Don’t get me wrong, I love a good dystopian novel. My students love them. I love that I get to teach about dystopias! But before we get to the worlds-gone-wrong, I like to challenge my students on their preconceived notions on what makes a “perfect society.” So, we study what a utopia is first.
I start out my unit with excerpts from Thomas More’s “Utopia.” Since this is easily accessible through the public domain, I just added the text to a word document along with images from the book. I used categories of Daily Life, Families & Gender Roles, Jobs, Education, and Government.
After introducing some background information, I modeled a close reading using the Government excerpt, highlighting only essential words and phrases that had to do with rules, guidelines or characteristics of the society. Then I assigned groups of 3 the remaining categories. The students read each paragraph out loud, discussed what to highlight, then created a 1-2 sentence summary of their section. Next, they did a “jigsaw” — The groups split up and was responsible for sharing about their topic with another group. I used my Kagan Timer Tools so that each student talked for 2 minutes. (I gave my advanced group all the excerpts in one packet to analyze in their groups, which they did very successfully.)
As the groups finished their discussion, I directed them to create a T-chart on the back of their papers about Thomas More’s version of a utopia: Good Ideas That Could Work vs. Never In A Million Years (more or less!) In the discussion that followed, students were able to see that some ideas that they were resistant to at first would probably be helpful in creating a “perfect society”.
After that, the students got to brainstorm their own perfect societies, using the graphic organizer below:
By allowing them to talk about their ideas in groups, it got the creativity going — but often I had to remind students that their “perfect societies” sounded too much like the world today, which is definitely not perfect. I challenged their notions on relationships (what could eliminate divorce?) and on education (how should you be trained for the future?) and even on how to prevent car accidents (invent hovercrafts?) so that they would come up with some new ideas.
Their assignment (available for download at TPT: Welcome to Utopia!) was to take what they brainstormed and write a description of their personal utopia, following the guidelines for each paragraph. They needed to write at least 5 sentences about each topic, although some students really got into it and had much more detailed descriptions!
On the day the written portion was due, we took a class period to create brochures for their utopias. I provided each student a colored piece of construction paper and two pieces of copy paper. They folded the copy paper into/around the construction paper so it was easy to read their descriptions. The students didn’t glue the copy paper to the construction paper until they were done, so that if they made a mistake, all they had to do was change out the copy paper. I created a sample brochure with headings, but left blank, so they could model theirs after it.
Some students went above and beyond to create exceptional brochures!
This was a perfect assignment to hook my students’ interest with utopian/dystopian societies, and we followed it up with notes with definitions of utopia, dystopia, and characteristics (adapted from this great resource from Read Write Think). As they read The Giver (Lois Lowry) or one of the novels for the literature circles, they’ll discover that some of their ideas of “perfection” can lead to disastrous results!
With dystopian novels so popular right now, I’m glad that I can take advantage of adding literature circles to my 8th grade Language Arts/ Reading curriculum. What dystopian novels would you teach to your classes?