Back to the Future: The Rise of Dystopian Literature

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One of my favorite novels to teach is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I have taught it twice a year for at least nine of my fourteen years teaching, and it remains a fresh favorite for me. The majority of my students typically enjoy it, as well; but until recently, most of my avid readers did not connect Brave New World to other books they were reading. Enter The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Finally, students are talking about and making connections to dystopian literature! Below are three reasons dystopian literature has a distinct place in the modern classroom.

  • Dystopian literature is the “it” item in modern YA.

If you ask a classroom of high schoolers how many of them have read The Hunger Games and/or the Divergent series, you will find a majority have read (or at least seen the movies) one, if not all, of the books. Even most of the non-recreational readers in the class will know what you are talking about when you reference these series. They read what captures their attention, and reading dystopian literature is now at the top of the list. If we want to continue to engage our students, we must give them what they want, and right now, they want dystopian literature. Many of them will be surprised that classics such as Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World can go toe to toe (and surpass, even) their current literary flings.

  • Dystopian literature has characters and situations to which students can relate.

Tris and Four in Divergent, Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games, these characters connect with high schoolers because they are close in age and go through some of the same emotions and troubles in which current students find themselves. From the older novels, John and Lenina in Brave New World, or Winston and Julia in 1984 share similar struggles. Same song and dance, and students still connect. Winston and Julia may be a bit more mature in years, but the mentality and the struggle are the same. While our students may not be battling the government and the injustices prevailed upon them by that government, they are dealing with fitting in, being the new kid, having a crush on someone, or facing a friend who has a crush on them. Maybe they’re dealing with parents who are absent (1984) or embarrassing (Brave New World) or abusive (Divergent) or any other combination found in these modern novels. The point is: students are relating, and students are reading. Avid readers grow into more articulate students, both in speech and in writing. Our goal as English teachers is to mold students into creative thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong readers. Dystopian literature can help encourage this and maintain that spark of interest that could fuel a fire for a lifetime.

  • Dystopian literature links students to the issues of today.

Today’s high school students can be quite vocal about their opinions on today’s social, economic, and political milieu. These dystopian novels put into perspective the elements of their world that make them relevant. While they may feel like they’re having to rid themselves of all competition around them or form alliances to make it through a tough class in one piece, students see their environments in these stories. The safe space of the future helps them to displace some emotions, but many of them will see the connections between the ruling classes in these novels and the ruling elite of our present day. It opens the conversation across curriculums, from history to science and technology to sociology and psychology. When they address the same issues in the older dystopian novels, they are often surprised at the “predictions” that have come to pass. Some of my best classroom discussions come from these dystopian worlds connecting to our own little dystopias.

One of the things I love about teaching and referencing dystopian literature is the awareness it brings. These novels always have a way of reminding my students how important — and easy — it is to be kind, helpful, and honest; that is okay to be unique and to stand up for what is right and just.

What is your favorite dystopian novel to teach and why?

Jill Massey teaches AP Literature at East Wake Academy outside of Raleigh, NC. In addition to being a lover of all things British literature, Jill enjoys directing her church choir, cheering for NC State, and updating her dog Titus’ Instagram account. 

Teaching Beloved

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As excited as I was to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time, I was also terrified. With the conservative culture of my school, its reception was, as I expected it to be—hesitant, at best. Concerns ranged from violence to sex, and the pushback allowed me to reflect on all the benefits of teaching Beloved. Now, years later, the novel remains as a mainstay in my AP literature curriculum. KEEP READING

Defending Controversial Texts

Photo by Anna Tschetter

Fortunately, as AP Literature teachers, most of us have the opportunity to choose which novels we teach our students, which can be both a blessing and a curse. What happens when a student or parent challenges a book? I’ve had to defend my novel choices several times and have found that the most effective argument is based on multiple premises. … KEEP READING

The Benefits of Teaching As I Lay Dying

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Desiring to change up my reading list this year, I decided to add As I Lay Dying and am so glad I did because it has proven to a great choice. I feel part of my duty as a southern teacher is to offer at least one southern work for my students, and AILD perfectly fits the bill. The story of Addie Bundren’s death and her family’s journey to Jefferson to bury her offers multiple points for teaching and student reflection. I want to give a shout out Matt Brown for sharing his resources and encouragement; most of my lessons were s̶t̶o̶l̶e̶n̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶  inspired by him.KEEP READING

Start the New Year with a Mid-Year Evaluation

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Take a deep breath. This may be the last time you have to do this until May because we all know that once school starts back after break, the pace only accelerates until graduation. The new year is the perfect time for personal reflection and goal setting and the new year offers teachers a late Christmas gift – a chance to make mid-year classroom adjustments. This only happens with intentionality and reflection.KEEP READING

Begin the Year with Poetry

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For most of my career, I’ve saved poetry for the end of the year in my English classes. I did this for a couple of reasons. First of all, I LOVE poetry, and I tend to motivate myself by saving the best for last. Also, a poetry unit can be expanded or contracted to fit that awkward few weeks I often get left with in May – not enough time to start a novel, but way too long to just sit around watching movies. But, if I’m being honest with myself, my biggest reason for holding off on poetry was avoidance of the reactions of many of my students. When first confronted with poetry, the general consensus of my classes – at least the most vocal of them – is not an exclamation of joy. Introvert that I am, it is enough of a challenge getting to know a whole new crop of fresh young faces without additionally embarking on a journey as personal as poetry. However, I realized last year that the personal nature of poetry is exactly what makes it perfectly suited for the beginning of the year. … KEEP READING

Why I Do Not Teach Classical Literature

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There are many reasons why I do not teach Classic literature, so why bother talking about them? There is no point in discussing the enhanced vocabulary of someone who reads Cicero and Shakespeare. Likewise, there is little purpose in pointing out the countless references that even contemporary literature and culture make to the foundational stories of the Greeks and Romans. For the same reason, I will not talk about turns of a phrase that have passed into our vernacular from the giants of British literature and the value of understanding them in their original contexts. I am certainly not going to comment on the fact that the previous three sentences form a tricolon crescens, a grouping of three ideas, each of which is expressed with greater complexity. There is also the fact that this entire paragraph is an example of praeteritio, a device by which an author draws attention to something by claiming to do no such thing, despite that both devices have their origins in the literature of Classical antiquity and continue to be powerful literary and rhetorical tools today. I do, however, teach Classic, specifically Classical, literature, and if these benefits and their like are not the reasons, then what is? … KEEP READING

The Freedom to Respond: Q3 on the AP Exam

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The one question on the AP exam that produces the most anxiety is the free response question, Q3. I have had students tell me they become overwhelmed with the choices listed and cannot decide which book best fits the question. Or, they go in with a novel in mind that they know well, and the question doesn’t match their selected novel, and they scramble to make a suitable choice.

I wanted to find out which books provided the most versatility for the AP exam and which books students were expected to have read or have knowledge of in college courses. … KEEP READING

Cracking the Code: Language and The Awakening

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We dive into language with a unit called “Breaking Free”, which focuses on feminist literature. Because high school students are saturated in the literature of “dead white guys”, this unit is meant to immerse them in the feminine perspective. Before The Awakening, we study The Story of an Hour and Desiree’s Baby. In addition, we read The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood, which drives an entire class period of discussion. Students become outraged and mock the text. It is always one of the most lively discussions of the year and I just ask them what they think.

Because a student’s entire understanding of the novella hinges on his or her reading of the first chapter and all of the clues that Chopin embeds , I read the first chapter in class and ask students to mark up the text as I read. Much of the time, this just becomes circled names and actions. Next, I ask them to go back and look at it through the lens of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Forster, which they read over the summer. They get a little closer to the text and pick up on Chopin’s nuances– a primary symbol, characterization, and colors. … KEEP READING

5 Works of Art to Teach Critical Thinking

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With the emphasis on high rigor in today’s class, the English class sometimes becomes repetitive. Reading, writing, and discussion are the staple of a successful class, and these must be done. Art, however, is one of the most underutilized resources in today’s AP class. The Roman poet Horace claimed, “A picture is a poem without words” meaning art and written word are different mediums of expression. Art offers students a break from written words while continuing to develop the same skill set needed to be successful readers through challenging students to think both critically and analytically.

Here are a few examples of how I use art in class: … KEEP READING