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1984: How Much Fact In Fiction?

  • Subject: Literature
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Four to five class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. The historical context of 1984 is based on the mood and political climate of 1949 Europe.
2. The society Orwell created in 1984 and modern society in the United States have similarities and differences.
3. Modern privacy issues and the justifications behind privacy violations are subject to debate.


Computers with Internet access (optional but very helpful)
Pens and paper
Copies of the Classroom Activity Sheet: Privacy Research (see printable version)
Copies of theTake-Home Activity Sheet: A Question of Privacy (see printable version)


1. Note to teachers: Many of the issues raised in this lesson are likely to be of great interest to high school students and may spark interesting and potentially rambling discussions. Consider placing time limits on students' comments or on the class discussions as a whole.

After students have finished reading 1984 and have discussed their initial reactions to the novel, ask them why they think Orwell wrote this book. What world events were occurring around the time Orwell was writing 1984 ? (Let students know that 1984 was published in 1949.) What events had occurred since Orwell's birth in 1903? Help students understand the novel's historical connections. They should be made aware that several events of the early 20th century, including World War I, the Great Depression, Joseph Stalin's rise to power in the Soviet Union, and World War II, contributed to Orwell's mood in writing 1984 . For example, in 1949, Stalin was the dictator of the Soviet Union. He ruled by terror and executed millions of people, including people who had helped him rise to power and peasants who opposed his collective agriculture program. Orwell also reacted to the dawn of the nuclear era, beginning with the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb changed people's perceptions of the potential outcomes of warfare and made people contemplate the future of the human race.

2. Also make sure students understand that Orwell was displeased not only with Stalinism and the situation in the Soviet Union but also with events and trends in Western Europe and the United States, such as increased technological warfare and the support of noncommunist dictatorships. 1984 was not only an attack against Stalinism but also a statement of dissatisfaction with political trends in the "democratic" world of Western Europe and the United States.
3. Ask students to describe some of the ways in which the world has changed since 1949. What has happened to the distribution of power in Europe? What are some of concerns common in Western Europe today and 1949? Have students take notes during this discussion.
4. Now that students have considered the historical context for Orwell's writing of 1984 and have discussed some of the differences between 1949 and the present, have the class list the novel's primary themes. Students might contribute such words as "freedom," "privacy," "individualism versus the state," or "big government." Write their ideas on the board and have them record the list on their own papers.
5. Ask students whether they ever feel that their privacy is threatened by the government, corporations, the media, or other entities. Have they ever had any experiences in which they felt that their rights to privacy were violated? Has anyone ever been in a situation that is reminiscent of a situation that occurs in 1984 ?
6. Write the word "privacy" at the top of the board and then draw a two-column chart with the headings "1984" and "Today." Have students copy the chart onto their own papers. Ask students to contribute examples of privacy restrictions in the novel and in modern society and write their ideas in the appropriate columns. An example chart is illustrated below.

1984 Today
  • Telescreens are everywhere (except for where the Proles live and work).
  • Workplace monitoring—Winston can't look at a note on his desk or dwell too long on a single document.
  • Thought Police interpret people's facial expressions and voice intonations.
  • Spies—one never knows whom to trust.
  • FBI surveillance
  • Corporations collecting data on consumers
  • Internet privacy issues
  • Drug testing at the workplace or school
  • Employers monitoring employees' e-mails, phone calls, or bathroom usage

Students will probably mention the issue of being monitored at school or by their parents, being prohibited from visiting certain Web sites at home or at school, having their lockers or bedrooms inspected, and so forth. Explain that these issues are a little different from privacy issues in society-at-large because parents are generally accorded the right to monitor their children's behaviors, and the courts have determined schools to be places in which students relinquish some of their constitutional rights. This will probably be a topic of great interest among students, and the conversation may need to be curtailed so that the class can continue with the lesson objectives. Tell the class that the focus of the lesson will be on privacy issues in society-at-large rather then in the specialized "societies" of home and school.

7. Ask students to conduct Internet and/or print research to find out about current privacy-related issues and debates affecting our society. As seemingly endless amounts of information is related to this topic, students will need to limit their time searching and focus on a handful of resources that they think are particularly relevant. The list of sites below provides a good starting point. (You may want to limit research to these sites alone.) As they explore the sites, have students record their findings in the chart provided in the Classroom Activity Sheet: Privacy Research. They should also fill in this chart if they're using print resources instead of the Internet. (For fun, you could have students record the number of times Big Brother is referenced in the modern-day articles they read.)

General Privacy Issues

Internet Privacy IssuesVideo SurveillanceDrug TestingPolice Surveillance, Including Search and SeizureRacial Profiling
8. Hold a brief class discussion on students' research findings. What are the major privacy-related issues they've found? What do students feel are the most pressing issues? Which entities, government or corporate, do they feel pose the greatest threats to individual privacy? Do they evaluate both the same?
9. Divide the class into groups of approximately four students each. Ask each group to choose one of the privacy issues they've learned about or assign each group a specific issue. Try to divide the issues so that groups cover a variety of topics; you don't want every group to cover drug testing or Internet privacy. Have groups prepare scenes to perform in front of the class. Scenes need to include a variety of viewpoints on the issues and must contain a reference to 1984 . Group members should portray characters discussing and debating the group's specific privacy-related issue. Each scene should be no more than five minutes long. Here's a sample scenario:
An employee has been fired. The reason for the firing is that she allegedly arrived at work late too many times, but she's recently discovered that her boss read several of her supposedly private e-mails, in which she spoke of the boss in an unflattering manner.
The characters could include the fired employee, the employee's lawyer, the boss, and the manager who wrote the company's e-mail policy. Either the employee or her lawyer would, in the course of their conversations with the other characters, make a statement comparing the scenario to something that might have happened in 1984 .As an alternative, the boss or manager could make a statement explaining how the company's policy differs from the those described in 1984 .
10. Have students perform their scenes in front of the class. After each performance, have the class briefly summarize the issues raised in the scene.
11. After all groups have performed, assign for homework the paragraph in the Take-Home Activity Sheet: A Question of Privacy.

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Although younger students may not have read 1984 , this activity could be adapted to introduce issues of freedom, privacy, individualism versus the state, and big government. Discuss the different issues that affect the society's privacy, such as video surveillance, drug testing, police surveillance, and racial profiling. Have students get into groups and hypothesize the reasons why these policies and practices are in place. Can they think of any positive reasons for having these policies? Ask students to brainstorm privacy issues that affect young people, such as cybersurveillance or locker searches. Have groups perform scenes in which they act out freedom or privacy infringement scenarios that have happened to them or that are realistic for people their age. Discuss the scenes and the related policies with the class and make sure they understand that not all policies are random and although some are certainly unfair, most have arguably legitimate purposes.

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Discussion Questions

1. Compare and contrast the concepts of technological surveillance that Orwell envisioned in 1984 and the forms of technological surveillance that are used today.
2. Discuss the reasons why some people might not be bothered by the same alleged invasions of privacy that deeply concern other people. For example, why do some people take greater issue with employee drug testing than others do?
3. What would the U.S. Founding Fathers have said about some of the privacy-related issues that are being debated today?
4. Debate whether the impact of a privacy violation differs if the policy is implemented by a government or by a corporation. Does it matter who is violating your privacy?
5. Discuss the ways in which the news media may shape opinions regarding privacy issues. For example, what might be the effects of a nightly news feature that discusses economic losses due to employee drug abuse? What if it featured an employee who had a false positive drug test and was subsequently fired?
6. Explain the ways in which an Orwellian society, with a severe lack of personal privacy and freedom, could develop in both a communist and a capitalist society.

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Students should participate in their groups, follow all directions, and demonstrate a careful consideration of the privacy issues raised in the novel and in contemporary debates. Use the following three-point rubric to evaluate students' work during this lesson:
  • Three points: Student displays exemplary performance or effort.
  • Two points: Student displays average performance or effort.
  • One point: Student displays minimal performance or effort.
Students will be graded upon the following:
  • Participation in class discussions and note taking
  • Working cooperatively and efficiently in groups
  • Thorough completion of the Privacy Research and A Question of Privacy Activity Sheets
  • Serious contemplation in skit creation and role participation in the scene
  • Demonstrated understanding of the privacy issues presented by the student in the scene

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Your Rights at School and Home
Have students research the laws and policies that affect their own rights at school and at home. They should look for answers to these questions:
  • What are the limitations to your privacy and other rights at school?
  • How do your rights at school compare to your rights outside of school?
  • What are the justifications for treating you differently at school than when you're outside of school?
  • What recent court decisions regard this issue?
  • What rights do your parents have that can affect what you do at home? Do their rights differ when you're away from home?
Have students think of examples in which they or their friends were treated differently at school than they would have been outside of school. For example, they may know someone who's had his or her locker searched, or they may be aware of the school's Internet filtering software that excludes them from certain Web sites. Discuss these issues and have them list the pros and cons of each of the school policies that permit these privacy restrictions. Make sure they pay careful attention to the justifications for these policies while proclaiming their dissatisfaction with them.

Privacy and the Bill of Rights
Have students take turns reading the Bill of Rights out loud. Is the word "privacy" mentioned at all? Which amendment(s) seem to deal most directly with the issue of privacy? Have students research recent court cases related to the Fourth Amendment to find out what the justice system is saying about our rights under this amendment. Ask them to role-play privacy-related hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court, with some students playing the justices and others playing attorneys and witnesses.

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Suggested Readings

Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics
Karen Zeinert. Enslow, 1995.
Freedom of Speech is guaranteed by the Constitution, yet there are trends in our society that bring to mind Orwell's Thought Police. Movie and music censors, "political correctness," monolithic ownership of news outlets, and other attempts to control what we speak and what we hear are covered by the author of this timely book.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four
Harold Bloom, editor. Chelsea House, 1996.
This entry in the Bloom's Notes series includes a brief biography of George Orwell, an examination of the themes and structure of the novel, and excerpts of analytical essays by other writers.

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Homework Center Mission
This public library site explores the issue of banned books and censorship in general. The links are most valuable to pursue discussion topics presented in this lesson.

American Civil Liberties Union
This is the official website for the ACLU, an organization that is "the nation's foremost advocate of individual rights´┐Ż." The site, with its many features, offers support material for almost all the privacy issues presented in this lesson.
This encyclopedia article begins with background on Orwell and his works, then offers direct links to other Britannica articles on 1984 and the many facets of the novel. There is solid information, analysis, and criticism here.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    cookie
Definition: Small data files placed on a computer's hard drive after a computer user visits certain Web sites.
Context: She was concerned that some companies might try to figure out how long she spent at their Web sites and which pages she visited. Because she thought this information was none of their business, she disabled her Web browser's ability to accept cookies.

speaker    racial profiling
Definition: The act of defining members of a particular racial group (or minorities in general) as being more likely than average to be engaged in illegal activities.
Context: The police department's practice of racial profiling has angered many residents, particularly members of the minority community, who feel they are being unfairly singled out for searches.

speaker    search and seizure
Definition: The act of looking for, locating, and removing material, usually illegal possessions or potential evidence of a crime; generally used to describe the power of the police or other government officials to locate and remove evidence from a person's body or property.
Context: His lawyers will argue that the police conducted an illegal search and seizure when they searched his house without a warrant and took certain items as evidence.

speaker    Stalinism
Definition: The theory and practice of communism developed by Josef Stalin from Marxism/Leninism and characterized by rigid authoritarianism, widespread use of terror, and often by emphasis on nationalism.
Context: Many people who denounce the evils of communism are primarily thinking of Stalinism, in which Josef Stalin formulated Marxist/Leninist doctrine into a rigid and brutal totalitarian government.

speaker    surveillance
Definition: A close watch kept over someone or something.
Context: The convenience store manager has just purchased an expensive new surveillance system, which will capture all customers' activities on video and automatically phone the police if it detects an object in the shape of a gun.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Civics
Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
Understands the importance to individuals and to society of personal rights such as freedom of thought and conscience, privacy and personal autonomy, and the right to due process of law and equal protection of the law.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: World History
Understands how post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up.
Understands the impact of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War (e.g., the effects of United States and Soviet competition for influence or dominance on such countries as Egypt, Iran, the Congo, Vietnam, Chile, and Guatemala; the impact of the Cold War on art, literature, and popular culture around the world).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Language Arts
Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
Understands the philosophical assumptions and basic beliefs underlying an author's work (e.g., point of view, attitude, and values conveyed by specific language; clarity and consistency of political assumptions).

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Betsy Hedberg, freelance curriculum writer and teacher.

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