Exploring Word Choice and Cultural Identity

As an introduction to Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel about a society that burns books, I wanted my students to explore the importance of language as part of our cultural genome. 

In class, I began with an exercise to get them thinking about censorship, conformity vs. nonconformity and the importance of language, which are central themes in the novel.  

I gave each student a quote. Their job was to walk around the room and read their quote to as many people as they could in three minutes. 

When the three minutes was up, they took their seats and we had a whole group discussion. I asked them to share their favorite quotes. Then I asked them to identify the main ideas they felt were conveyed by the quotes they heard. 

For homework, I designed a TED Ed lesson around a TED talk titled “What We Learned from 5 Million Books.” This talk focuses on what can be learned about our cultural identity from word usage. Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, who are incredibly entertaining, explain how Google’s NGram Viewer works and share some surprising examples of what we can learn from the 500 billion words scanned by Google. I wrapped this talk in short answer and multiple choice questions.

Here is an example of a student’s response to one of the questions in the lesson:

I wove this lesson back into our classroom by grouping students together to play with Google’s NGram Viewer. I encouraged them to search a series of words, names, phrases, etc. to see how often they were used over the last 200+ years.

I encouraged them to discuss the results and make inferences about what was happening in society that may have led to the trends they were seeing in the data. Their conversations were fascinating!

For homework, I posted a discussion topic to our Collaborize Classroom site to extend their conversations about language and word usage. 

The goal of my blended lesson was to pique student interest and get them thinking about language as part of our cultural genome. I hoped they would appreciate how language has changed and evolved to reflect our cultural identity. As we read Fahrenheit 451 and explore this futuristic society’s attitude towards literature, I believe this exercise will get my students asking questions and thinking more deeply about the central themes in this novel.

It would be frosting on the cake if these activities also inspired them to consider the importance of their own word choice!

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