3 — Warnings
In this learning sequence students explore the warnings issued in the dystopic world of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ (published in his book Welcome to the Monkey House).
The students learn about the characteristics of dystopic texts and how they protest against social norms. The students will analyse how Vonnegut uses narrative viewpoint and characterisation to develop the relationship between the author, the text and the audience, and reflect on the relevance of the warning today.
Activity 1: Is anyone watching?
In this structured discussion activity the students explore areas of government and social surveillance in Australian society such as surveillance that occurs on the internet, in the workplace, at sporting events, at cultural sites and in shopping centres. The texts below range in complexity to accommodate different student capabilities:
- ‘Better a nanny state than the alternative’
- ‘Big brother is coming to a school near you’
- ‘Australia: The great nanny state’
- Someone to Watch Over Me (Redux)
- panoptICONS Utrecht 2010.
In small groups, the students read or view and discuss one of the texts and record their responses to these questions:
- Who is watching?
- What are they watching?
- Should this be happening?
- Do you want to be watched in this way?
The students present their findings to the class in digital or print visual representations that evolve from the factual (what they have observed in the texts) to the personal (their view of these behaviours).
As a whole class, discuss and debate the nuances and dangers in different types of social control (such as control through technology, philosophy, religion or dictatorship), using these propositions as starting points:
- that the state needs to know where you are
- that we must be able to walk the streets in safety
- that we all need someone to watch over us
- that we need to promote community.
Activity 2: Reading Kurt Vonnegut ‘Harrison Bergeron’
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story ‘Harrison Bergeron’ was first published in 1961. It is a satire about American society and the belief that all people are created equal.
Introduce the story using a Frayer Model. This model is a scaffold that assists students to explore a particular concept. It helps to build vocabulary and refine concepts through exploring examples and non-examples of a concept, describing the essential characteristics of a concept and, finally, defining the term. The students use this model to explore key concepts in the story such as handicap, equality and intelligence, as a pre-reading activity for the story. They may use large sheets of A3 or butcher’s paper to do this, or they can use the Frayer model worksheet, adding the word they are exploring under the heading ‘Concept’ in the middle of the page.
To support reading, the students engage in a readers’ theatre in order to deepen their comprehension and foster identification with the characters and concerns of the story. To do this, they should adapt the story into a script. Groups of four or five could be formed and sections of the story could be allocated to each group. Readers’ theatre is often stylised: students read the scripts, standing in one place and, using gesture, simple props, pace and expression, interpret the story in the reading. Actors can be stationed in different places on the stage and they may step forward when they speak.
The students analyse the story’s literary qualities by:
- identifying, discussing and evaluating what the viewpoint of the text suggests, including the role of surveillance and control, the absence of the natural world, loss of independent thought, restrictions on freedom, social conformity, and the belief that personal restriction is for the benefit of society
- identifying, discussing and evaluating Vonnegut’s characterisation, especially the role of the protagonist who questions authority and seeks to escape and how the protagonist portrays the warning in the text.
Activity 3: Out there – the warning in the text
In this activity the students explore whether the warning in the story remains relevant today through participating in a class blog. The starting point for the blog is an appropriation of the opening line of the story:
The year is 2013, 2014 ... and everybody is finally equal.
The students compose blog entries that offer a warning for their peers about a social, political or philosophical aspect of our society, drawing on the concerns of the story. Remind them that powerful blog entries:
- sustain a strong persona by including genuine reflection, personal voice and personal experience
- focus strongly on the idea or theme
- include hyperlinks and comments as a method of providing evidence for their perspectives
- respond to others’ comments.