Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Teaching 1984, Then and Now

I've been working on 1984 resources all week, and it reminds me of the days I used to teach it in Bulgaria. I wrote an essay on the experience for Independent School Magazine, because it was one of the most challenging and at the same time fascinating experiences of my career so far.

The past meets the present in Sofia, Bulgaria. Here, a 2009 Christmas sculpture hangs suspended near a Socialist Realist statue leftover from the Communist era.

A Conversation with Orwell
Teaching 1984 in Bulgaria

My students know more than any textbook about Bulgaria’s Communist regime. Todor Jivkov, the party leader, invited Siyana’s grandmother to be his mistress for one night. Kety’s mother was his translator. The state took over Boris’s grandfather’s factory, but then allowed him to work in it instead of exiling him. He was grateful. Nina’s grandfather was less lucky; no one ever found his body. 
I didn’t know these stories the first time I taught Orwell’s 1984 at the American College of Sofia, in Bulgaria. I became more interested in discovering them after one disturbing day my first year here, when I found myself facing off with a student who had botched his final exam essay. After two months of class discussions focused on how Orwell wrote a dystopian book to try to get people thinking about civil rights and personal freedom, Alex had spent three pages arguing that Winston Smith achieved happiness once O’Brian had broken his mind through torture at the Ministry of Truth, converting him into a loyal party member.
“Maybe you’re just too closed-minded to see it,” said Alex in class, his voice tight. Flabbergasted by his response, I defended the grade I had given, pointing out that though he could have any opinion he wanted to about Winston’s happiness, Orwell’s shone clear from the pages. Smith was a destroyed man at the end of the novel. I wasn’t closed-minded, Alex was misinterpreting the text.
I started to wonder just what might be influencing Alex’s views, since I knew it wasn’t Orwell’s book. No one talked much about the political system in Bulgaria before “The Changes” of 1989, but those changes had only happened twenty years before. All my students had parents and grandparents whose lives were at least partially defined by the Soviet system George Orwell lashed out against. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, just one year after Bulgaria joined the Soviet team captained by Stalin. Though Orwell was socialist, he was also disgusted by the purges and lies of the Soviet regime. Most agree he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm to get people thinking about the role government should play in their lives (Court, Enright). Yet the novels revile individuals strikingly similar to those that would reign in Eastern Europe for years to come. How were my Bulgarian students, children of a history Orwell fought to prevent, supposed to react to his words? What was to prevent them from seeing Orwell’s novel as a condemnation of the history of their country, written by an Englishman who hadn’t the faintest idea what their relatives went through?
I could see the book from two opposing perspectives. Was it literature encouraging free thinking and civil rights, or was it propaganda condemning the Communist dream with exaggerated and disturbing images? I realized I had been reading the book uncritically, glad to accept Orwell’s presentation of his opinions, since I shared them. What tools had I given my students to question their text and create a dialogue between their views and Orwell’s? None. I had presented Orwell’s context, but I had never given them a chance to respond.
As an English teacher, one of my core pedagogical principles is that literature and life are intertwined. Each influences the other and keeps a human dialogue alive from generation to generation. What I wanted, now, was to provide my students a chance to converse with Orwell, to agree or disagree as they saw fit.
As I began teaching the book the second time, to a new crop of 10th graders, my first lesson was about propaganda. We discussed methods of influence and looked at examples from WWI, WWII, and finally, The Cold War. After reading the first few chapters of 1984, we returned to the subject. I asked them to write a short essay with their response to a question I still couldn’t answer. Is 1984 propaganda? After only a few chapters, some were already furious with the way Orwell was trying to influence them. One wrote, “After reading it, the reader cannot disagree with the author and therefore, shares his opinion and politics.” Another commented, “The negative feeling which is transferred to the reader, and the negative thoughts about the party, are propaganda itself.” These and many similar comments made me wonder if the American critics who descry the label “propaganda” for Orwell are looking at it from a comfortably Western perspective. It’s easy to say Orwell is just trying to make people think when you agree with the “thought-provoking” ideas he presents. As I continued paging through the essays I found a wide range of responses. One student thought the novel was “good” propaganda, “This type of propaganda kills all other types of propaganda.” Another argued simply that the danger was not in reading a strongly worded presentation of ideas, but in accepting them too easily: “By reading the book, everybody, who doesn’t think critically about it, starts to believe that socialism is the worst type of government.” As I scored every well-expressed opinion with the same 10/10, I wondered how I would keep the class thinking critically throughout the remaining hundreds of pages of ever-darkening imagery.
A few days later in discussion, Ivo, a bright and quick-tempered student, burst out with “It just wasn’t that bad!” I could see he was frustrated and verging on furious. Though we had discussed Orwell’s bias and his goals, it was still hard for many of the students not to take the hyperbolized world of Oceania personally. We were trying to discuss Orwell’s ideas for what they are, Orwell’s ideas, not some kind of universal truth, but it wasn’t easy. The students weren’t used to having school curriculum that they were allowed to disagree with. I decided to add some research into our unit for context. Each student would interview a family member or friend alive during the Communist era, and share with the class both good and bad elements of the time. We’d use Orwell’s fiction as inspiration to find out more about reality, and draw our own conclusions through our reactions to both.
A few days later stories flew thick and fast through the room. Everyone agreed that health care and education had been better under Jivkov, close ally of Orwell’s thinly-veiled version of Stalin, “Big Brother.” The streets were safer, orphans had better care and the layer of trash that now coats the city didn’t exist. Beyond these general concepts, the students’ stories varied sharply. Simona was disgusted to discover the government had knowingly let children march in a patriotic parade, while toxic rain from Chernobyl poured down on them. Mina’s grandfather had been a party hero, laden with medals, now eager to extol socialism at every family gathering. Velizar’s grandmother had to go to weekly lectures on the virtues of the party so she could stay with his grandfather, a party member. She told him society really was split up into proles and party-members. “I was surprised how much was like what’s described in the book,” Velizar said. Students presented a wide range of interview results – some made the party look almost as bad as Orwell’s novel, others extolled party virtues and championed the equalization of the classes.
As we finished the book, I felt better about the way I had taught it this time. I had no idea if Orwell had influenced my students, or if their stories had influenced each other, but at least I had made room for the possibility. One girl argued in our final discussion that no fictional book could ever change her opinion on anything, and another, that Bulgarians had their opinions formed about the Communist era long before they ever arrived in high school. But I wasn’t so sure. Orwell had influenced me, not by scaring me with his dystopian vision of a world where everyone is watched, but by forcing me to ask questions. Reading his frightening vision had eventually made me wonder about my own, and six weeks of conversations and research with my students had led me in new directions. I still thought Communism came with way too many problems, but now I also knew more about its virtues. I knew why some of my students would defend it until they were blue in the face and why others got quiet when it came up in class. I better understood the hammer and sickle graffiti in the bathroom by my room, and the nostalgic tales of the older generation for a time when they received benefits they now lacked.
My conversation with Orwell has been complicated, far more so than the one I had ten years ago with the Cold War section of my 20th century history textbook. My first class of Bulgarian students helped me remember that reading a book demands an internal conversation between the ideas presented and the reader’s beliefs, helped along by a critical eye and an open mind. My second class shared that conversation with me. As I hope it always will, great fiction forced me to reconsider my views, to add details where I didn’t even know they were missing. As I continue to teach, I hope to start many conversations between authors and students, conversations every bit as complicated as the one I shared with Orwell.


Court, Ayesha. “George Orwell.” Bookmarks. July/Aug. 2004: 14-19. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

Enright, Michael. “Why Orwell Matters.” Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston, Canada). Vol. 109, No. 4. Winter 2002: 532-543. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

“Timeline: Bulgaria.” BBC News. 2010/05/06. Web. 15 May 2010. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/europe/country_profiled/1061402.stm>

“Timeline: Soviet Union.” BBC News. 2006/03/03. Web. 15 May 2010.

Weeks, Jerome. “Orwell is Back: Author’s Ideas Still Spark Debate…” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX). Jan 14 2004: n.p. SIRS Renaissance. Web. 13 May 2010.

Here's one of the 1984 collages my students made in Bulgaria, and here's a link to my latest version of the collage assignment, with links to more fun 1984 resources over at my Teachers Pay Teachers store. 

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