One of my favorite books to teach is Fahrenheit 451 by the late Ray Bradbury. Not only has it withstood the test of time, I feel that with each new evolution in social media, and with each new advancement in how we consume media using technology, Bradbury’s dystopian masterpiece remains valid. This isn’t too bad for a book written in 1953.
More than anyone I am a proponent of making sure we teach books to low income urban students that contain characters like themselves—at least in 9th and 10th grade. I’ve written before that students can appreciate a book like Catcher in the Rye if they are at a place in their reading and writing lives where they can understand it. However in our public schools the students in the lower secondary grades are not at a place where they can always appreciate characters and time periods that do not reflect their day-to-day experience. We need to get them reading and writing about the familiar before we get them writing about the unfamiliar and foreign. So you are well within your rights in finding it odd I am lauding a book starring a fireman in some futuristic society whose job it is to burn books.
The strength of Fahrenheit 451 is directly related to Bradbury’s prescient view of society. The characters in the novel live in a world where it is illegal to read books, and if you are found doing so the unfriendly local firemen come and burn your house down. But the real genius is how the people spend their time, captured best in the protagonist’s wife Mildred. Mildred’s life is consumed by two things: Her wall-sized televisions and her earphones plugged into her ears, which she only takes out to—you guessed it—watch the televisions. The fact that Ray Bradbury foresaw the increased size and number of televisions is pretty amazing, as well as our addiction and consequent mental apathy. But the fact that he saw in our future a world where people were always plugged into their earphones is wild. How could he have seen these things in the 50s?
Getting students to understand these themes is easy because technology is a main component of their lives. So even though Montag’s world is much different from theirs—it also isn’t. Once you get over the oddness of this futuristic setting, what students find is that they are Mildred. They cannot have a conversation, they never take out their earphones, they watch giant screens all day, and it has gotten to a point where it is beginning to consume them.
Now, as English teachers we all have choices to make about what kinds of writing we are going to have kids do with a book. Our main genres are Autobiographical/Biographical Narratives, Expository/Research, Persuasive/Argumentative, and Literary Analysis. Those are the big four when talking about the standards in grades 9 and 10, with the last genre, Literary Analysis, being phased out by the new Common Core (not completely, but it does have a diminished place). My favorite genre to teach with Fahrenheit 451 is Persuasive/Argumentative.
Here is a list of topics we have covered this year, and you can see why it is so easy to get kids to write persuasively:
Does Facebook Make You Depressed?
Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?
Have Smartphones Replaced Boredom and Is That Good?
Can You Be Friends, Or More, If You’ve Never Met Someone?
In my 10th grade English classes, each of these essays is ten paragraphs long and have been taken through three drafts, the final typed in MLA format. And we’re not even done with the book yet. There are more to come.
I think good pedagogy is playing to the strengths of the books you teach. I think taking Bradbury’s themes on society and technology and getting kids to reflect of the role of technology in their lives today is a perfect union of theme with writing genre. Fahrenheit 451 also lends itself well to the other genres, but I think the particular strength of this book is pairing it with the kinds of topics above because it helps students understand the book’s main themes so much more.
Plus, these topics are relevant, and therefore they immediately get kids to buy in. After these four essays, I am going to have the kids branch out and begin to think about their own topics. Today as a class they came up with the great ideas below (from some pointed prodding from yours truly). This is what it means to be current, and the kids expect it in today’s world.
Are People Who Wear Earphones More More Selfish?
How Does Your Music Define Who You Are?
Are Anonymous Commenters a Doorway to the Dark Human Heart?
Should We Do Away With Academic Classes and Focus on PE and Fun?
Is Your Online Persona a Better or Worse Version of You?
With the demise of the newspaper, the rise of the Kindle, and the general apathy of most people toward books, I sometimes wonder if the written word will someday go the path of the firemen in Bradbury’s classic. Will books ever be banned—or replaced? Like the fire captain Beatty reminds us, it was the people who chose not to read anymore. There wasn’t a government mandate—people were just more in to sports and fun.
But when I fear a future without books, I always take solace in the fact that there is still no better way to upload mass amounts of information into the ultimate computer—our brains—than with books and text. There is no substitute for the knowledge, insights, facts, and nuances provided by the written word—there just isn’t. Whether it is Powerpoint, movies, tutorial videos, lectures with a white board, or one on one tutoring, there is simply no better way to learn a large amount of ANYTHING than by reading. And I think that is at the core of Fahrenheit 451 as well.
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