I ran across something in the paper this morning which made me laugh, and I don’t think it was intended.
I also just wrapped up a month-long study of Animal Farm with my 8th grade students. It’s one of those books that just seems to grow on me. I loved it in junior high, and I love it now in middle school.
There are several challenges though when teaching Animal Farm to 8th graders. For a lot of them, everything in life is so concrete. If it doesn’t happen on their phones and they don’t see it with their own eyes, it doesn’t exist. I’ve taught the book for a decade, but it was about five years ago that I began using an idea I found while teaching U.S. history and which I first encountered in Bruce A. Lesh’s Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?
Lesh’s method for teaching the concept of historical thinking to middle and upper school students included three levels of understanding:
Text stands for the words themselves that the students encounter and the ideas that are conveyed by their use. The context is the set of circumstances and events that help us understand why those words are being used. And the subtext is what we take away on a deeper level, what we come to understand as the heart of the matter. As most of us know from our own experiences, it’s not always what’s being said but also what’s not being said that matters. The subtext allows us to read between the lines, and for younger folks who live in such a literal world, this isn’t always easy to do. They have to learn how to read between the lines.
When introducing Animal Farm, I let the story stand on its own. Students read a tale of a bunch of animals taking over a farm from its owner. As they read though, I ask them to consider four ideas which seem to pop up repeatedly – fear, power, violence, and language. They highlight these specific themes as they read and we progress through the book. The one idea they struggle with the most is language, and every year, in every class, I always have a student ask, “What do you mean by language?” I know that this will end up being one of the most dominant points of our group discussions, so I throw the question right back to them.
That’s a good question, and it’s what I’m asking you to consider. What do we mean by language? How do we use it? How does it work? Is there power in it? Do we use it for fear? Can it lead to violence? Does it do what we hope it will do? Do our words lead to our actions? Or do we use words to get others to act?
I don’t throw all these questions at them at first. I just let them marinate in the uncertainty of language, how it works, how we spot it, and what it all means. They want “the answer,” but I don’t offer them one.
What I do offer them is context. After reading the book, and discussing allegories, irony, and satire, we take a broad look at the Russian revolutions of 1917. It’s then that students begin to realize that Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon have counterparts in Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Some began to see the parallels between the slaughtering of the animals and Stalin’s Great Purge.
With this context, students began to pick up on their own subtext. Some of them come to understand there’s a reason why animals can’t effectively run a farm. (Answer: Their trotters get in the way.) Some of them walk away from the book with the message that Communism is bad. And some understand that the satirical book is a painful allegory of how humans are always allowing their own actions to poison the well of their own good intentions.
We need context in order to get to the subtext.
We also watch the 1954 animated film version of Animal Farm and talk about how the ending differs from the novel and the ironic funding of the film by the Central Intelligence Agency, tax dollars spent on a piece of propaganda designed to tell the story of the dangers of propaganda. We talk about “fake news” and all of the meanings it has today – from yellow journalism to presidential rhetoric – and how we allow a world of information on tiny supercomputers in our pockets to act as poor substitutes for the natural computers resting on our shoulders. We conclude our study with Pink Floyd’s tenth album, Animals, released in 1977. We discuss how it’s no Dark Side of the Moon and very likely marks the beginning of the end for the band, but we still reflect on its own cultural and artistic merits. More importantly though, students derive their own meaning from a work of art because those who have come before them also grappled with the daunting task of wrestling with both text and context to discover the subtext of their own lives.
I love talking about Animal Farm and the annual work to make it poignant for my intended audience. I also love taking a break from that, which is what I was doing this morning over a cup of coffee when I ran across these two paragraphs from today’s edition of my local newspaper. For now, just ignore the context and read these words on their own:
Then he planned to hold his own run in his back yard Tuesday, which would involve killing a chicken – his family’s unruly rooster, actually – and cooking a gumbo. No luck there, either: The cold front headed for Acadiana meant he needed to kill his chicken this weekend and forgo the Tuesday celebration at home.
The fowl was in the freezer Saturday afternoon.
LOL, as the kids say. Or used to say. Or did they ever really say that and we just have assumed that they did? I can’t keep up. What’s trending and not changes hourly. But context is still everything, isn’t it?
There’s nothing wrong with those two paragraphs. The words do the job. They make sense in the order in which they appear. They offer complete thoughts that build upon one another. But without the context of south Louisiana during Mardi Gras, its culture, its traditions, an unusually bitter cold snap, and a worldwide pandemic, it’s just downright weird.
As much as I love words, I’m also wary of them – especially words that offer no context or attempt to act as if context doesn’t matter, as if it’s just fluffy cushioning for the text itself. I’m also leery of the idea that it’s just rhetoric. Because as we all know, it is all just rhetoric. It’s what we do with the subtext that seems to be the real test.
For now though, feel free to run around in your back yard, kill a chicken, make a gumbo, stay at home, skip the party, and throw the bird in the freezer.