In honor of banned books week, middle school teacher Marsha Hoem discusses how students in her classes explore concepts of utopia, conflict, and freedom in the language arts curriculum
By Marsha Hoem
Many of the books we read in seventh and eighth grade are also, coincidentally, on lists of the most frequently challenged or banned books in this country. I didn’t load the curriculum this way intentionally, really, except that I was looking for well-written and provocative books for middle schoolers, and many that fit my criteria have also been lightening rods for the First Amendment.
Eighth graders are currently reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, so they spent a couple of weeks beforehand researching the concept of utopias before diving in. It’s an idea that has shaped American literature from its beginnings – from John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon to the persistence of “The American Dream.” So we consider the full range of its influence – in painting, history, poetry, children’s literature, and so on, and then we try to boil it down to the question “Is it possible?” Or, was Plato right when he said that a utopia might only ever exist “as the structure of a just man’s mind”?
In answer to Plato, this class wrote:
“I agree with him because there will always be conflict, and there will always be people who have different views on the world…without conflict and problems, we as humans [would] lack a purpose in life because we wouldn’t have things to learn from.” ~ Leila Duarte
And: “I think that a truly equal utopia will never be accomplished…We need people with differences to help us, in a way, to have new, more innovative thoughts…If we didn’t argue, we wouldn’t have that much passion, since we would have nothing to feel passionate about, and without passion, we would not have the will to progress.” ~ Charlotte Sedlak
They get it.
Many of the books in our curriculum tend to question society as it is or as it might be: Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men... though we read plenty that is not so dark to balance things out. The rationale for reading these works is validated for me every year when students see that the ideas of uniformity and perfection that are the inspiration for most utopias, easily flip into autocracy, propaganda, and loss of freedom in all realms because human beings are hard wired for change and to see things differently.
The history of banned books inevitably generates questions in the classroom as students see that trying to control the human instinct to question things as they are is almost always futile. Differences of opinion and of personality – this is what makes things interesting and beautiful. Fahrenheit 451 is the perfect book for introducing these ideas, first, because Bradbury was such a large-hearted poet – full of love and truth, and secondly, because what he writes is so rich and layered with riddles, questions, allusions. When they see the place he was writing from – love of mankind, of books, of the texture and quality of life – set against the apprehension of what could happen in a totalitarian, technological state – something connects. The fact that Fahrenheit 451 is an extended ode to love, language, and nature resonates, and so knowing it was verboten reading makes the light switch go on. Why is knowledge considered dangerous? If conflict is a constant, how do we deal with it? Is conflict necessary for a healthy society? These are the things we wrestle with in room 27 – the “big fish” questions. …