In my view, some of the big ideas in “Shooting an Elephant” are certainly the injustices of imperialism, but also more subtly, how cognitive dissonance can first disorient then help clarify, how power can distort human relationship dynamics, and how peer or mob pressure can change our ideas about what behavior is right. With these big ideas in mind, I turned to the first of three prompts, which, according to Lesnick, should be about something noticeable, making a personal connection “out of the self” through an odd-angled question that relaxes the imagination (Lesnick 80). The “elephant in the room” in Orwell’s anecdote is literally an elephant. But what if it wasn’t an elephant, and what if you were Orwell? I hope it will be engaging for students to share with their teams the animal they imagined taking the elephant’s place, and how the switch affected their decision as the shooter, but I’m also trying to set up how the magnificence of an elephant (powerful, intelligent, long-lived, strange-looking fellow mammal) makes Orwell’s quandary so much weightier.). The frame structure of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” also occurred to me, and I tried to develop a simple structural question that might spark group conversation “connected in some way to the big idea” (Perrillo).When you’re a leader, the “emperor has no clothes.” To me, this relates to an important theme of Orwell’s story, that, using his words from the essay, "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.” Certainly, Orwell violates his own personal freedom by shooting an elephant he didn’t want to shoot, just to play his little part in British imperialism and “avoid looking a fool.” I wrestled with how to crystallize this theme, and the others I’ve identified, into one short, powerful question. And in the end, Lesnick (and Stephen Toulmin whom she borrowed from) showed me the light. Their generic question-starter “What do you need to believe for it to seem true that…?” asks about “the warrants supporting a claim” (Lesnick 81). This works nicely I think for my third prompt because to answer it, the student, and then the collaborative group, will need to come to some consensus about the pros and cons of Orwell’s choices. To do that, they’ll have to step into the shoes of someone in authority; they’ll have to feel what it’s like to put personal conviction aside and be forced to choose between two imperfect choices.
Elbow, Peter. Writing With Power, Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Chapter 9. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Lesnick, Alice. “Odd Questions, Strange Texts, and Other People.” Writing-Based Teaching, Essential Practices and Enduring Questions, ed. Teresa Vilardi and Mary Chang. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2009.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: First Mariner Books edition, 2009.
Perrillo, Jonna. “Example Collaborative Learning Questions for ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ ” and “Collaborative Learning Questions” from English Teaching Methods class handout. The University of Texas at El Paso, Fall 2013.