Though the eponymous date of Orwell’s dystopian vision denotes the distant past to today’s pupils, Nineteen Eighty-Four is still regarded as a masterpiece of modern literature and remains as relevant as ever thanks to the malign influence of “fake news” in contemporary society. In the week of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, it again hit the bestseller lists! So it may come as some surprise to learn that in 2021 it’s joining the literary heritage likes of Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and Jane Eyre as a public-domain text. Here’s why teaching 1984 in 2021 is relevant for GCSE English students.
Teaching 1984 in School: Copyright Explained
For those not entirely up to speed with the ins and outs of literary copyright, authorial rights in the United Kingdom are protected up to 70 years after death, at which point the work effectively becomes public property and free to use. That means, as if there weren’t already enough editions of the book that introduced us to Big Brother, Room 101 and the Thought Police, cut-price publishers will be peddling many more in the years ahead. Expect to see sanitised children’s versions, unofficial sequels and maybe even more TV spin-offs. Thanks to the relative laxness of Australian copyright, the full text has been available as a free Project Gutenberg e-book for some time but you can now download, print or copy safe in the knowledge that no laws are being infringed and, unlike poor Winston, you are not an enemy of the state, nor an enemy of George Orwell’s estate.
This is all good news for overextended English department budgets. If you are lucky enough to have a stock of e-Readers then Nineteen Eighty-Four is among the most modern texts that can be freely and legally accessed. And the winding-up of royalty payments should make print runs more affordable for those looking to re-stock the book cupboard.
But where does Nineteen Eighty-Four fit into the modern curriculum? Strangely, Orwell’s magnum opus is not an exam text, with AQA, Edexcel and OCR instead opting for Animal Farm. As foreboding as that satirical fairy tale is, Napoleon’s farmyard totalitarianism is Big Brother-lite. It is also so intrinsically linked with Stalinism that teaching can be heavier in twentieth century European political history than it is English literature. There would be some logic in switching the two texts and enjoying Animal Farm as a KS3 parable with only passing reference to the Soviet allegory. But until the exam boards see fit to reshuffle the canon, Nineteen Eighty-Four serves as the junior partner.
So, how to make a story of sexual deviance, state-sanctioned torture and the systematic crushing of freewill palatable to thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds? (It is taken for granted that Orwell’s nihilism rests at the upper end of KS3, in terms of both age and ability.) The answer lies in the dark heart of the average pubescent child who can well empathise with Winston’s futile anti-authoritarian sentiments and yearning for something else! If this sounds disturbingly unorthodox to us conformist teachers, never fear: one of our writers gazed into the future (read, did the maths and worked out copyright was due to expire) and has prepared a short unit of lessons based around key extracts that we can now give to you.
Teaching 1984 with Beyond’s Unit Overview
Starting with context, we learn that Orwell’s ideas about the near-distant future were grounded in the recent past. 1984 is transposed into 1948, when ration books, the atomic bomb and shiny futurism loomed large. Orwell, meanwhile, was confined to his bed, feverishly trying to complete his ultimate novel. That he would die in 1950, less than a year after it was published and long before his name became a byword for describing intrusive and oppressive practices, is one of the reasons why such a strikingly modern text is out of copyright. Context, of both the time it was written and the time in which its read, is disseminated across the unit, helping pupils get to grips with AO3.
Then we step into Orwell’s dystopian world, where the clocks strike thirteen. Extracts have been chosen to give pupils a thorough understanding and appreciation of themes and characters, though there is no real substitute for reading the novel in full. The overall aim and objective of this mini unit is to inspire curiosity so students are encouraged to read independently and do just that; twenty-first century dystopian fiction such as Scott Westerfield’s Uglies is recommended alongside the classics.
As we track the unravelling of Winston’s world, activities include rewriting topical news events, dramatising the resistance, and terrorising classmates with their own Room 101s. Finally, guided by the novel’s appendix, pupils have a go at translating Standard English into Newspeak and then look at the text’s legacy through the lens of Apple Mac, the Big Brother TV show and the onward march of surveillance technology.
Supplementary resources include an author study (all Orwell texts fall out of copyright at the same time so Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia will be similarly accessible in 2021), a reading assessment (plus mark scheme), character cards and a homework pack. The unit overview also traces lessons against National Curriculum objectives, just in case Ofsted is watching you!
It’s often been said that we’re living through Nineteen Eighty-Four. This year, the time is ripe to put pupils through it and begin teaching 1984 with Beyond!
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