Monthly Archives: January 2017

Orwell’s Powerful Premonitions

As a fiction reader, I sometimes experience confusion about what is real and what is not real, and this double consciousness can be dizzying — I’m seeing things for the first time, but they don’t feel new to me. I can’t deny that fictional stories have often informed how I experience my real life. When I meet new people or listen in on conversations, read the news or travel to new places, I feel a quickening in my mind as I shuffle through images and impressions of similar people, conversations and places I have read about in fiction.

I was holding back from writing about George Orwell’s postwar novel 1984 because the parallels are so evident and are already being explored by many smarter than I (see the great piece by Adam Gopnik that came out this past week in The New Yorker). But after this week, with the closing of our borders, the proliferation of blatant dishonesty, and the reversal of policies and protections that benefit millions of people, I decided to choose a single passage from the novel to help me illustrate the power of Orwell’s story.

To be sure, Orwell’s book offers a number of resonant passages. Where he explores the internalization of guilt and shame that comes from always being watched and recorded by the Thought Police. Or the systematic way in which the Ministry of Truth disseminates lies by editing, revising, and ultimately erasing history. Or the passage describing the hypnotizing effect of the Two Minutes Hate, when citizens get riled up and furious at a made-up enemy and then slide back into servitude and submission to the nonexistent Big Brother. All feel appropriate.

But I’m going with one concerning Winston’s neighbors, the Parsons. I’m choosing it because of all the things I am confounded by right now, the biggest one is this: when we close our borders, when we villify others, when we reverse laws that were put into place to protect human and civil rights, when we confuse and cajole people into questioning their own ability to discern the truth, I wonder, what are we teaching our children?

The passage goes like this: in the midst of writing his rebellious thoughts in a forbidden journal, Winston is summoned to his neighbor’s apartment to help Mrs. Parsons with her kitchen sink, which is clogged with cabbage leaves and human hair. Her husband is at work but her children are home, and they are both excitable and mean. The nine year old boy sees Winston helping his mother and says, “Up with your hands!” Holding a toy gun, he threatens Winston in a very real way: “You’re a traitor! You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy! I’ll shoot you, I’ll vaporize you, I’ll send you to the salt mines!”

Mrs. Parsons explains that the children are angry because she didn’t let them witness a public hanging. They are members of the Spies, a state-sponsored youth group, where they have been encouraged to verbalize, and act upon, their every violent and suspicious whim. Winston thinks, “With those children, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy… It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak — ‘child hero’ — had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.” Indeed, these Parsons children turn in an old man for being old and later turn in their own father who, along with Winston, is tortured and reprogrammed to properly love Big Brother.

In 1984, Orwell chillingly depicts what happens when a pernicious education takes hold of society’s children, and we need to pay attention to it even though — precisely because? — it is fiction. And we need to ask ourselves, what are our children learning from us right now, in real life?

Literary Guides

I loved Nicholas Noyes’ recent NYT article with pop-up illustrations, “How to Use a Novel as a Guidebook,”  in which he describes following Oliver Twist’s footsteps in London to see the city through Oliver’s eyes.

With help from a map of 1830s London, Noyes was able to connect as a 21st century reader/traveler with a place and a time long gone, Dickensian London. “Names of roads have changed. Rivers have been redirected underground and 180 years of development and decay have changed a landmark or two,” Noyes writes. “But Dickens’s description of Oliver’s entry into London is easy to follow. And following Oliver’s journey connects London’s 19th-century geography to the modern city.”

I was thinking about this topic — what literature is good for — in light of the winter edition of Independent School magazine, titled “What’s Happened to the Humanities?” It’s a question I think about often, as an English teacher facing students who may still love to read, but don’t feel they have the time or focus they need to immerse themselves in reading. It’s a question I think about from the perspective of an administrator heeding the call to provide more STE(A)M experiences for students, which can be hard to balance with traditional ways of assigning and assessing literary texts and understandings.

The good news is I’m not at all alone. I found a lot of wisdom in Janet Alsup’s article, “Literature in the Age of Google,” in which she writes that reading fiction is still very important for learners, and the reasons are more varied and nuanced than the potential connection between a 21st century traveler and 1830s London. “Identifying with characters in fiction is a complex, reciprocal experience that leads to increased empathy and engagement with texts,” she writes, which leads to “increase[d] inference-making abilities, empathizing with others, and valuing diversity.”

Reading literature helps us to forge powerful, if imaginary, connections between people and places and, magically, encourages real-world caring. Given that, Alsup’s question, “How do we encourage reading in an age of surfing,” is an apt one. Thankfully, she provides a number of good suggestions for teachers and parents alike: expose children to literature, read with them, give them choices, ask questions that move beyond plot summary, help them to make connections between what they read and what they see/experience, and don’t assume that they will emulate the people or stories they encounter in books. 

I’m about to bring my seniors on a journey back in time to Victorian England where a little girl named Jane Eyre is tormented by a cousin in a grand house and argues her way right into a chilly school for orphan girls. With Charlotte Bronte’s novel as our guide, we will make our way through the byways of the 19th century and arrive at key understandings about Jane’s world and our own, understandings we can best gain from literature.

What I Learned in School This Year (2016)

I learned a lot this year, much of it in and around schools.

I learned to be an instructional coach, I learned a skill set for antiracist education, and I learned to be a design thinker. I took four students to our state conference to present on leadership, I wrote book reviews for different publications, and I kept my blog going while teaching AP Literature to 16 seniors and partnering with my husband to raise our daughters. I lost sleep, got a puppy, and cleaned out closets. I spread my respect for John Hattie’s work on Visible Learning to faculty by running a professional development course using his book during lunch periods this fall. I started an innovation committee and pitched a new idea for summer programs.

It was a busy and rewarding year while also a very difficult and troubling one. I stopped reading or listening to the news for a time. It felt irresponsible of me as an otherwise engaged global citizen, but I couldn’t bear to look at the violence in Aleppo, the pain on the faces of protesters in St. Louis, or even the picture of the polar bears huddled together in the dirt because their icy home has melted. I traveled to France in June, just before the attack in Nice, and I saw and felt a tension I have never experienced in my life. Someone picked my pocket on the street, just a small pebble in the well of desperation and disrespect spreading across the globe. I sat with my own students as they cried and questioned in the aftermath of a police shooting in our community. I myself cried and questioned when Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump.

Although for others the events of 2016 were immediately and truly devastating, many of those same events, for me, were like little earthquakes in the night. I woke up safe, the tremors distant enough from me to do real harm, but I woke up changed. I don’t think I have been complacent in my life, but those little earthquakes in the night have jostled me into a new level of commitment and concern in 2017 – particularly for schools, students, and the future.

Questions I am thinking about:

How will I help schools continue to adapt to an ever-changing world where technology continues to outpace our handle on its effectiveness?

How will I help students continue to develop the skills and capacities to discerningly cull through the tsunami of news, information, critiques and criticisms that flood our inboxes and search engines?

How will I continue to help answer the question of what schools will look like in 2025?

These are not necessarily new questions. But they are vital ones that seem to grow more urgent each and every day.

In a year of great highs and despairing lows, one moment of 2016 stands out for me. It was a simple thing that happened just a few weeks ago: a student sent me an email seeking advice about what novel she should read for her extra credit project. Rather than consult Google or some BuzzFeed list, she asked me. Because I am her English teacher and, I think, she believed I would know what she would like, and she respected my opinion.

I may not know what school will look like in 2025 or beyond, but I have long believed, and still believe, that no matter what they look like in a physical sense, schools will always be fueled by one steadily beating heart: the relationship between adults who want to show and children who want to know. And because of that, I’m excited for 2017.