When I first started teaching dystopian literature about a dozen years ago, I actually had to define dystopia. Not any more! Kids love the stuff, and they already have a lot of experience. But I still think it’s great to teach because you can dig into some of the more nuanced ideas and even some aspects of literary style or sentence construction.
One thing I like to do is start with the idea of Utopia, since most Dystopias come about because a powerful group tries to create an ideal society for themselves. Utopian songs are a nice way to start because they’re short and students usually enjoy listening to them. Many of these Utopian songs would work on their own, or you could also do a jigsaw or have groups listen to several and compare/contrast.
- What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong–A good song for talking about what we already like in our own world.
- Peace Train by Cat Stevens–Good for introducing the recurring idea that a Utopia is somewhere else and we need to travel to find it.
- Imagine by John Lennon–The classic, but makes for good controversial discussions. Would the world be a better place without religion? My students have always had a lot to say about this song.
- Big Rock Candy Mountain by Harry McClintock–My favorite Utopian song to teach. Some kids will probably need historical background (this video works well). Good for inference and point of view. Clearly introduces the idea that one person’s Utopia might cause problems for others. Warning: does have references to alcohol and theft.
- Promised Land by Joe Smooth–I bet your students will find this 30-year-old song is still quite relevant to things that are happening today.
- Utopia by Hawkwind–A short song that gets at the problem of boredom and complacency in Utopias. Very different musical style if your students aren’t so receptive to hippie songs. Also a good opportunity to talk about the passive voice in action. Many Utopian and Dystopian works use the passive without an agent and this song might be a good way to introduce that pattern.
- Accidently Kelly Street by Frente!–Yes, that’s how the Australian group spells “accidentally.” A good song for talking about attitude and making the most of the situation, especially the line “I know that my decisions change my life.”
- (Nothing but) Flowers by The Talking Heads–So The Talking Heads are rarely straightforward, right? And this ironic song is probably as much Dystopian as it is Utopian. But it is an accessible way of exploring how authors comment on our own world through the imagined worlds of Utopias and Dystopias.
Stay tuned to Next Time Teaching because Dystopian literature is one of my favorite things to teach and there’s lots more coming!