Utopia or Dystopia

Let’s face it, you’ve got it pretty good. You’re sitting there with your iPhone with the world at your fingertips. You eat every day, you don’t have to wait in line for bread, and somehow you got to school–in your car or on the big yellow bus. The government doesn’t assign you a job, and it doesn’t tell you what you have to be.

We’ve looked at dystopian literature.

Mission: Apply your piece to one nation in the world, past or present. Convince us to vacation there. Show the features that align with The Hunger Games and your particular chosen piece. Make it presentation-worthy. It’ll be put on display.

If you succeed, you will be rewarded with extra bread. If you fail…learn to spell “Solzhenitsyn.” You’re going to the Gulag.

You Think School’s Bad? Sign Up for Dystopiathon


You think doing homework’s bad? Try government oppression. Martial law. Robots taking over the universe. By popular request, we’ll be studying dystopian film and literature, starting with The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games connects to several themes in lit classics, including:

George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm

William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies

Aldous Huxley’s  Brave New World

Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451

Though not dystopian, The Story of Damon and Pythias is about friendship so deep that you’d give your life for a friend. Read it. It’s two pages. You got this.

These stories talk about oppressive governments, absolute power corrupting absolutely, and the bonds of friendship. Enjoy them in full form, read the Spark Notes, use Audible or listen to the Thug Notes.

Critical Questions:

  • How do people in power keep that power? What’s the fine balance between leadership and oppression?
  • “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” True or false? Can there be such a thing as a benevolent dictator?
  • It is rare to find absolute friendship. Would you be willing to give up your life for a friend?
  • How close is society to the types of societies described by Goulding and Orwell?

Do yourself a favor. Read the full text of at least one of the Orwell, Goulding, Bradbury, and Huxley. They’re worth it. But if you need a couple Thug or Sparknotes to get the rest, at the very least ingest the stories.

Then, we’ll talk…

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

At the same time as the American Civil War was just wrapping up, Alice in Wonderland was taking England by storm. Lewis Carroll, born Charles Dodgson, the son of a preacher and one of eleven children, all of whom survived into adulthood, was an author, professor, and photographer. 
His legacy is highly controversial.  Read through this Learnist board on Carroll and decide–was he a genius or a deviant?  When deciding, it’s important to look at the context of the times. Can we judge people, ideas, and situations in history by today’s standards? People often do. After reading through the Learnist board, please offer your opinion on the life and times of Carroll and Alice in Wonderland focusing on the following: 
1. History: There are so many references to the Age of Imperialism, the roles of women in society and social history. 
2. Fantasy and Imagination: Some of the best innovators fall into this category. How has fantasy and imagination resulted in inventions and innovations that make the world a better place?
3. The Rabbit Hole: Have you ever encountered a person or idea that changed your life forever? That made it so you never saw the world the same way again?  How can this help you change the world? You might not have had this experience yet. If not, think of someone you admire who has had an epiphany and been that kind of game changer as a result. 
Regardless of where you fall on the issue of Carroll, his stories are inspiring. “Sometimes, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” 
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that makes us magic. 

Can the Trees Talk?

Watching “The Happening” brought up some great conversation about the viability of the plot–can plants attack humans on a grand scale? We’ll look further into that, but they may be able communicate. Scientists feel that the chemistry between plants, root networks, and fungi may, in fact, promote communication in much the same way that neurons promote communication in parts of the human brain. This is much like the biochemical networks in forestry. This is why our forest practices need to pay attention to the ecosystem of the forest, which requires older trees to give resources to the rest of the forest. Instead, humans “cut them down for two-by-fours.”

Could the plants and trees be telling us something? What do you think? Watch this short video and weigh in the comments.

The Language of Observation, Analysis, and Interpretation

“God gave us only one mouth and two eyes and ears so we can listen and watch twice as much as we speak.”

I’m not sure of the origin of that quote, but it’s the mathematical truth. There are a lot of times in life when we fail to really observe. You might say, “Casey, this is a social studies lesson, not philosophy class.” True. But what if I asked you a couple questions?

Lets start off with “Has anyone ever given you the look?” I’ll say yes, because I’ve broken up fights about the look. What if you knew that person wasn’t looking at you but had some family problem? Would it change your reaction? Maybe?

Have you ever watched the news and said, “That’s the dumbest political problem…ever. They should just….” It’s easy to be an armchair quarterback when looking at the problems of others. Everyone else’s problems always seem so….solvable.

The Language of Observation: 

Using the language of observation helps us to get to a deeper level of learning. Use words like, “I see…I observe…I notice…I can identify…I discern…I detect…I recognize…I can locate… helps us to pin down things we can quantify or scientifically study.

The Language of Analysis:

Take this one step further. We can observe, but when we really look deep, we are analyzing. Analyzing is important, because it helps us pick up patterns. We need to see what’s right about a situation and what is unique. We infer meaning and we look for cause and effect.  Using the following sentence patterns help us to dig in and analyze:

  • This reveals…
  • This evokes…
  • This shows…
  • This contradicts…
  • This symbolizes…
  • This stands for…
  • This means…
  • This corresponds to…
  • This demonstrates…
  • This illustrates…

Find a couple more “Analysis phrases.”

The Language of Interpretation: 

Finally, after we’ve observed and analyzed, it’s time to interpret. That’s where you take all the genius inside you and make something happen. Most people want to be told what to think. It’s true–watch the TV news. They’ll tell you what happened in the world and they’ll tell you what you thought about it, if you listen closely enough. That’s tragic. The truth is, if you observe and analyze enough, and you use the language of interpretation, you have the inner expert the world needs. YOU can be the one that makes the call and provides the expert opinion. That’s what we’re trying to arrive at here!

Things like: “Therefore…” “We can conclude…” “This tells us…” are part of the language of interpretation.

Let’s look through a couple of images and see if we can observe.


Choose from the following photo essays. Analyze three photographs using the following format:

Photo essay on the Depression

Photo essay of 9-11

Photo essay of Hurricane Sandy

Photo essay AIDS in Africa

1. Observation: In this photograph I observed… (use at least three words of observation…)

2. Analysis: (use at least three words of analysis)

3. Interpretation: (use at least three words of interpretation)

War of the Worlds

Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds caused quite a stir. Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 19th century novel of the same name was pure theatre, but believable. The History Channel gives the backstory to the national fright, during which latecomers to the prime-time radio broadcast panicked, thinking Martians were actually invading the earth. The Federal Communication Commission investigated the incident, but in the end, the only backlash was that networks agreed to be more careful about what they broadcast.

Is this responsibility? Is it censorship?

Are there situations in today’s world that seem utterly outrageous yet humans seem willing to believe, propagate, or disseminate? Interesting questions, to be sure…ones that Welles’ production brought to the forefront back in 1938, and Adolf Hitler underscored just one year later.

The Fury of Nature

The first time I watched The Day After Tomorrow, it seemed unrealistic. Today, after several years of changing global weather patterns, and severe storms, including Hurricane Sandy, it seems far more likely to happen. 

Critical Questions: 

Are we prepared? If not, how prepared do we need to be?

Is the frequency of natural disaster increasing?  Are things getting more insane? 


Let’s look into and discuss a couple of case studies in the natural disaster department. Is there anything we can do about this, or are we doomed? Use this form to organize your thoughts. 


Conspiracy, Brainwashing, and Apple Pie

We watched The Manchurian Candidate because you can’t really ever get enough of Denzel, as someone noted in class, but it went a bit deeper. This film showed the dark side of American politics–it’s a remake of a film that starred Frank Sinatra, and used possible Communist takeover as the backdrop for political control.

Is this film so far fetched? Is it possible for a candidate to be totally controlled by special interests? Maybe putting implants in the heads of military officers and commanding them to assassinate key officials on command is a little extreme…or is it?

Critical questions: 

1. What is the nature and range of mind control? Aren’t we all controlled by outside forces just a little bit?

2. Are there situations where lobbyists and political organizations control candidates and influence decisions?

3. Are there concrete, hard-core situations where the military or government has engaged in research involving substances, mind techniques, or other research designed to create the Super Soldier?


Research and post about at least one of the critical questions. Then, develop a topic educating the class on one of these questions. Include visuals, links, or citations as appropriate.

  • Use at least three sources to verify your research.
  • Evaluate your sources–conspiracy theory info is rampant on the web.  Be prepared to discuss the validity of each source, and why you believe it to be an objective source, or, if not objective, accurate. If your source is clearly one-sided, explain the perspective of the source.
  • You will conduct a three to five minute presentation based on your research.

American Classic Horror

You asked for it, you got it–a horror unit. Being too smart to realize that I swapped elements of the curriculum to make this a science-fiction meets current events and tech class, you called me out.

Let’s examine this genre together.

Critical themes:

1. The literary elements of horror: foreshadowing, plot, protagonist, antagonist…it’s important to be able to identify what makes these things great and effective.  What are the best themes? How do we get characters we believe and empathize with? What makes you cringe and check in your own closet after you’ve seen a good film?

2. The power of suggestion: Horror films have deteriorated into gore. Is that necessary or is that a byproduct of the way we watch TV today–everything is sensationalized and many argue we have become desensitized as a culture.  Can the horror greats produce true fear and suspense without that degree of gore?

3. What are the classics in this genre? If you were the greatest critic, what criteria would you pick to judge the best of the best? Be able to justify your picks.

4. Is reality more frightening than the genre of horror? Watch the news–are the murders, crimes, true elements of evil at times worse than King, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Twilight Zone? Let’s evaluate the direction we’ve taken as a society, and address the horrors of reality.

What is the Goal of the Criminal Justice System?

The United States leads the world in so many areas–including the percentage of incarcerated citizens. In 2010, the United States had 2010 prisoners in the criminal justice system, an increase of 66% from the prior decade.  Read these alarming statistics, as well as how the United States views corrections on journalist Maggie Messitt’s Learnist board “Prisons in America: A Primer.” 

Critical questions: 

1. What is the goal of the criminal justice system in the United States? Is it to get the bad guys off the street, or to improve society so that offenders do not reoffend?

2. Why are certain groups and populations represented disproportionately? Which groups, by percentage, are most likely to be incarcerated, and why? How can the criminal justice system better serve those groups?

3. Is there a role for restorative justice in the criminal justice system? Should offenders make amends, and is letting them do so helpful to victims?

4. What are the economics behind the criminal justice system?

5. What, if any, are some of the effective programs in corrections? What helps stop the cycle of crime and abuse, truly improving communities? Consider prison gardens, writing programs, dog training programs, and other programs meant to build job skills and raise awareness of what it is to be a good citizen.

6. The death penalty has been a hotbed political issue. Should the death penalty be legal? How does it affect society? What are the economics behind the death penalty?

We will discuss these and other issues. Please discuss in the comment section.