The recent controversy at Mystic Middle School surrounding the novel Animal Farm is as instructive as it is timely.
The story likely gained immediate attention because it involves the work of George Orwell, the author of another book, 1984, that recently appeared on the bestseller list 68 years after it was first published.
“It is hard to say for sure how much of the interest is related to Donald Trump’s inauguration and the rise of ‘alternative facts,’ a term coined by Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway,” CNN reported. “But some commentators called Conway’s comment ‘Orwellian’ and drew comparisons to the famous novel.”
Such comparisons between Trump and Orwell are everywhere lately. Back in December, I wrote the following: “Trump and his supporters can concurrently lay claim to the facts and the lack of facts — a perfect example of ‘doublethink,’ as coined by George Orwell in 1984.”
So it was not surprising to see the controversy in Mystic make headlines when another of Orwell’s dystopian novels — Animal Farm, an allegory for the Russian Revolution — was removed from the middle school’s reading list. Sort of.
“School Superintendent Van Riley said the decision was made two years ago to change the curriculum, which included moving Animal Farm off of the ‘core books for 8th grade,’ but it remains on a secondary reading list,” reported WFSB.
Animal Farm, it seems, was a victim of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Because the Core emphasizes reading nonfiction texts and because Animal Farm is fiction, Orwell’s novel was demoted to second-string.
Explains the CCSS: “Part of the motivation behind the interdisciplinary approach to literacy promulgated by the Standards is extensive research establishing the need for college and career ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently in a variety of content areas. Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content.”
Thus, school districts nationwide — not just Mystic Middle School in the Stonington school district — have increasingly emphasized nonfiction over fiction.
In Stonington, “Assistant Superintendent Nikki Gullickson has said a new system of developing anchor texts for core curriculum was put in place this year for eighth-grade classes and that the decision about Orwell’s book came from a meeting of teachers meant to build a consensus.”
Thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I have taught Animal Farm more times than I can count in my 26-year career. Thankfully, Orwell’s allegory has been included in my school’s 12th-grade English curriculum even longer than I have taught there. Yes, my colleagues and I teach it at a deeper cognitive level than the middle-school teachers in Mystic, but the novel offers ample opportunity for all of us to incorporate history, psychology, geography, and more into our lessons by — you guessed it! — reading nonfiction.
How, for instance, can students connect Orwell’s characters to the historical people they represent without reading informational texts about the Russian Revolution? How can students understand the rhetorical sleight of hand performed by the character Squealer without reading informational texts about propaganda? How, simply, can English teachers teach historical fiction without including supplementary reading from relevant nonfiction?
Relegating Animal Farm to a “secondary reading list,” in other words, robs students of a richer educational experience in which they can connect the information of nonfiction texts to the literary conventions of a novel.
The situation at Mystic Middle School is not unique. As stated previously, school districts across the country have revamped their book lists to meet the demands of the Common Core. The situation in Mystic, however, adds a level of irony since it involves the curricular demotion of a dystopian novel about an all-controlling totalitarian regime. And what, really, is the Stonington school district doing but bending to the ideology of an overarching authority — the Common Core State Standards — whose means and ends are seen by many as questionable, at best?
It’s a story that could have be written by George Orwell.
Barth Keck teaches English, including Advanced Placement Language and Composition, and is an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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