Mentor Text: Various dystopian short stories
- Social commentary
- Short story
Background – I think I’ve shared this here before, but I teach all my core English courses thematically. There are many reasons for this, but at the heart of it, I love that it gives us a focus for our looks at literature. Each course has a core theme that we explore. In Grade 11, that theme is Society: Power and Voice.
Our study of that theme lends itself nicely to an exploration of dystopian literature. I love to teach Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and then, each week throughout the remainder of the semester, we look at a dystopian short story. (I have a pretty good collection, which I can share.) I’m not specifically presenting these stories as mentor texts as we read them, but we’re looking at what the authors are saying about society. We discuss the utopian ideals and dystopian realities of the stories. We discuss what message about society the author may want us to reflect upon, and what their statement might be. We do look at craft, discussing plotting, characterization and golden lines. Though it’s not explicitly stated, we are laying the groundwork for using these stories as mentor texts.
Using them as mentor texts is a relatively new strategy. Taylor, who’s graduating this year, inspired this last year when he was in Grade 12. We read Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’ and ‘Peter Skilling’ by Alex Irvine quite close to each other. Taylor noted that these stories specifically focused on a character named in the title. He noted how this focused the author’s message on a person. We discussed the impact this had. I decided that this actually led to a natural wrap up to this study – we’d write our own dystopian stories, using our names as titles, focusing on the things that we care about.
(Full disclosure: This idea came about during our remote learning in the spring of 2020, and that class only outlined their stories. This year, we wrote them.)
How We Might Use These Texts:
Social Commentary – As a geek, I obviously love genre fiction. One of the reasons that I love it is the way it can look at society from the outside. Dystopian (sci-fi) stories do this so wonderfully. They’re often about a world that isn’t like ours, but the parallels are pretty clear. As we analyze these stories, we talk about a lot of very real issues, but because a fantastic story is the catalyst for those conversations, we come at it differently. The fact that it’s a story, even though it reflects reality, means that we might not enter the conversation with our normal biases as strongly engaged. There’s a nature of “What if…” in these stories that defuses some of the contention. (I mean, we still get there sometimes, but at least we don’t start there.)
As mentor texts, these stories show us how social commentary can work. The two sided coin of the utopian ideal and dystopian reality that we’ve used to analyze gives us a model for exploring the issues we care about most. We can go down the rabbit hole of “What if…” and explore the things that anger us, or highlight the things that we want people to understand about the things we care about. We can overstate our arguments, because we’re working in speculative fiction. (I love using that term interchangeably with sci-fi or dystopian literature.)
Since we’ve already talked about how the authors of the stories we’ve studied have communicated their messages, it becomes about highlighting the message that we have. We’ve laid the groundwork for this expression. Since we’re working thematically throughout the course, we’ve had lots of opportunities to explore things in society. This year, I used the theme to explore anti-racism, which was reflected in a few of the stories that were written. As we start thinking about our stories, I stress the importance of “writing what you know,” and channeling our passions, and using our voice to express those passions. Alongside the explorations of race I mentioned, I got to read stories focused on individuality, the importance of knowledge and education, sexuality, consumerism and the importance of democracy. Some were stories that were ripped from the headlines as we wrote, and others reflected long held beliefs and ideals.
Short Story – I’ve found myself falling in love with the short story in my classroom. There is such wonderful writing presented in such wonderfully sized portions. They’ve actually been an asset the past year as we work in unconventional classroom situations, and attendance has been disrupted in many classes.
As we planned, we began by highlighting the core ideas that we wanted to present. We wanted to have a clear message to try to communicate, bolstered by knowing what the utopian ideal and dystopian reality was. This actually helped us develop antagonists, often the “They” that represents an authority with the utopian vision that manifests in a dystopian fashion. We knew what, and who, was wrong.
Keying in on the titular character, and having that titular character bear their names was a really great planning tool as well. Writing speculative fiction, playing “What if…” where they are the protagonist, or at the very least, the protagonist bears their name, placed an element of personal stake in this endeavor. How often, when working with a writer writing a story have you used the question, “What would you do if you were this character?” to help them understand the character’s motivation, or to develop the character? This is quite literally the task that I’ve given them!
I’m a big proponent of planning in my writing classroom. Though there are many that could sit at a computer and crank out a strong piece, I encourage them to consider things before doing this, to have some notes to organize the writing. The things I’ve already mentioned give a solid foundation for them, and they have some important things figured out before they start crafting the narrative.
We go back to our collection of stories, now as mentor texts. Which stories, or story elements resonated? Some stories are heavy handed. Some feature heavy symbolism. Others have a shocking reveal or twist ending. We consider if any of these elements work for the stories we want to tell.
We also consider the worlds we’ve seen. Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ feels like it’s in the past. Some stories feel like they’re reflecting our world as it is. Others are in a distant future. We think a bit about world building, and crafting a setting that fits the story we want to tell, the message we want to send the reader.
I also include that classic plot diagram in our planning materials. We discuss how we want to craft the elements included. We consider how that structure can serve our story, as well as how we can play with structure to best communicate our ideas.
I’ll be honest, I’ve loved evolving this dystopian literature study in this way. It’s easy to look at texts for a singular function. Though we appreciate the craft of stories as we study them, it’s not always with them as a potential mentor text. I loved going back to revisit stories for the express purpose of seeing what could guide, and inspire, our own stories. It gave such wonderful cohesion to the course, through the callback to the stories we analyzed, which in previous years, would still have been a meaningful activity, but in this new model, has a deeper resonance.
What are your favorite dystopian stories? What literature studies do you have that would make for a good mentor text set?
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