Below are several projects that I have used successfully in the past. Please contact me if you would like to discuss them further.

Utopia and Dystopia --- Brave New World and Animal Farm


Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales

The Great Gatsby

Of Mice and Men and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Playing Archeologist and Things Fall Apart And Good Old Culture

Romeo and Juliet

Tom Sawyer



To Kill a Mockingbird



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Catcher in the Rye


Lord of the Flies

Animal Farm

Ralph Maltese

Brave New World by Huxley, is tech loaded--from cloning, soma (instant gratification), to helicopters, etc., the novel is rich in themes that kids could explore. It requires that the teacher get the students over the hump in the first few chapters (which can be confusing), but once past Chapter 2 or so, the novel is a straight narrative, and the kids usually love it.
While not technologically rich, another novel that gets a great deal of mileage is Animal Farm--themes of exploitation and the consequences of an illiterate and ignorant society are things, if properly handled, will engage kids. And it is very easy to read. There are also short stories that invite discussion and have as their focus questions about technological progress--a long short story is "The Machine Stops" by E.M. Forster, and it sounds like it was written yesterday. It wasn't--it was written, I believe, in 1909, but I would not tell my students until after they read it--they were equally surprised that Forster could envision this at the turn of the century (Frankly, I would hope that all people, especially CFF coaches, would read that story--I might recommend that). A very short story, about 2 pages, is The "Phoenix"--it actually explores the different views people in the modern era have toward natural resources, and, again, this short story could be mined for projects--especially a podcast recording the event in the story.

Brave New World

Create a scenario in which a modern day investigative team of students, working for a non-profit organization, examine whether or not contemporary society is closer to Huxley’s futuristic dystopia in the novel or farther away. The team is to collect evidence from as many aspects of society as it can, especially from science and sociology. Included in the project must be some discussion of the ethos of the modern scientific community.

Animal Farm

Teams of students explore the propaganda of three major wars: World War I, World War II, and the American-Iraqui conflict. They are to make a presentation to the United Nations explaining the commonalties of the propaganda used in all three wars as well as the differences.
The presentations should focus on the “language” of propaganda as well as the media used to convey the “message.”

Ralph Maltese

One of my takes on Beowulf, since it is so stylized, is to focus on style. On the AP exams and other tests, a question invariably arises "Analyze the style of the author while discussing theme, characterization, etc." Most students think style is "well, kinda like, ya know, well sort of like the way an author says something." I want them to be more specific: style means diction (word choice), syntax, and figures of speech. Of course, then I have to explain each of those terms. Then I give them a project, something like "Prepare a modern Presidential campaign speech (addressing four major issues of the day) in the style of Beowulf." Or as a group prepare a play by play coverage of a sporting event in the style of Beowulf. Since we do this in the beginning of the year, we can now constantly refer to style when discussing other authors.
Another take on Beowulf is simply heroism. I give them the Greek and Roman criteria for a hero (think Achilles and Odysseus), and we discuss the heroic qualities of Beowulf. We follow that up with a collaborative project on modern day heroes (the fact that so many students fail to come up with a hero also makes for a good discussion). "Choose a modern day hero and prepare presentation on why your chosen hero should be Time's Man/Woman of the Year." We have to make a huge distinction between heroism and celebrity status.
The essential question for this latter unit is "Is heroism culturally dependent? Do the traits of what we call a hero vary from one culture to the next? What do people projected by a society to be heroic tell us about that society?" We can then look at those same questions only in relation to celebrities.

Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales
Ralph Maltese
I always used the literature I taught as opportunities for students to improve/develop other skills. And since so many of my students were not applying to Harvard or Yale, I especially emphasized skill development rather than content exploration. In that context, some projects that worked involved:

Beowulf—I focused on students trying to understand what "style" really means. So we broke it down into its components—when a test asks to critique an author's style, that meant examining the diction, figures of speech, syntax. (there is more, but I found it advisable to keep the criteria short). So my project basically has collaborative groups choose a modern day scenario, a presidential speech, a pep rally at school, a field trip excursion, and produce a play in the style of Beowulf. I usually begin the year with this unit so we have a vocabulary for discussing style with the other authors we will study.
Beowulf—A second project involves the study of heroism. We study the elements of heroic actions and I ask collaborative groups to choose a modern day hero and promote that hero for congressional office….in other words, a campaign. Surprisingly how modern day students find it difficult to choose a hero. We make the distinction between heroes and celebrities.

The Canterbury Tales—One of the best activities I developed for a class of very challenging students focused on characterization. So I had the class read aloud the prologue. We cited the characters and noted physical and moral characteristics of Chaucer's pilgrims. Then I divided the class into collaborative groups and asked them to become experts on the pilgrims. Each student chose two pilgrims to know inside and out. Then we had a medieval joust in which students in one group challenged another group to a trivia test on the characters. It worked well, even though the winning team in one class won with about 6 points. Of course, the real learning was not in the memorization of the trivia, but the collaborative skills and the thinking skills in organizing the material. The project worked very well.

The Canterbury Tales—Another project that seemed to engage students was the creation of a modern day Canterbury Tales. Collaborative groups had to prepare a list of modern day pilgrims gleaned from American contemporary society, create a frame for them to travel, and then reveal the stereotype in verse. This was more challenging than the above project, but students took to it fairly well. I was heartened by students dressing up as their stereotypes on the days of their presentations, and the project initiated good discussions about labeling people and operating under those perceptions we have of other people.

The Great Gatsby
Ralph Maltese

I taught The Great Gatsby many times, and have enjoyed doing so. This is my interpretation and within that context, I offer the following.

I teach the novel as an example of the romantic ideal—the concept that there is nobility and purpose in striving against the odds, in challenging windmills. Gatsby certainly does this—he pursues his adolescent dream, Daisy, and though his pursuit is puerile, compared to the lost generation of the other characters, including Daisy’s husband, Tom, Gatsby is a knight in shining armor. I believe this is why Nick tells Gatsby near the end, “[Gatsby], you’re worth the whole damn bunch.”
While Gatsby is the romantic hero, Tom symbolizes the advent of fascism (notice his treatise on minority groups), Daisy the purposeless and materialistic lost generation (her voice sounded like money falling), Jordan Baker, the androgynous and dishonest jazz era, etc. The novel is character driven, and, with that in mind, the following projects seemed to work well:

1) Imagine that all the characters in the novel attended the same senior prom (including Meyer Wolfsheim). Students in collaborative groups write, direct, and produce a small movie/play of this event.
2) Students in collaborative groups choose one of the five major characters to build a modern day ad agency around. What would Gatsby’s ad agency be called, who would be his clients, and what ads (include as many different media types as possible) would his agency (or the other characters) produce? Ask students to consider the thematic significance of the billboard of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg in the novel.
3) Gatsby’s mansion is the focus of one of those television shows (like the old Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous). Students in collaborative groups prepare a virtual video tour of the mansion, complete with narration. The tour guide points out both plot development sites and places in the house of thematic interest. This tour might include other places, including Daisy’s dock.

Of Mice and Men and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Ralph Maltese

Of Mice and Men possessed two essential questions for me: one involves the dream concept—are people (like Lennie and George and Candy and Crooks [momentarily]) who share a goal, a dream, better/happier people than those who are in it for themselves?
To do this, I ask students to construct a Sensitivity Meter. At one extreme is Carlson who is totally oblivious to the love and friendship George has for Lennie. Carlson loves to be the spectator who gets his jollies watching the gladiators die in the arena. At the other extreme is Candy who, gossip though he is, is empathetic with George’s plight.

Ask students to make a list of people/groups of people who are sensitive/insensitive to the suffering of others. What elements of American culture seem to be the most sensitive to the needs of others? The 700 level of fans at a football game? Once they had the list of “participants,” ask them to create scenarios in which empathy is often called upon—a person who has not been asked to the prom, a student waiting in the rain at the bus stop, a homeless person, a victim of disease. Then they develop skits/papers/presentations etc. demonstrating how the list of participants would probably react to these scenarios, explaining why they think the way they do. The project can be quite touching.
A second take on Of Mice and Men is another essential question: What do we owe another human being simply because he/she is human—not because they are family or friends or authority figures. Ask students to develop a code of ethics for strangers. Why does Blanche Dubois utter at the very end of Streetcar Named Desire “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers?” Start with looking at the characters in Of Mice and Men, and, except for those involved in the dream concept (the common goal of owning a farm), the characters are distant and not very happy. Following the code of ethics, send the students as research teams into the hallways of the school to record how the code of ethics the class develops is affirmed or violated.

Huck Finn—another book I loved. Hemingway commented that “All American fiction begins with one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” HF is the modern American epic—notice that Huck travels down what was then the heartland of America, the Mississippi River. Stay away from an old strategy of asking students where they would run away to if they ran away like Huck. Another teacher got in trouble for “encouraging students to leave home.” It was not true, but it was a mess.
Instead, depending on their background, ask students to compare/contrast HF with another epic, “Odysseus.” Ask them to notice how locations and peoples that Huck and Odysseus meet are essential to the epic, and how the ethics of those cultures say a great deal about the society that produced them. That said, ask students to collectively construct a modern American epic. Where would it take place, who would be the journeymen/journeywomen, and what would their travels reveal to us about American society? Each group could develop visuals to enhance their presentation. Do not be surprised if the epic journey is conducted via websurfing. What do the sites that most people visit and their content say about us? I would not suggest this, because ownership requires that some bright group thinks of this itself, but I am fairly certain some group will come up with the idea.
You can even assign groups aspects of American society to “journey through.” For example, assign a group the task of creating a modern American architectural epic. What do the buildings and structures we create say about us? Epic of American shopping? Television? Cinema?

Playing Archeologist and Things Fall Apart and Good Old Culture
Ralph Maltese

I think the key to all these projects is a frame for packaging what students have learned. One strategy I have used with some success is Playing Archeologist. Imagine that groups of archeologists (students) have discovered a text from a particular culture. Based on that text, what deductions about the culture (mores, belief systems, socio-economic groups, etc) can the archeologists produce? They can also include a list of ten artifacts that they discovered and which are most indicative of that particular culture. This requires that the students revisit the text (one of my favorite strategies), research the culture and decide what artifacts and their uses best represent the culture.
They can use GoogleEarth, laptop searches, etc. to gather the research. They can use Activboards to present their findings (as well as podcasts--"Here is our archeologist at the site of the ruins in Latte Mocha.")
The real learning, as far as I am concerned, takes place in the actual discussions and decisions the students make in the small groups, especially the interactions involving the novels.
An example: I did this sort of thing several times, once with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. The novel lends itself to a good dialogue about imperialism, colonialism, and morality predicated on cultural mores. Students, based on their reading of the novel, came up with a number of artifacts (including yams, the local indicator of materialistic wealth), and insights into Okwonko's tribe. (Okwonko was the protagonist). This eventually led into some good discussion about extrapolating judgments about a civilization based on its remnants. Were the Egyptians really the way we think they were because of our objectivity or because we imposed our own cultural Gestalt upon them?

Romeo and Juliet
Ralph Maltese
One of the essential questions that always seems to drive Shakespearian drama is “To whom do we owe the greatest loyalty?”
In the medieval period, (and even later), loyalty was the glue that held the culture together—serfs were loyal (or supposed to be) to their landlords, vassals owed allegiance to their nobles, and the nobles were constantly tripping over each other demonstrating their loyalty to their king, the king bowing to the true faith, etc. A microcosm of this display of fidelity was within families. Wives were loyal to their husbands, and children to their parents. Even in the mid-twentieth century, employees often were loyal to the companies that employed them, receiving gold watches upon retirement.
Ask teams of students to prepare a presentation demonstrating a comparison/contrast between loyalty in Shakespeare’s day (citing examples from the text) and loyalty in the modern era. The presentation, ideally, would be either a live or a videotaped skit using Shakespeare’s style and wit. An important segment of the presentation would include an answer as to why loyalty in Shakespeare’s day has a different connotation from the modern meaning. What has changed?
As a preliminary to this project, ask students as individuals to respond to a “loyalty cruncher.” Even in contemporary society, we are often faced with choices. Imagine that you are grateful to a store owner for giving you an after school job. You need the extra money to contribute to the family household. Your best friend comes into the store and you witness your friend shoplifting. What do you do if your friend refuses to return the merchandise, winks, and assures you he/she will return?
Tom Sawyer
Ralph Maltese
Unlike Twain’s bitter tale about the dark side of human nature, The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn, Tom Sawyer is viewed by most critics as a delightful childhood escapade. Each episode appears to revolve around either a humorous prank perpetrated by Tom or an adventure that taxes Tom’s ingenuity. Twain’s genius is to capture the joy and wonder of childhood innocence, and the rosiness of nostalgia is triggered in even modern readers of the novel. Despite the “lightness” of Tom Sawyer, there are still observations and indictments of Tom’s world by Twain. Like the raven or the coyote in some Native American myths Tom Sawyer is the mythological prankster who makes us laugh while simultaneously pointing out our societal faults.
Assign small groups of students different chapters (or sequences of related chapters) and ask them to discover the satirical nature of those chapters. What foibles of Tom’s culture does Twain expose, and what, as readers, are we to deduce about that culture? Once the groups have reached their conclusions, ask them to compare/contrast Tom Sawyer as the mythological prankster with a more contemporary American prankster, Bart Simpson from The Simpsons’ television series. (Bart’s retort to an adult who asks Bart, “Who are you?” is “I’m Bart Simpson. I do what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. Who the hell are you?” Modern observers might argue that this sums up the perspective of many American youths.)
The presentation must provide insight both into Tom’s world and our world. Provide a rubric, including depth of intellectual inquiry and the organization of the presentation.

Ivanhoe By Sir Walter Scott
Ralph Maltese
Ivanhoe, though difficult for many contemporary students to read in terms of high interest, nevertheless possesses several themes that are relevant to modern culture. The three I have chosen involves 1) the quest motif, 2) the lure of the outlaw and 3) the novel as reform instrument.

1) The quest motif
Freud would have a field day with a novel such as Ivanhoe. In part, Ivanhoe falls into the building roman category, a story which follows the maturation of the protagonist. As in Siddhartha, the major character must disobey his father in order to gain his identity and his independence as a unique human being. His quest gain understanding and truth must face numerous challenges and tests of character until he realizes that the journey itself is the declarative statement of meaning.

2) The lure of the outlaw
Robin Hood figures significantly in Ivanhoe. The outlaw-as-good-hero is predicated on two major concepts—a) Robin Hood “takes from the rich and gives to the poor,” a policy that would endear him to the plebian population both in Robin’s day and Scott’s time. b) Robin Hood are outlaws according to King John, who, if the myth is true, was considered to be the true villain of the day. The King is the outlaw, replacing his brother Richard’s popularity with a public relations nightmare. In short, Robin Hood exhibits more noble qualities than his Norman overlord.

3) Novel as reform instrument
Scott’s Rebecca may be considered central to the novel since her father Issac, the moneylender, is a Jew, and the author refers to the mistreatment of Jews in the novel. This is an undisguised reference to the unfairness experienced by Jews in Scott’s generation.

Using these three themes as foci, consider the following assignment:

Divide students into small groups. Each group is assigned the task of rewriting the novel Ivanhoe(actually just developing an outline), but setting it in a modern context. What would be the nature of the quest (in the original novel, Ivanhoe embarks on the Crusades)? In the age of Me-ism would it be the search for meaning or disobeying parents and endeavoring to be an entertainer or pro athlete or the next American Idol? What sympathetic outlaws would the modern day Ivanhoe encounter along the way? An anti-war protester, civil rights activist? Finally, what culture or sub-culture would most need attention drawn to it and why? The peoples of Darfur, the abandoned children of Brazil?
The student presentation of the “new” Ivanhoe may take whatever form the group decides. It may be composed of a series of skits, a Powerpoint, or a trailer for the soon-to-be-released movie version of the modern Ivanhoe. Virtual field trips and webquests are also possibilities. Develop a rubric for evaluating these presentations, share this rubric with the students, and see where their collective imaginations take them.


One way to approach Siddhartha (with a preliminary overview of Buddhism) is a life’s journey. The novel is divided into three basic sections as Siddhartha strives for “enlightenment.” I have had some classroom success with asking students to describe their own life’s journey thus far either by developing a musical piece whose sections accompany their stages of life, or a map of their ‘sojourn” or a written essay in the style of Siddhartha. Since students contend that sixteen or seventeen years makes for a short journey, I allow them to include in their description what they predict will be their future roads in life.
Siddhartha repeatedly says, “I can fast, I can think, and I can wait.” We spend a significant amount of time discussing how little our current life styles (especially those of honors students) allow us to reflect on who we are, where we are going, and the world around us. An assignment like the one above provides some time for students to contemplate and to be metacognitive about their existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird
There are three major literary concepts that come to my mind when reading Harper Lee’s novel. The first involves the theme of racial prejudice. The second concept deals with literary perspective, and the last focuses on the nature of heroism.
Ask groups of students to write collaboratively a script for a movie trailer as it might have appeared when the movie To Kill a Mockingbird premiered. After the script is approved by the instructor, the groups film the trailer and edit it with Movie Maker (or another editing program). The trailer must have a rubric—it must dramatize the major themes of the novel as well as convey the “essence” of the book’s characters.
Students prepare a podcast or an old serialized radio-style reading of two or three most dramatic parts of the novel but from a perspective from another character other than the six year old narrator Scout. How would the dramatic events of the book be interpreted by, say, Jem?
Atticus slowly exits the courtroom in one of the uplifting moments of the novel. As he leaves, one of the African American men in the court’s gallery tells Atticus’ children to “Stand, son. Your father is passing.” Students may be asked to consider, “What heroic qualities does Atticus represent?” Once they have discussed this as a large group, they can then be assigned to groups and ask to conduct a campaign for Atticus for President (he was a lawyer, after all, and imagine if, despite losing the case, he is catapulted to the national political stage). Or you can ask students to develop a counter campaign. Whatever side the group takes, they can then create and develop a media deluge to champion Atticus---how would he face the issues of global warming and cloning, for example.
I hope these ideas have some merit.


Hi, Susannah, In addition to focusing on some high level skills such as analysis and synthesis, in terms of content I tried to focus on one or two major themes. For example, Hamlet is a young person, and one of the difficulties is trusting people. As a preliminary to reading the play, ask students to develop a trust questionnaire or a rubric for whom they trust. Or another thematic angle involves indecision. When should we act and when should we react? Ask them to construct scenarios in modern life in which they had to ponder whether to take action ("fools rush in") or not to take action ("he who hesitates is lost").I also found that with some challenging classes (they are all challenging, or should be--just in different ways), I would assign a different speech to different groups and ask them to rewrite it for a particular audience--an elementary school class or a student council speech or the gang on the corner. In a couple of cases, they volunteered to actually deliver the rewritten speech, and I was surprised at how a number of them got the gist of "to be or not to be" for example. Just make certain that, if they are doing this as groups, they divide up the speech for analysis....otherwise there will be too much piggybacking.Then there are the touchier issues--Hamlet's father asks Hamlet to "revenge my death." Essentially this means murder. At what point does our loyalty to our parents conflict with our inner sense of morality? Hamlet winds up killing several people (Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, Polonius, and Laertes, his mother (via Claudius) and Claudius). Was it worth it to get revenge? Ask students to construct situations in which they believe that they would have to take revenge. What great misdemeanors or "felonies" in the adolescent world are judged worthy of revenge? The second touchy issue (but one I had success with), was the notion of death. Hamlet philosophizes that he would gladly take action if he knew what existed, if anything, on the other side of this earthly realm...."ay, there's the rub." I asked some classes to investigate other cultures and their notions of death. You have to choose your classes carefully with this topic, even though it is a main piece of the play (as with much of Shakespeare's drama) because you will always have someone complain that "kids shouldn't be talking about death." Truth is that they discuss it amongst themselves all the time. They court it by reckless driving or antics that risk serious injury. Basically they do this because they really do not believe they will really die. Dying is for other people. This is why they are so shocked when one of them dies in an accident. One of the most productive (and "productive" here cannot be measured by standardized tests or Dibels or stuff like that) lessons associated with Hamlet evolved from a discussion about adolescent recklessness (it actually arose from the scene where Hamlet slays Polonius whom he thinks is Claudius). We discussed driving and drinking and questioned the concept that "if you do drink and drive, you are only hurting yourself if you get killed." The questions came up--"Do you have the right to risk hurting yourself?" Does Hamlet? and "Do we have the right of risking the lives of others?" It was productive because I could sense that quite a few members of the class had achieved a philosophical epiphany. "Ah, I see, I am not the only person in the universe, and I do have responsibilty for others."Lastly, a theme near and dear to my heart......pragmatism. The Renaissance was full of pragmatism--the idea that if it works it is morally okay to do. Hence the Borgia poisonings and papal assassinations. Claudius figures, if I can kill my brother to become king and get away with it, it is okay. The last person in the last century devoted to the ends justifying the means was Adolf Hitler. But in our own modern area, including but not only, the corporate arena, we suspend individual liberties to fend off potential harm (Guantanamo) or we invade countries on the fear of what they might do. Closer to the student world, if cheating on a test achieves the grade they want (and the college acceptance), is it okay? I posed this question to an Honors class. You don't want to hear the answers....suffice it to say that when I got home I reached for the Jack Daniels. I think this is an important theme because Shakespeare thought it was an important theme.(Macbeth, Othello, Julius Ceasar, etc.) If man is responsible for his actions (and we can't blame God for what happens--"man is the measure of all things") then what holds the moral universe together? Another way for kids to address it: "Might makes right or might for right. (Camelot) Or, more contemporarily, "Example of our power or the power of our example."(Bill Clinton). I asked groups of students to prepare situations in school in which the philsophy "The end justifies the means" is practiced. They then prepared a questionnaire on ethical situations ("would you cheat on your girlfriend/boyfriend if you knew postitively that she/he would never find out?" or "If you truly believed you were the best choice for student council president, would you sabotage your opponents' campaign by spreading lies about him/her?" ) They administered the questionnaire to other students in the school. Then we had a variation on Family Feud--the class was asked to vote on how they thought (by percentage) the questions were answered and then the results of the questionnaires were shared. Then we went back to the text and voted on what we thought Hamlet should have done. I hope this is some food for thought. Ralph

Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley was the wife of Percy Shelley, noted romantic poet. Legend has it that Mary, Percy, and their friend, Lord Byron, another romantic, were traveling around Europe together. To pass the nights, since the video game market was yet to be constructed, they took turns telling stories. One night, Mary had a dream, and the next evening she chose the essence of that dream as the plot for the story she told. Her husband and Lord Byron enjoyed the tale so much that they encouraged Mary to write it down. This is the origin of the novel Frankenstein.
In England, the Romantic movement in literature occurred n the early nineteenth century. Basically, Romanticism was a reaction against Rationalism. Rationalism emphasized logic, and, well, rationality. The world was to be measured. Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist, embarked on his life’s work—to catalogue all the plant life of the world—a highly ambitious project--I guess Sweden does not have a great many jungle fronds. We got our taxonomy for living things from Linnaeus (family, genus, species, etc). Other scientists vowed to label all insects or rocks or whatever. If you asked a rationalist what a tree was, he would respond much like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. “A tree is 60% xylum, 30% nitrogen, 10% woody fiber.”(numbers imagined on my part) If you asked the rationalist what a human being was, he would respond the same way: “A human being is 50% water, 30% nitrogen, 20% Wal-Mart products…” Even war was to be fought rationally. Instead of butchering your opposing general in battle, when he surrendered you accepted his sword with grace and you both proceeded into your tent for a spot of tea. At least it was rational for the high ranking officers. The enlisted men were still cannon fodder. (see Waterloo, Napolean’s Retreat from Moscow, and the Battle of Quebec).
The Romantics rebelled against this notion that reality can be dissected, analyzed and explained through purely scientific means. To the Romantics, a tree was more than a collection of chemicals. The Romantic argument went thusly: if you want to know a painter, you examined his paintings. If you wanted to know a composer, you listened to his music. If you wanted to know God, you looked at his creations. Hence, a tree was a path to the essence of the universe. (Shelley was an atheist—in fact, he was expelled from England for his atheistic views.) Like the tree, a human being was more than a random collection of molecules.
The Romantics believed in the spirit, and they idealized the humble life. To them, nature untouched by human hands was the great teacher. They championed the human spirit, and thus they supported humanitarian causes. (Byron died from disease while fighting in the Greco-Turkish War). They were inspired by philosophies and ideas from the Asian continent. In many cultures there is the belief that there are realities achieved not by reason but by intuition, and what the rationalists would call “reality” is simply an arbitrary but necessary structure imposed on the world so we can operate in it. There is a world, according to the Romantics, beyond the senses. They cheered for the underdog, and believed that all of humanity was interconnected by a common spirit and mutual respect (Emerson’s “Oversoul”).
When Romanticism found its way across the Pond, it found rich soil in the Americas. Here were millions of acres of unspoiled nature, and the American democracy apparently extolled the common man. Our flavor of Romanticism is known as Transcendentalism, and its adherents were famous authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson (“My mind is my church.”) and Henry David Thoreau, America’s first recognized Hippie.
What has this to do with Frankenstein? Ask students to identify the name of the monster? Many will reply, “Frankenstein.” They would be wrong. Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, the rationalist, who, with great hubris, decides he can put together a human being from scrap parts. An arm here, a leg there, plug in a brain. After all, that is all human beings are—collections of fleshy atoms. Dr. Frankenstein is the real monster because he unleashes havoc amongst the local community, in much the same way that rationalism detracts from the dignity of the human soul.
The clash between rationalism and romanticism may not be as dynamic in the modern age, but it does exist. Science may explain what we are made of, but it does not attempt to address the question of why we are here. Consider the conflicts between opponents and advocates of abortion and cloning and development of biological warfare. Because we can make a doomsday weapon, does that mean we should?
Ask groups of students to focus on the differences between rationalism and romanticism in some historical age, say the sixties. We can interpret that rebellious time period as a clash between the rationalists who thought they could clinically fight an overseas war and the romantics who believed the world would be a better place if we stuck flowers in rifle barrels. Students would then prepare multimedia presentations championing one view or the other.
Or divide students into groups and ask them to take either the rationalist view or the romantic view on a modern day debate—say cloning, or donating organs, or the space program. Again, ask them to prepare a multimedia debate.
Or, ask groups to translate Frankenstein into an opera. Using non-lyrical music, ask them to assign musical pieces to different sections of the novel and, essentially, convert the novel into a play. Beethoven, of course, was a Romantic, and we can have a contest of composers involving him and, say Mozart, but there is even contemporary music that may be considered Romantic in nature. Non-lyrical is very important because once words are allowed, then the music recedes into the background.
It is likely that the struggle between the rationalist and romantic views exist in every age. There are consequences for abandoning rationalism….I do not want to be operated by a Romantic who is rearranging my organs by what he feels should be done. On the other hand, a totally rationalist view of the world does not allow for love, or anger, or friendship (as opposed to an alliance), or empathy. In short, we need the rationalists to tell us how to get to Mars, and we need the romantics to tells us why we should go there.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This might be a bit sophisticated for 8th graders, (but I am the one always cautioning against underestimating young people), but instead of submitting the teacher (and the class) to 30 PowerPoint presentations, ask students to grapple with a major theme of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century involving naturalism.
If memory serves me well, the novel is a building roman, a tale of maturation involving young Brooklynite Francie. It is about her growing up, dealing with pressures, finding love and losing it, and basically just coming to grips with her place in the universe and how to forge a niche within that seeming randomness.
Naturalism in literature is a concept which postulates that human beings are victims of their environment. Darwin, Hagel, later Marx and Freud, questioned free will. We are the products of biological, economical and psychological constructs that shape the people we become (see Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, etc. for more on this).
So…..have students enter the philosophically interesting fray between free will and predestination. Do we have unlimited choices, or our choices limited by factors outside our control? And, if the latter, what are those forces?
I would divide the class into groups and have them research different aspects of those factors that shape Francie. There is the family that she has grown into, there is the Brooklyn environment, the overcrowded city, the influx of immigrants at the turn of the century, the limited access to education to people without financial resources, the impact of World War I (D.H. Lawrence has a number of short stories that deal with how the war changed traditional gender roles—a bit much for junior high kids, I guess), gender bias constructs in early 20th century, child labor, etc. The point that each group could do an in depth study of those factors, relate them to the novel, and then try to determine which factors were the most influential in shaping Francie.
As the concluding activity, the one which you have been working toward since the inception of this unit, is to ask groups to then reflect on what factors do they consider in the modern world to be the most influential in the shaping of their lives.
One of my favorite themes during the whole year was mythology, a la Joseph Campbell and Sam Keen. Myth not as something untrue, but as something which guides a culture or civilization. America is guided by the You can be anything you want to be myth. The entire political spectrum can be interpreted as the far right which argues that people in the United States are capable of pursuing their dreams if they work hard enough, and the far left which says that can only be accomplished if government levels the playing field. See President Obama’s (I love writing that!) inaugural speech, or better yet, ask students to examine his speech and references to not letting Wall Street run wild. At what point does government step in to see that naturalistic forces do not create an unlevel playing field? You might get some good final debates out of that, as well as some internal exploration on the part of the students. I hope this helps. Ralph

Pre activities for Catcher in the Rye
I used to follow Death of a Salesman with Catcher in the Rye. Willy Loman plants his entire life's garden in a plot built on phoniness, and, of course, Holden is constantly complaining about the "phonies." If that is too literary a transition, ask students to answer several questions about maturity. For example,"When is a person considered mature?" "What separates adolescence from adulthood?" After students individual answer these questions, break them into groups for form consensus about those same questions. Then go into the novel.
On a personal side note--my generation was told by the adult world that Catcher in the Rye was a filthy, horrid book and should never be read in school. Of course, we all went out and purchased the book. In the rebellious sixties, Holden, of course, was THE MAN. Rereading as a adult, I saw how sad and pathetic Holden was. I wanted my students to understand this, so before reading the novel, we did a small unit on psychology. (At the beginning of the novel, Holden is receiving psychiatric help for his breakdown) Students got a very basic primer on some conditions like schizophrenia. I asked them to assume the role of psychiatrist as they read the novel. We later had a project involving the treatment of poor Holden.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but to introduce the time period, we looked at television shows--I showed video tapes back then, but, of course, they can probably be accessed online. Happy Days, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver--all the ones considered corny. We had has fun watching short clips of those shows. What we focused on as a class was the Fifties as the Golden Age. Were they so golden? Certainly not for minorities. Certainly not for women. Certainly not for a whole culture under the threat of nuclear destruction. Catcher in the Rye exposes what Salinger, I think, called the "ugly side of childhood." Being a kid was tough back then, just as it is now. Holden is struggling with identity, the concepts of death and abandonment, and negligent parents who “treat” his problems by sending him off to various private schools. Holden's parents buy him off--they buy him luggage! "See ya." A good short story to preview this aspect of the novel is in Salinger's Nine Short Stories by J.D. Salinger. And the story that best illustrates this is Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.
I still like the student playing psychiatrist as the better pre-activity.
Hope this helps. Ralph


I used to teach Monster. As a pre-activity, ask students to adopt one of the five monsters you assign. (Frankenstein, Grendel, Dracula, etc.) Ask them in groups to make a list of their monster’s characteristics. Then, as a class, develop a list of commonalities that all monsters seem to share in the public imagination. Why are they monsters?
Then ask students to read the novel.
Since formalism is so much a part of this novel, ask students in small groups to draw the characters, list their positives and negatives on an ethical scale, and then assign NON LYRICAL music to each of the characters. The music must give some insight, and it is ESSENTIAL that the music is non lyrical.
Finally, ask students in groups to make a presentation which includes the following:
1) the visuals of the characters and their characteristics
2) the music for each character that they chose and an explanation of that music reveals characterization
3) a conclusion as to why the protagonist is or is not a monster based on the commonalities constructed earlier.
4) Answers to the following questions:
a) Even though the character is acquitted by the law, is he really set free?
b) Can a person actually “do nothing” while witnessing evil?
c) Are people who commit random acts of violence disconnected from humanity?
d) What do we owe other human beings, not because they are our friends or relatives, but just because they are human?

I hope some of these ideas are helpful. Ralph

Lord of the Flies
The Lord of the Flies is an extremely provocative and complex novel. The author, William Golding, was a navy officer in World War II. Like most people around the world, Golding was stunned by the concentration camps. How could the same people who produced Goethe and Strauss stuff children into ovens? Freud was resurrected as a psychological explanation of how even the “best people” have capacity for incredible evil. In the novel Golding makes much of masks. The boys wear masks to hunt the pigs and kill them—wearing the paint hides their identities as humans. At the end of the novel, the navy lieutenant who rescues the boys is disappointed at the savage behavior of the “good British boys.” What he fails to understand (but the reader is expected to make the connection), is that he, the navy officer is behaving like the boys, engaged in a global conflict. His mask is his uniform which allows him to kill the enemy.
As a preliminary activity I asked my students to make a list of masks—masks as things which allow us to do things we normally would not do….a uniform, face paint, the costumes on Halloween (Halloween is the most enjoyable holiday for children because they can pretend to be someone or something else!), an automobile (people behave behind the wheel of a car the way they never would face to face). We then discuss masks (cars, jewelry, makeup, clothing, etc.).
We read the novel, looking for the Freudian interpretations of the ID, EGO, and SUPEREGO, represented by three of the characters.
I then break the class up into several groups and ask them to imagine that they are stranded on the island in the same way that the characters in Golding’s novel are. Their task is to make a list of ten rules (to be posted on a wiki, if you like) that everyone must follow. The purpose of the rules is to increase the chance that all members of the group survive. You will be surprised at how difficult students find this assignment. (What they are essentially doing is constructing a constitution.)
When each group as finalized their rules, they are shared with the rest of the class. Then all the groups send a representative to a council to construct a list of ten rules, and ten rules only, for the entire class.
Questions for the class to discuss near the end of the unit:
One of the major differences between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war was their disparate views of human behavior. In the United States we believe that people are basically good, and so are laws are relatively lax. Consider our gun laws. We pay the price for this attitude when someone freaks out (Columbine, Virginia Tech). The Soviet Union tended to believe that human beings were essentially self centered, and therefore strict laws were necessary to keep the “id” in check. As one Soviet commented, “We may not allow people to easily travel around from one part of our country to another, but at least we do not have people walking into McDonald’s and shooting up the place.”
Do the students think that people are basically good or basically bad? Or, from Freud’s point of view, do we have the potential for both good and evil? If so, this leads to another question---what forces bring out the good and the bad in us?
Lastly, from the perspective of the conflicts in the novel, if we all agree that war is wasteful and undesirable, why cannot humanity seem to eradicate it? Is there something in human nature that prevents world peace? I hope these ideas help. Ralph

Animal Farm

Since George Orwell is directly referencing the characters in Animal Farm with real people in Russian History, I think it is important to give a brief overview of the Russian Revolution focusing on the major players—the idealogy of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Czar Nicholas, Hitler, the proletariat, and, of course, Stalin. As we read the novel, we match the characters to the historical figures, and the events in the novel to their real life counterparts.
One of the major questions I tried to pose to my students was “How does Napoleon achieve power?” Basically he does this by 1) grabbing power in the form of the dogs and 2) by exploiting the ignorance of the animals. I get frustrated when the animals fail to remember the original commandments which Napoleon changes to suit his needs. The inability of the animals to remember history (a reference to our own inability to remember history and a strong argument for why we should study the subject) and the manipulation of words by Napoleon form the basis of the project.
There are multiple websites devoted to advertising and propaganda strategies. After reading the novel, my students are required to discuss how Napoleon uses propaganda to achieve power and to study at least ten propaganda strategies. The class is then divided into groups of no more than five members.
Each group is then assigned an historical figure to campaign for Student Council President. (Historical figures could be people like Victoria of England, Louis IV, Ghandi, Ivan the
Terrible, Confucius, etc.) Using the propaganda techniques studied earlier, each group is to plan a campaign strategy based on its knowledge of what would be effective with their student body, and the attributes of their historical figure that they can “sell” to the fellow students. What would Ivan the Terrible’s website look like? I actually had groups propagandize for a week using another teacher’s class as the target. Students could use a variety of media as long as the strategies were incorporated. A plan for the campaign which included the intended strategies had to be submitted to the instructor.
I sometimes made this even more complicated by assigning a fixed amount of money for each group and assigning costs for different forms of propaganda.
When the campaigns were finished, I asked the class to look at our own nation and see if any propaganda techniques were used in the news. Amazing what they found. I also, as an English teacher, asked students to focus on the importance of words. Terrorism, for example, is bandied about, but what does it actually mean? If I were in a Middle East country and I knew that at any moment a bomb I could not see dropped from a plane I could not see could wipe out my entire village, I might be terrorized. Does that make the droppers of the bombs terrorists?
Another follow up question, which I made a major theme throughout the school year, was “How dangerous is ignorance?” We tend to think of the bliss of ignorance, but, in truth, ignorance is one of the major causes of pain and suffering around the world. And unschooled people are usually the major victims of propaganda and the ensuing consequences. Look at what happens to Boxer in the novel.
You can also begin with the Russian Revolution.
How about asking them, after researching, to compare the American Revolution with the Russian Revolution.
Start with Czar Nicholas' family. A son that is a hemophiliac, a czarina that consults Rasputin, (the mystic monk--whose death alone is the stuff of stories), the "missing" daughter Anastasia, etc. you can weave in the causes and results of the Revolution through the family closet. All this against a background of WW I.
Challenge them to consider a world without personal possessions. Ask them to research capitalism and communism. Would they be willing to give up their IPODS so that no one in the country is poor? Just my thoughts. Hope this helps.
This assignment has many variations. I hope you find some of the ideas here useful. Ralph