By: Liz Jorgensen

I’m so glad that I stumbled upon the DUST short films YouTube channel a few weeks ago.

According to their About page, “DUST is a sci-fi brand that presents thought-provoking visions of the future.” An apt description. From post-apocalyptic to man vs. machine to questions of scientific ethics, DUST addresses it all. And they tackle these topics through short, engaging, artistic films.

dust tears in rain

I found DUST when I was combing the inter-webs for resources to augment a mini-unit that I teach on dystopian short stories. If you want to see an article that I wrote last year about a short story called “Red Card” by S.L. Gilbow that I teach, click here. I have found that dystopian fiction is a perfect scaffolding tool in teaching my students about power, oppression, and justice, which are all important big ideas in my first semester curriculum. Dystopian stories are engaging in their often shocking visions of the future, and they really pack a punch. Because they present a future-gone-wrong, they also challenge readers to think deeply about the problems inherent in those future societies, which highlights problems in our own which they might not have seen before.

However, students do sometimes struggle to understand dystopian stories because they are set outside of the students’ known world. It’s hard enough to get your bearings quickly in a short story that takes place in a society you know, let alone one set in some unhappy future in which the parameters and norms of society are quite different than your own.

I wanted to find a way to reinforce right off the bat what is truly important about dystopian stories; not just that they are creepy and futuristic, but that, as John Joseph Adams, editor of dystopian anthology Brave New Worlds says in the introduction to that book, “…in a dystopia, the society often gives up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of B blinds the society to the loss of A; it is often not until many years later that the loss of A is truly felt, and the citizens come to realize that the world they once thought acceptable (or even ideal) is not the world they thought it was.” In other words, in a dystopian story, a society decides to give up one thing in exchange for another that they think will be better but it actually turns out to be worse. I wanted my students to both understand and be on the look-out for that important trade off in the dystopian stories that we read.

So, this year, after reading and annotating the introduction to Brave New Worlds by Adams, I had my students watch the DUST short film “Perfectly Natural” and find connections between it and what the introduction told them about dystopian stories. “Perfectly Natural” made a perfect (pun intended) first dive into dystopian stories because it is poignant, engaging, and rife with themes about society.

dust perfectly natural

In the short film, an AI program called Future Families offers parents the opportunity to plug their baby into a computer program which teaches the baby advanced scholastic material and also keeps them sedated and occupied while parents get other things done, such as taking on extra shifts at work to make more money and climb the social ladder. My students were shook when they watched the main character and mother, Wanda, realize that she was unable to disconnect her baby from the Future Families computer program due to the risk of brain damage to her child. They immediately picked up on the trade-off in this story: trading quality time with family for increased working, money-making, and leisure capability, all the while losing true bonds with others. For the document I made for this activity click here:

Dystopian stories intro

After my recent discovery of DUST films, I have watched a few more. The beauty of dystopian stories is that they are so deeply thematic that they make great connections with virtually all anchor texts. Here are a few more recommendations:

  • Zero” is a post-apocalyptic Allegory of the Cave awakening story. Great connection for stories with themes of freedom and safety.

dust zero

  • The Black Hole” is super short but super powerful. Connects with stories about humanity and greed.

dust the black hole

  • Switch” reminds me of both Frankenstein and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” but with a Stranger Things vibe. It’s got themes of science ethics and dealing with loss as well as the archetype of blindness all wrapped up into a hard-hitting five minutes.

dust switch

Those are just some highlights of the ones I have found time to watch so far, but there are hundreds more. From what I have seen so far, they all put the “thought” into “thought-provoking,” which should be one of the objectives of any great lesson in English class.

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • What are some of your great lead-in lessons for helping students to understand the complexity and depth of dystopian stories?
  • Have you used any DUST short films in your classroom? Tell us about how you used them to support your content.

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