In high school, I decided that I wanted to be an English teacher, and I followed that goal to the University of Minnesota Duluth. I cannot speak highly enough of the preparation I received, through word and example, at UMD, and despite the many curveballs thrown by COVID-19, I completed a fairly normal student teaching semester and graduated in May 2021. I am a Minnesotan, born and raised, but even before graduation I knew that I wanted the experience of teaching in another country. With every intention of returning to MN, I applied, and was accepted, to teach English B at Mount Carmel High School in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize.
The national language of Belize, and the language we teach in, is English; however, what would constitute a normal language arts class in U.S. high schools is split into English A (grammar) and English B (literature). Benque Viejo is a border town and, consequently, about one fourth of our students come from the neighboring city of Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala. Due to the border closures and other COVID-19 restrictions, the administration decided that each form would have an online class made up of all the Guatemalan students. So this semester, I found myself teaching third form English B to 35 Guatemalan teenagers online, and the curriculum called for us to spend most of the semester reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
While certainly a classic, Animal Farm is an old book. Most American students are unfamiliar with the Russian Revolution and have only the most basic knowledge of Joseph Stalin, and I soon discovered that my third form class did not even have that. In addition, most of these students are ESL learners. True, they’ve been speaking English since they were small, but it is still not the primary language spoken at home. So, with little knowledge of the book and less knowledge of ESL learners, I started the semester.
Before opening the book, it made sense to me to spend some time learning about Russia and George Orwell. Certainly, themes of power and unchallenged control are applicable in any generation; however, Animal Farm is much more interesting to read when you understand why Orwell wrote it and how he used satire to expose Stalin to the rest of the world. Therefore, our pre-reading regimen included looking at the history of the Russian Revolution and Orwell’s childhood. Then, we talked about the characters that Orwell allegorized in his novel in preparation for connecting each animal to their historical human counterpart. Lastly, my students did a little research on Russia which included a virtual 3D tour of Moscow.
Prepared with some knowledge of Stalin’s rise to power and familiar with the idea of an allegory, we jumped in. Unsure whether my students would have the motivation or support at home to read on their own, I began by reading the first chapters out loud in class. The vocabulary in Animal Farm is difficult, especially for ESL readers, and I thought my students might recognize more words by sound rather than sight. I hoped that my most unwilling readers would at least catch part of the storyline. To keep all of my students engaged, I edited the first few chapters of the book to include pictures and notes with definitions for the most difficult words and then presented that version of the chapter in our Google Meet. After preparing the first few chapters, I remember being very grateful that Animal Farm has only ten.
Thanks to all the preparation I did for those early chapters, Orwell’s book had caught my attention, but I knew that my students were probably not yet convinced that Animal Farm was in any way connected to their lives. With an idea that teenagers could probably relate more to rebellion than communism, I settled on a journal prompt assignment for our first week. The question that they had to answer was simply, “If you were going to start a revolution, who would you revolt against and why?”
Coming from my sheltered Midwest experience, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe something about curfews or animal rights. You can imagine my surprise when I started reading my students’ responses and found out that over 90% were saying the same thing: they wanted to rebel against the Guatemalan government.
Most of them didn’t write more than the minimum, but they shared enough for me to realize that these kids knew better than I did what it was like to be promised great things by leaders who never follow through. They understood living in a country with resources that were only used to pad the pockets of the people on top rather than to feed and clothe the little guy. They could relate to the violence, lies, and helplessness that followed the Russian Revolution when things were supposed to be getting better. Following 35 years of civil war, kidnapping, and genocide, Guatemala has been a democratic country since 1996. Campaigns are run and elections are held; however, the country is far from rid of corruption and violence.
My students’ responses and the incredible realization that they could relate so well to the premise and purpose of our novel fueled the next eight weeks. We continued to read, partly in class and partly for homework. Together, we noted how Animal Farm ran so well in the beginning. After Snowball’s exile and the massacre, my students debated the characteristics of a good leader and whether or not Napoleon’s actions were justified. As the chapters quickly passed by, we held our breath and waited for peace to be restored to Animal Farm.
While I cannot guarantee that all of my students followed the whole novel, I know that the ending drove them crazy. Not one of them was happy with Napoleon’s unchallenged reign, and they had a lot to say about it. The idea that I had contemplated since that first journal prompt came to fruition after we finished the novel: their final assignment was an essay comparing the corruption in Animal Farm to the corruption they saw in the real world. I asked my students to articulate the characteristics of a bad leader that they saw in Napoleon and, again, most of the class was able to connect what happened in Animal Farm with what was happening in their country or another country nearby:
“The Government of Guatemala said that the money that other countries donated to help us in the pandemic will be used to give us groceries . . . [however,] the time that the groceries were needed to be given to us didn’t come, and as an excuse, the Government says that they invested it into building new hospitals, but we know that the Government stole the money for themselves.”
“These are things that happen in real life and that should have a stop. The duty of citizens is to protect and always look for ways to prosper the country. . . . Books or movies like Animal Farm must be read or seen so that the message reaches everyone and so countries like Guatemala prosper and stop corruption.”
“In other words, corruption is something we aren’t going to get rid off. Maybe we will in 20 years from now, but it depends on what the people decide to do. It depends if they want to live better for their own benefit. It’s on their power to say “stop!” and do something about it. I wish people wouldn’t be so greedy. Maybe those people who made promises to us did have good intentions, but the money kept them from their intentions. Greed and selfishness keep us away from doing good things. Resisting the temptation isn’t something easy, but that doesn’t justify the damage they do in our country.”
“Corruption is a daily thing that we Guatemalans see in our country. It is not surprising that all the promises that our elected presidents make us believe are later broken or not fulfilled. They promise so much when elections are going to happen but the moment they win, they just act like everything they said on that day was just a joke.”
“Let’s not be like the animals in Animal Farm, who blindly gave Napoleon and the pigs the power and control over the entire farm. Let’s be like Snowball, independent, intelligent, and creative, who stood up for his own self to at least try and improve his situation. In addition, Animal Farm is worth reading because the whole story itself is a great example on how too much power and control can lead to corruption.”
The goal of the essay was not to start a rebellion in Guatemala; however, I am grateful to have read Animal Farm with my third form class. Grateful that, somehow, this 75-year-old book was able to resonate with students from across the world. And mostly, grateful to have learned with my students that they are not alone in the timeless struggle against corruption.
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