Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Art of Dystopia

Today I taught what may have been the best lesson of my entire teaching career thus far. It probably never would have happened if I didn't work in such an amazing school. I was given the opportunity to design a new class. I decided on "Post-Apocalyptic Worlds and Dystopias in Literature." Today was day two.

On day one, I asked students to write about society. What is it? What makes a society function? What makes a society perfect? While students did this I handed them each a number (1-4) that we would refer to shortly. What I didn't tell them was that I was grouping them heterogeneously. We shared out responses to the writing prompts and discussed them. Then I told students to think of our classroom as a society and think about what they need to make the classroom a perfect learning environment. Students said things like communication and respect before I interrupted them and showed them my list of 5 rules one by one.

The Dystopian Classroom Rules
At first, they just thought I was a really traditional, really strict teacher. Slowly, they began to catch on. This was just too crazy to be for real. Before there could be too much dissent, I introduced their first task.

The kids mostly laughed as I passed out the four assignments. Group #1, the so-called "Smartest Group" was given 10 simple math problems to solve. As they completed the task they were given an overwhelming amount of positive praise, golden stars, and candy. Group #2, the "second smartest" was given a black and white drawing to color in with crayons. Group #3, "the second dumbest" was asked to write in 150 words why my classroom is perfect. Lastly, Group # 4, the "dumbest group" was given a science report about Ecological Problems in Latvian and told to write an article about it. The students played along, laughing,  as I passed out their "daily pill" and said the most absurd things to each group.

Finally, we reflected on the process and discussed how these types of rules and systems might be put into place, how people could slowly be manipulated into thinking this was an effective educational model and even connected it to "tracking"-- a legit practice where students are homogeneously grouped into classes based on academic performance and ability. They left class that day having the first-hand experience of living in a Dystopian society.

Today, we started our first piece of literature, Kurt Vonnegut's "2 B R 0 2 B" (pronounced to be or naught to be). After a philosophical discussion about life, death, and immortality, we reviewed characteristics of an utopian and dystopian society then started reading the story aloud together. Slowly kids began volunteering to read. Kids were actively annotating the text, even pausing while reading to react and ask questions. In my six years of teaching, I have never seen a class so engaged in a reading. It was an incredible sight. Kids were analyzing the text aloud, trying to decipher the underlying meaning of a song. Noticing the repetition of the color purple and wondering what it might symbolize before one student said, "Well, traditionally purple symbolizes royalty or being upperclass so maybe in this case since the gas chamber workers are wearing purple it's like death is a path to the upper class or even royalty." I was blown away.

We ran out of time halfway through the story. I asked the class if they could finish reading the story over their weeklong February break and it was unanimous-- "YES!"
"Holy shit," I thought. "They are so into this."

After class I went back to my room, entered my attendance and emailed advisors about absences with a minor addition. I also gave a shout out to some of the students who were in class. Many of these students have taken other classes with me. They've been excessively absent, they're constantly late, or rowdy or just refuse to do the written assignments. Among colleagues, some have jokingly been referred to as "the bad boys" for cutting class and getting stoned during the school day. I looked at the list and hit send. Then I thought, "I need to email the students too."

And so I did.

Dear [the seven anonymous students],
I just wanted to thank you for being especially AWESOME in class today. Whether it was being on time for class or participating actively with insightful comments or actively annotating the text or just volunteering to read aloud, you all did something great today. I'm so glad to have you in class. Keep it up!

Hope you guys have a great break and you enjoy reading the rest of 2BR02B. Can't wait to discuss it when we get back to school.


And what I didn't say, but felt so strongly, was thank you for reminding me why I love being a teacher.