In this Orwellian time of Trump, Stonington schools drop 'Animal Farm'

It is troubling to me that, at a time when sales of books by George Orwell are spiking nationally amid fears of Donald Trump's totalitarian inclinations, that Stonington has dropped his "Animal Farm" from the eighth-grade teaching curriculum.

More troubling is that a group of parents that tried to get it restored, supporting a teacher who has been using the book in classes for the last 20 years, got little traction with public school administrators.

Most frightening to me was the response from those administrators, when I called to ask about the fate of the literary classic in Stonington schools.

What they told me could have come right out of Orwell's typewriter. I felt like I was talking to the pigs who expelled the humans from the farm in "Animal Farm" and were running the show as they pleased.

It all started when parents, clued in by their children to what was happening, opened a dialogue with a teacher at Mystic Middle School who was upset that he could no longer use in courses the classic that he had taught to so many students over the years.

After all, the book is 31 on the Modern Library List of the Best 20th Century Novels. Never mind the way it is reverberating in 2017, with the rest of Orwell's work.

Orwell's dystopian novel "1984," first published in 1949, became the sixth best-selling book on Amazon.com the day after Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway used the phrase "alternative facts" in an interview.

The Mystic Middle School teacher got what I might call the Orwellian treatment when he asked why "Animal Farm" was eliminated from the curriculum after all these years, he told a parent in an email.

"There is something very '1984' about all this, including the doublespeak about the curriculum," the teacher wrote in early January. "I don't have a good answer for 'why' the book was dropped ..."

"None of the reasons I have been given make much sense. I have heard 1) whole group discussion of a single book is discouraged 2) the book is age inappropriate and 3) it's not part of a 'list' of approved books. I don't understand this either! ...

"Animal Farm is an important book. It is particularly relevant in so many ways: the political process, the social contract between citizens and government, the politics of language, the meaning of truth etc."

I can see why so many parents are happy this guy is at the front of their children's classrooms.

Mystic Middle School Principal Gregory Keith, on the other hand, misled me when I called to ask why "Animal Farm" had been dropped from the curriculum.

He said the book would indeed be taught in February, evidently referring to a recent compromise in which students can volunteer to learn about the book in an "enrichment" session outside the regular classes.

"Good gosh," Keith later exclaimed, when I quoted from his own January email, passed around among parents, in which he said "Animal Farm" had been dropped from the school's official language arts curriculum and could no longer be used as a  "primary source" for "whole group instruction."

He said he could no longer comment and sent me on to district administrators.

Schools Superintendent Van Riley, who was copied on the emails about "Animal Farm," did not return a phone message I left about the book.

The message was returned instead by Nikki Gullickson, assistant superintendent, who tried to explain how the core curriculum came to be changed.

As she spoke, I thought of the term "doublespeak" that the Mystic Middle School teacher used for the reasons he was given that he could no longer teach "Animal Farm" the way he has for 20 years.

Gullickson told me a new system of developing anchor texts for core curriculum was put in place this year for eighth-grade classes.

She said the decision about Orwell's book came from a meeting of teachers meant to build a consensus, but she didn't know how many teachers ultimately were involved — answers ranged from four to many — how they reached their choices or whether the decisions could be amended, given the complaints by one teacher who relies on the novel and parents who agree with him.

I got mostly jargon-filled, one-phrase or one-sentence answers to my many questions.

In the end, when she asked who sent me the emails about "Animal Farm," I could think only of "1984" and the fictional government in the book by which torture is carried out by the Ministry of Love and thoughtcrime is enforced by the Thought Police.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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