Before starting our next novel unit on The Giver by Lois Lowry, my classes are investigating utopias to lay some groundwork for their thinking. First, I had them read about 3 real life utopias, including The Farm, Twin Oaks, and Acorn Community. They spent a class period reading and learning, then drawing conclusions about common features of successful utopias. Next, I had them think about what they would like to see in their very own utopia – what kinds of problems they would like to solve, and how they can build a successful, sustainable community.
For 3 days, they paired up and created their own personal utopias, complete with:
I let them create their utopia using any medium they wished (digital or physical), expressing themselves in any way they wished (verbally, in writing, in pictures, drawings, dioramas, etc.). They really enjoyed the freedom of choice and expression for this learning activity.
While they were working, I traveled around the room and did my best to listen and ask thoughtful questions. One group asked for my help when they became troubled about the idea of killing animals for meat, realizing it didn’t jive with their principles of non-violence and peace. I encouraged them to do additional research and see if they couldn’t find a solution for humane ways to kill animals. After quite some time searching, they concluded that there were no humane ways to slaughter animals, so they rebuilt their utopia into a vegetarian paradise. Another group felt that they wanted shortened school days so that children had more time to explore the outdoors and begin career training. They decided to get rid of science classes, which they felt were redundant. I began to question their need for medical professionals, food safety, agricultural engineering, and on and on and on…. and they quickly realized that science was a very important class that they needed to add back into their education plan.
Most of all, I loved watching my students think through problems on their own. This activity encouraged them to do some deep thinking and reflecting on what really matters in our current society, why things might be the way they are, and dream about what they would like to see differently for a better future. They also had to compromise and build off their partner’s ideas.
After 3 days of researching, planning, and creating, it was time to present their utopias to the class. I had the pleasure of watching over 40 presentations, and I noted some very uplifting and hopeful trends across all of the utopias. Overall, these ideas were repeated over and over again in the students’ visions for a perfect world:
- nonviolence, no weapons
- renewable energy and solar power
- respect for nature
- equality and respect for diversity
- community service (both mandated for all citizens, and as a first-strike punishment)
Other trends that I found interesting and thought-provoking were the ideas of: government provided housing (everyone rents, no one ever owns), shortened school days/hours so that students could pursue career-related activities, regulated working hours (everyone works the same amount of hours per week, regardless of profession), and more support for apprenticing and on-job training starting in high school (trade schools?). Some disappointing trends I heard repeated were the ideas that social studies is a pointless subject and waste of time (guess we need to do a better job emphasizing the importance of this subject, especially in our democratic society!) and exiling members who disobey (nope, we can’t do that, sorry guys!).
Overall, this was a very enlightening activity, both for me and for the students. I believe it will help them better understand the world that Lois Lowry has created in “The Giver,” and better understand some important themes such as Sameness throughout the book. It could also lay the groundwork for some very interesting conversations in Social Studies about the concepts of Socialism and Communism!
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