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'Animal Farm' Lessons

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I love teaching Orwell's Animal Farm to my high-school freshmen. It is an incredible allegory that illustrates Karl Marx's well-meaning Communism, how it prompted the people to overthrow the autocracy of Czar Nicholas II, and ultimately how Joseph Stalin used those very principles against the people who thought they were fighting for their equality. The novel works well in either a history class or a literature class, which makes teaching the novel multifaceted.

Every year, I get rebellious while teaching Animal Farm; I can't help it. I see the similarities between the corruption of power and our present educational system, and I feel the intense desire to shout "Rebellion!" from the roof tops. The propaganda the government feeds our citizens is so widely accepted that a small voice like mine will barely make a dent in the system. Yet, it is my voice that will continue to cry out for change; it is my voice that begs parents to fight for their children's right to a proper education, not a test driven one; and it is my voice that teaches students to never blindly follow their leadership -- as Boxer, the dumb cart-horse, so aptly illustrates. Boxer destroys freedom and equality more through his maxims, "Napoleon is always right" and "I will work harder" than Napoleon does.

I have three goals when teaching the novel:

  1. Help students see how they participate in sabotaging their own freedom and equality in their everyday lives, as well as in government issues;
  2. Teach them how to write a powerful analytical argument on the abuse of power;
  3. Hold up a mirror for them so they can see who they are as opposed to who they want to be.

How do I accomplish this?

  1. We have a number of shared inquiry sessions where I ask them questions about the novel and their lives. Why didn't anyone stand up to Napoleon, the tyrannical pig? How did Napoleon gain power so quickly? Have you ever defended your rights at home? School? Work? With friends? Which situations are harder than others, and why?
  2. I have a writing packet that walks them through writing an analysis on the prompt: "Pick one leader or one follower and analyze how that character destroys freedom and equality on the farm." Here is one of my favorite conclusions from a 14-year-old student: "Benjamin [the donkey] was the ultimate architect for the obliteration of freedom and equality on Animal Farm, even though he could have become a champion and shield for freedom and equality. Benjamin's role in Animal Farm is essential to understanding that it is the followers, not the leaders, who hold the key to maintaining freedom and equality in any civilization." This prompt, for the students who take this novel and essay seriously, can change and/or empower our students to make a positive impact in our world.
  3. The final goal is the best, and sometimes the scariest, lesson I teach all year. Ironically, this great lesson has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the students. It is also a lesson that I may be ordered to stop facilitating in my classroom because the results are solely empirical and cannot be quantified on a data chart.

I conduct a social experiment by telling the students they have rebelled against my authority in the classroom (I can't take credit for this idea; it's in the teaching notes for the novel). I give them a list of five things they have to accomplish before they can start functioning as a literature class:

  1. Develop a motto or rallying song.
  2. Come up with a new name for the class.
  3. Write commandments (at least four) for this new classroom.
  4. Create a plan to maintain the purpose of this group as that of a literature class.
  5. Begin functioning as one.

I then walk to the back of the room, sit at my desk, take notes, and refuse to acknowledge them when they ask me questions.

With every experiment, a few things always happen: someone (or a group) becomes a leader and the class attempts to accomplish the goals under the direction of this leader. What ensues after that depends on the students' personalities. It is an eye-opening experience for me, and a day that stays with my students forever.

When I first started this social experiment, I thought the goal was for the students to start working as a group, and, at the end of the hour, to have begun functioning as a literature classroom. I was wrong. The goal is to show students who they are; the goal is to test the theory that power corrupts. More importantly, the experiment always reveals the natural leaders and what kind of leaders they will be.

Surprisingly, it's not always the smartest students who take over leadership, but it's a bonus if they are intelligent. Usually, it is the student who has natural charisma because students will follow someone they think is likable. If the popular student doesn't stand up and take over right away, someone invariably will nominate him or her to the position. Whether that student remains in power or not depends on whether he or she is a good leader and whether or not there are other leaders in the classroom. Sadly, the girls only remain in power if they are working in conjunction with a male student. Even girls are horrible to any girl who dares to stand in leadership above them.

My goal is to be an observer and report what I see, and then afterwards, ask questions about motivation and behaviors. Students decide what happens in the classroom. If someone needs to go to the bathroom, he or she can decide to go; I won't give or deny permission to anyone (I always like when a student just leaves. It shows courage.). Students can get involved or listen to their music if they want. They can start another rebellion against the new leadership or follow the new leader completely. It is always their choice.

Throughout the years I've had every possible scenario, yet every year students will surprise me with a new twist. There are students I would vote for if they ran for political office; there are students I would protest against if they ever tried. But mostly, there are students who are forever changed by looking into the Animal Farm Mirror.

Here are a few of my most interesting outcomes:

One year, I had a student, Tim, who was bright but was in my regular English class (opposed to Honors English). He read the whole novel over the weekend instead of just the first two chapters I assigned. When I wrote the instructions on the board, he knew what I was doing instantly. To his amazement, the students told Tim to take over leadership. Instead of speaking to the class, he asked another student to come up with him. Tim never spoke to the class once. He spoke to this other boy, who then spoke to the class. Everyone accepted this behavior. It was at this point that my heart starting racing, but not as much as it did by the end of the hour. Tim started creating rules, through his chief propagandist, that everyone followed blindly. He started with simple, crowd pleasing rules, like no homework ever; he then moved to all adults suck and must be avoided at all cost. Some students looked back at me and looked like they were going to physically remove me from the classroom. Tim's mouthpiece told them I wasn't really there, so I didn't count. The class looked up at him with adoration. By the end he had people wearing red at the back of the class facing the wall because he hates the color red, and people wearing black sitting up front near him. There were no objections; there were no abstainers. They all blindly followed him. Tim caught my eye at one point and we just looked at each other with shock tinged with fear. He couldn't believe they were actually doing everything he told them to do. When I stood up to report back, I begged Tim not to go into politics unless he promised me he would use his powers for good, not evil. He laughed and promised he wouldn't. The class's only explanation for their behavior was "Tim is cool." And "We just wanted him to like us."

Another situation was with my Honors English class. After I walked to the back of the room, two students stood up and tried to lead the group. The class demanded that an election take place first. There were at least 15 students on the ballot. After much debate, an election gave the position to the top two students. No one was happy. Before they could accomplish any of the tasks, another rebellion occurred. Two new students took over. Within ten minutes, another rebellion occurred. This happened for the entire hour of the experiment. At first I was frustrated. I was ready to tell them they failed the experiment; instead, I asked them what they thought about it. They were the ones who revealed that since they were all leaders, they could not fathom someone else in leadership over them. They then realized that they had to figure out how to get things done without one leader in charge. They thought if the experiment continued, they could have assigned positions to all the leaders according to their strengths. I have always regretted not continuing the experiment with that class. I would have liked to see what they would have done.

Sometimes there will be a student who starts off strong, but then gets greedy with his power. He will tell people to sit down and shut up. If someone dares to challenge his authority, he will get a security team to somehow silence the protestor. I am always amazed that the rest of the students tolerate that behavior. When I question them afterwards, they say negative things about the protestor instead of admonishing the leader for his corrupt use of power.

Every once and a while, I will have a student who stands up and leads, not as a dictator, but as a leader of the people. He will accept every suggestion and value everyone's input, even if some of the suggestions are ridiculous. I've had only a few students who have actually led that way over the years, but I always hope that those few students find their way into politics.

This year, I had two boys come talk to me after the experiment was over. They were "butt-hurt" as their friends jokingly told me. They didn't like how they were feeling about the process or how they were perceived by their peers. The boys were in two separate classes and experienced the process from different ends of the spectrum. Both of them are wonderful students, and I truly enjoy having them in class.

In Class 1, this boy tried to be a leader, but his peers voted him out; to make matters worse, his good friend talked to him sternly about his negative behavior. Granted, his feelings were hurt from being voted out, but then he took out his phone, talked loudly to other students while the leader was listening to suggestions, and refused to vote on rules. Sadly, it was this immaturity that prompted his peers to vote him out of leadership in the first place. He asked me to help him understand what happened. Why did his friends not like him in this scenario? I told him the truth. He is a sweet boy whom everyone loves, but he behaved immaturely in front of the group. His ideas were mature, but his behavior was still childish. He lost their trust, and then they refused to listen to him. I encouraged him not to let it discourage him though. I told him that he was walking that line between childhood and manhood, exactly where he should be right now, but that I was positive his good heart and moral character would win out in the end.

In Class 2, the other boy stepped into leadership and had the support of the group until he started yelling at them. A few students started talking rebellion against him, but nothing developed. To top it off, he told another student that no one cared what this student thought and to sit down and shut up. When I reported back to the class, I asked why no one told the leader that was not okay. They all thought the leadership was right and the protestor was just being a jerk. Even though this boy was supported by his peers, he got a good look at himself and didn't like what he saw. He sat before me deflated. He had always thought he was a great guy and didn't understand what happened to him. I told him I knew he felt bad about his behavior, but that he was given a gift: He saw what power can do to him. He had the opportunity to decide if he wanted to be shaped by power, or if he wanted to use his natural leadership for good.

I reassured both boys that I thought they were wonderful people and that I believed in them. If they looked at the experiment as a rare opportunity to see their future paths and to decide if that's who they wanted to be or not, they could start making changes before their personalities go too far in the wrong direction. Now is the time for them to decide what kind of men they wanted to be.

They smiled and thanked me for helping them feel better. I know that even though their egos were slightly bruised, they will take their leadership positions more seriously from now on.

My former students like to talk to me about Animal Farm when they have grown up and see how applicable the novel is to their lives. They remember the experiment, and who they were during the rebellion. I hope that wherever life takes them, they remember that as leaders and/or followers, they have control over their freedom and equality and to never blindly follow anyone.

This post originally appeared at paulinehawkins.com in November 2013.