately decide how the character’s deeds should be remembered.
In analyzing the actions of various dystopian protagonists, students build a character traits chart that displays many of the common characteristics of the dystopian protagonist. This chart becomes very important as they apply their work to historical situations later.
The common dystopian character traits are:
- often feels trapped and is struggling to escape
- willingness to accept legal punishment for their actions
- believes or feels that something is terribly wrong with the society in which he or she lives
- faces oppressors much more powerful than they are
- faces utter defeat or sometimes Pyrrhic victory
- helps the audience recognizes the negative aspects of the dystopian world through his or her perspective.
I do not give students these traits. As we work through various forms of text they look for the patterns and commonalities and build a list similar to this through their investigation of the actions of various characters in various dystopian settings.
Begin with Videos
When starting something new, like character analysis, I try to redistribute the cognitive load on the students so that they can focus on the new process with easier text. In this case, I start with video clips because the cognitive load is more on the analysis, rather than the interpretation of written text. As students master the process, I will redistribute the cognitive load so that there is analysis of written text.
Here are three great short videos (and one brief movie) to start the process of analyzing the actions of the dystopian protagonist:
- The Scarecrow by Chipotle Grill
- Routine Republic by Taco Bell
- The 1984 Apple Super Bowl Commercial. You may want to print out the voiceover for this commercial because parts are hard to hear,
- 2081: Film Adaptation of Harrison Bergeron. It’s a 25-minute film that tells the story “surprisingly well.” Also see: izzit.org.
After watching videos I bring in text via musical lyrics that students analyze for the voice of the dystopian protagonist. Songs include:
- Uprising by Muse
- Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who
- The Trees by Rush
- Radioactive by Imagine Dragons
Evaluating the Actions of Others
Once students establish the traits of dystopian protagonists we revisit Harrison Bergeron. This time, as students look at the text, we ask them a broader question: based on Harrison’s actions as a dystopian protagonist and using your definition of citizenship, is Harrison a hero, traitor, rebel or revolutionary? Please use text evidence to support your answers.
After this analysis, discussion, and opportunity to revise personal definitions of citizenship, students can now extrapolate their knowledge to a historical whistleblower. You could share with students names from the Wikipedia entry on whistleblowers or go to whistleblowers.org and begin researching, analyzing and evaluating the actions of whistleblowers and their role in history and how we should judge their actions in terms of citizenship.
If your students need a little more scaffolding with the process, you could visit the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers produced by PBS (see the trailer here).
To begin, students might look at these questions:
- What problem(s) influenced the actions of the whistleblower?
- What was the whistleblower trying to resolve?
- What conditions led to this problem or event?
- What were the effects of the actions of the whistleblower?
- What is the signiﬁcance of this event?
- What are some ethical issues surrounding the consequences of what the whistleblower did?
- Why is this issue so paradoxical to citizens in _________________?
- What happened over time that would cause a person to…?
- What do you wonder about? What are you puzzled by?
- What concerns you about the actions of the whistleblower?
- What issues does the whistleblower want us to be aware of?
- What should we be investigating?
- What are the consequences of it?
- What is the reaction over time of the whistleblower’s actions?
- What big ideas influenced the whistleblower’s decisions?
- What patterns influence the behavior of the whistleblower?
The students argue that the whistleblower they chose to study is either a hero or a criminal. And they use their understanding of justice, equality, responsibility and truth to justify their analysis. The final product can take a number of different forms but has to address these key questions:
- What are the responsibilities of individuals who encounter disturbing information that they consider damaging to those in power?
- When is it justifiable for an individual to go public with certain information?
- What is the society’s right to know versus the controlling agency’s right to secrecy?
- When does a claim of justice supercede a promise of fidelity?
The students create a plea for understanding for either the whistleblower or the society. Their job, using their evidence and definition of citizenship, is to explain why the whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.
Citizens with a conscience
Teaching is a hard job because the work is never finished. On the final day of school, when the last student hugs you goodbye and your room is an echo of memories, you realize that although those students have moved onto the next grade, their learning is not finished. They remain eternal works in progress, moving on to the next step of their transformation, from dependent children to independent, productive members of our society.
As a teacher, the best you can do is hope that the time you spent with your students will help them in the future, that their conscience has grown, that they will work to impose their free will in building their lives, and that, most importantly, they will take action when they know something is wrong.
David Sebek (@TheHeadKnuckle) has been a classroom teacher, literacy coach, campus G&T specialist, Future Problem Solving coach, and Destination Imagination team manager during his 20-year education career. In 2011, he was named the Texas Association of Gifted and Talented Teacher of the Year. David continues to keep himself grounded teaching middle school in Missouri City, TX. He is the co-author of Stand Up! Speak Out!: The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills (Prufrock Press, 2015) for grades 6-8.