6 News Stories to Connect to Orwell’s 1984

Big brother poster by anarchosyn Big brother really is watching you. Today we accept a certain amount of oversight by government and business as a part of daily life.

Students know about all the surveillance cameras that follow them as they move about in the world. They realize the U.S. government tracks details on their income and health. They know that online vendors know what they buy and everything they looked at before they decide. They have all heard stories of someone who gets a ticket because of an act caught by a traffic light and toll booth camera.

Still, they can bring a skepticism to class when they read George Orwell’s 1984. Seriously, we could never be watched that closely, right?

Several recent news stories may make the answer to that question less certain. Have students read and discuss any one of the stories as an introduction or supplement to 1984, or arrange students in small groups, having each read a different article and then present the information and their comment to the class.

  1. Someone’s watching Granny cook her eggs. A new video surveillance system watches over senior citizens, monitoring everything from when they get out of bed to whether their eggs are fully cooked.
  2. Aunt Martha’s been in the bathroom for 30 minutes. Motion sensors track senior citizens around their homes, sending text messages to family when a possible problem arises. RFID chips track medicine and the inventory in kitchen cabinets.
  3. The scanner says you missed class today. Students must flash an ID card near the university lecture hall entrance to register their class attendance. The resulting information feeds into class participation grades.
  4. Alert! Preschooler has left the building! Thanks to a radio frequency tag in special basketball jersey-type shirts preschoolers wear, teachers and administrators can quickly tell when a student wanders off campus. The system tracks students at recess, in the cafeteria, and even in the bathroom.
  5. Why is Will still on the school bus? RFID chips and barcodes on student and faculty IDs and various pieces of equipment will allow a high school to track where people and things are at all times if funding is awarded. If someone’s missing or out of place, they can take action immediately.
  6. Your recycling bin may tattle on you if you throw away too many plastic bottles or cardboard boxes. In Cleveland, Ohio, RFID chips and barcodes will tell garbage collectors how often you put out the recycling. If it’s not often enough, your trash will be searched and you can be fined $100 if recyclables are found.


Student discussion of the articles can be guided with these questions:

  • What freedoms or privacy rights does the system affect?
  • What is the benefit of the system?
  • How would you feel if you were monitored by the system?
  • Would you feel comfortable using the system to monitor someone else?
  • How do the benefits balance with the loss of privacy? Is the loss worth the cost?

If students read and discuss several of the articles, additional questions can ask them to compare and synthesize the pieces:

  • Notice that the targets of these programs are either students or senior citizens. What do you make of the focus of these systems?
  • What other ways are monitoring systems used in America? How do the systems in these articles compare to them?
  • Create a scale that outlines how you feel about tracking and monitoring. What should always be monitored? What should never be monitored? What falls in-between? Explain how you decide where to place things on the scale.

Note that these articles would also make a great supplement to M. T. Anderson’s Feed.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by anarchosyn]

Even More Literary Ten Bests

the ten bellsCan you name ten memorable vegetables from the literature you’ve read? How about ten pieces of literature that include a shipwreck or perhaps a volcano? You’ll find lists for these and much more below.

When I went searching for the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian, I somehow missed dozens of interesting collections. These links will take you to ten of the best:

Always be sure to check for newest additions to the list on the Guardian site. You may find a new list that’s perfect for the texts you’ve been reading in class

Obviously there are more lists there than you’ll need for any one class, and some of the lists may be inappropriate for your students. There’s enough range though that you’re bound to find something useful whether you want to model a year-end activity with the literary lists of ten or try something else.


[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Ewan-M]

A Year-End Activity with Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Clock Showing Ten Minutes Till the HourThere’s not much time left in the school year, and you may find that students are uninterested in reviewing for final exams when they could be making plans for summer fun or a few days off between terms.

You can use the literary lists of “Ten Best” from the UK newspaper The Guardian as the basis of a student-driven exam review activity that can add a bit of fun and entertainment to the last days in the classroom.

If time is short, you can share a relevant list with a class and discuss the examples. Look for a list that fits the content the class has covered, or find one that lists a text that students have read during the course. If students have enough background in the area that list covers, you can discuss whether you’d change the list.

You can also ask students to extend one of the existing lists with something from a reading. Time may require that you narrow the options, so you can give students a list of several options from your readings and ask them to choose one or two to add to one of The Guardian lists. The lists on lotharios, monsters, and unrequited love are focused broadly enough that you’re bound to have read a text with some examples for at least one of the categories. If you’re teaching American literature, the list on American frontier would work well.

If time allows a more in-depth project, have students make their own lists, modeled on the examples from The Guardian:

  • Choose several literary lists and share them with the class.
  • Ask students to look at the both the things that are listed and the information included for each item on the lists (e.g., short plot summaries, descriptions of the relevant characters, and quotations). You might share the heroes from children’s fiction list and the books about war with students to demonstrate how images can be included.
  • Explain that students will make their own lists, using The Guardian lists as models.
  • Brainstorm some possible topics for class lists, based on the readings of the term. Encourage creativity. Maybe the class will come up with some options as unique as best tattoos or best pairs of glasses.
  • Narrow the list down to the topics that will work best for the class if desired.
  • Arrange students in groups. Have each group review the brainstormed options and decide on a topic to explore.
  • To ensure that everyone in the group contributes, ask each group member to find 3 to 5 items for the group topic as a homework activity. If desired, narrow the homework further by having each group member search through a different section of the class textbook or a different time period that you’ve covered (e.g., Student 1 takes readings from the 1700s, student 2 takes readings from the 1800s).
  • During the next class session, have group members share their suggestions and narrow their collection down to ten items. You might ask students to rank the items or announce that, like the lists from The Guardian, the order has no relevance.
  • Have groups add the appropriate details for the items on their list, following the models from The Guardian as a minimum requirement. If desired, groups might make their list more robust by adding images, sound effects, or music.
  • Ask students to prepare their lists to share with the class. Depending upon your classroom resources, you can have students read their lists, create overhead transparencies, posters, or Powerpoint presentations.
  • Once all the work is completed, have groups share their lists as a review of all you’ve read during the year.

The activity works well because students get lost in the task and forget that they are actively reviewing all their readings for the year. I’ve had students voluntarily reread texts to find evidence when they work on projects like this one.

Customize the activity as appropriate. If ten items seems too long, just adjust the number. “Five Best” would work just as well as ten. The number is fairly arbitrary. There’s nothing magical about the number ten after all.

Add a reflective piece, if you wish, by having students journal about why they have chosen the items they have (and why others have been discarded). While the examples all focus on literature, the activity could be adapted to other content areas. Students can gather the “Ten Best” scientific innovations they’ve learned about during the course, or they can list “Ten Best” historical documents for a history or social studies class.

Encourage more synthesis and analysis by asking students to rank the items on the lists. Groups might narrow their lists to the top three or four items. You can then set up voting that asks students to rank the top items. Take a look at Mother’s Day: 12 Of The Most Horrifying Mothers of Literature from The Huffington Post. Along with the list of moms and their descriptions, the article includes a poll that asks readers to rank the characters. The Huffington Post list may not be one that is appropriate to use in the classroom, but the online poll demonstrates one way you might invite students to vote (and it makes the results easy to tabulate).

Finally, you can tie the activity to the final exam for the course itself with these suggestions:

  • Give students a full list and ask them to narrow the list to the 3 or 4 best and to justify their opinions.
  • Have students take a list and draw conclusions about how the topic has been defined by your readings. Using an example list from The Guardian, for instance, you might ask, “What are the characteristics of a lothario, based on the characters listed as Ten of the best lotharios in literature?”
  • Ask students to transform one of the lists to an “Eleven Best” by adding an item to an existing list. Have them write an explanation of how the item would be appropriate.

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by cesarastudillo]

Literary Lists of “Ten Best”

Ten Street SignThe UK newspaper The Guardian has an ongoing series that focuses on “The 10 Best of” a variety of topics. They’ve covered a range of interests, including fashion, movies, comedy, politics, and music. Fortunately for those of us who teach literature, The Guardian feature has included these unusual literary lists of ten:

You’ll find that some of the lists are stronger than others. For instance, I was disappointed to find that the heroes from children’s fiction focused solely on white heroes, and the books about war failed to include Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. How could a list of best war books not include The Things They Carried?!

What the lists do extremely well however is demonstrate a great amount of creativity in topics. That’s certainly the only list of best pairs of glasses or best tattoos I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the lists are particularly relevant to current events, such as the best elections list published today. If you do nothing more than read through the lists, you’re bound to find a new text to add to your reading list—or a reminder of a text that would be enjoyable to revisit.

Come back tomorrow for a great year-end activity inspired by these literary lists!

Poem 13: “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse”

I have a running list of poems to include this month, but none of them were singing to me. There’s a bit too much stress in my world right now to feel very poetic. That is until I Googled around a bit and remembered "The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse."

What a perfect poem for a day when I’m feeling all my many bills and my very empty checking account.

The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse
A Supplication to King Henry
To yow, my purs, and to non othir wyght
Complayne I, for ye ben my lady dere!
I am so sory, now that ye been lyght;
For certes, but yf ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd upon my bere;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye,
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Now voucheth sauf this day, or hyt be nyght,
That I of yow the blisful soun may here,
Or se your colour lyk the sonne bryght,
That of yelownesse had never pere.
Ye be my lyf, ye be myne hertes stere,
Quene of comfort and of gode companye;
Beth hevy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Now purs, that ben to me my lyves lyght
And saveour, as doun in this worlde here,
Out of this towne helpe me thurgh your myght,
Syn that ye wylle nat ben my tresorere;
For I am shave as nye as any frere.
But yet I prey unto youre curtesye,
Beth heavy ayeyn, or elles mot I dye!
Lenvoy de Chaucer
O conqueror of Brutes Albyoun,
Which that by lyne and fre eleccion
Ben verray kyng, this song to you I sende;
And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende,
Have mynde upon my supplicacioun.

The Guardian Book Blog Poem of the Week has more details on the poem if you’d like background (or to see what medieval pennies looked like).

Poem 12: “Easter, 1916”

If the beginning of April must be marked with The Canterbury Tales and The Waste Land, Easter must be celebrated with a reading of William Butler Yeats’s "Easter 1916."  I think I learned 99% of what I know about Irish history from Yeats’s works. Maybe 75% would be more accurate. Need to make room for Synge, Shaw, and Joyce. Oh, and Swift.

I could spend this entry explaining all the historical allusions in "Easter 1916," but the Wikipedia entry has done a reasonable job of that already. I do wish their analysis addressed the duality of some of the imagery as religious motifs. Expanding that entry a bit would make a nice student assignment actually.

As I was exploring resources for this entry, I found an online exhibition from the National Library of Ireland (Flash required) that includes audio and images of Yeats’s artifacts and papers. Launch the exhibition, click on the "Interactives" button, and choose the "EASTER, 1916" resources. The manuscript images for the poem are represented by the four pages in the lower right corner of the exhibit case. Click on the pages in the case, and details appear below the case. From there, you can reach images of each of the 4 pages of the manuscript.

Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for a manuscript. While I can identify most of the words on the manscript, I do wish it were about twice the size so I could study the details more carefully. A bit more information on the manuscript pages would be nice as well. Page three shows the most revision. The other pages are relatively unchanged. Still, it’s the poem, in the poet’s hand—and that is always a glorious thing, especially to the part of me who would love to be a special collections librarian, free to frolic in manuscripts all day, every day!

Poem 11: “Jabberwocky”

Lewis Carroll’s "Jabberwocky" is wonderfully fun as a nonsense poem. Many consider it the best example of a nonsense poem that we have in fact. How can you look on the opening lines and not smile?

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

If you’re totally lost, the Wikipedia entry on the poem adds some definitions and helpful explanations, as well as an excellent list of allusions and derivative works.

The poem is one of my favorites to use in grammar lessons, especially when I was teaching sentence diagramming in a senior-level grammar class for English majors and pre-service teachers. Students had to rely on word forms and syntactical placement to figure out the parts of speech for each word—and since the words were nonsense, everything was open to discussion and multiple meanings.

I’m not likely to teach sentence diagramming again, but "Jabberwocky" is still a great poem to use for mini-lessons on diction and syntax.

Poem 5: “Locksley Hall”

Tennyson’s "Locksley Hall" isn’t the Victorian poem I like the most, but it is the one that gave me the publication bug. For a survey class, I was asked to write an analytical paper on something we’d read. I had gotten into the habit of looking up every mythological reference. Early in the poem, the speaker explains:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

I spun the references to Orion and the Pleiads into an explanation of how the mythical figure’s life parallelled that of the speaker. When the graded paper was returned, Professor Peter Graham had written in the end comment that he thought the paper was publishable. Two years later (damn you, slow print publication world), I had my first vita line: 

"Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall.’" Explicator 44.2 (Winter 1986): 23–24.

It’s one of those papers that I reread and wonder whether that was really me. I guess my voice and style have developed a good bit since then. But one thing hasn’t changed—I still want to see my name in print. A lot. Thank you Tennyson (and Dr. Graham).

Poem 2: The Waste Land

Because of the opening lines below, the other poem that everyone expects to hear at the beginning of April is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (I., 1–4)

It’s been dark and rainy all day here.  I had to ford a huge puddle, cursing myself for wearing the Crocs with the holes on the sides, just so that I could drag the garbage can back from the street.

The forsythia in the yard is making a showy splash of yellow,  I really should take some pictures of that forsythia, but I digress. Not even the thousands of little yellow flowers can brighten up all the dark, rain-soaked twigs and leaves that lie about, having lost the battle to a recent wind storm. The yard here is as much a waste land as any Eliot might journeyed.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve studied The Waste Land as a real reader. All my notes and research are still in Illinois, so I can’t even pull them out. Once I could read the lines and round up all the connections in my thoughts, but it’s been too long. The poem is a mass of allusions and biographies and mythologies that I have to check. I wish so much that I could grab my copy of The Golden Bough and my facsimile of the edited manuscript with Pound’s editorial notes. But none of that is within reach.

If I tell truth, at this moment, the poem is lost for me. I can’t read it as a knowledgeable reader. I can’t read it with the joy I once could. That fact breaks my heart. There are so many pieces of literature I laid aside in the past 15 years that I want to spend time with, that I miss.

Yet some essence of the poem has always stayed with me. Eliot speaks to some deep inner place in my soul, though The Waste Land is not my favorite of his poems. I’ll share that another day. For me, I think The Waste Land, moreso than, say, "Prufrock," represents modern poetry. While I’m a medievalist at heart, the poet in my soul wants to be a modernist. I’ve tried my hand at poetry, but all I muster are soulless heavy lines and "A heap of broken images" (I., 22). April does seem a cruel month at times.

Poem 1: The Canterbury Tales

It’s terribly obvious to begin with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it’s not here for the obvious reasons. This is the poem I think of every April. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t opened my Chaucer texts in years. These are the lines that I whisper to myself every Spring:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne;
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë—
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages—
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

I never think of a modern English translation. A college professor had us memorize those 18 lines when I was an undergraduate, so they’ve been tucked away in my memory ever since.

I had changed my major to English (from Elementary Ed) by the time I met up with Chaucer in college. He turned me into what I’ll call an amateur medievalist. I would never claim to be a true medieval scholar. I just don’t know enough to wear that title gracefully, but in my heart, I am a medievalist.

Everyone knows (well, at least those of us who are English teachers know anyway) that The Canterbury Tales is a great poem for beginnings—the start of spring, the start of an epic pilgrimage, the start of a classic poem.

For me, The Canterbury Tales kicked off my love for all things medieval. Occasionally I daydream about getting a PhD in medieval studies. It’s not that I have any great desire to have a PhD in literature at this point. Instead, I know that would be the only way I could justify spending days lost in medieval texts.

It’s certainly the only way that I’d ever get access to a real medieval manuscript. I’ve seen wonderful facsimiles, but if I ever had an actual Chaucer manuscript on the library table in front of me, I’m certain I’d break down in tears. The idea of it even makes me weepy. I’ve tried to resign myself to the fact that it will never ever happen, but on the first day of April, as I recall the poem that started me down this path, I think it’s okay to dream on it a little more.