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Lesson Plan

Critical Literacy: Women in 19th-Century Literature

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Critical Literacy: Women in 19th-Century Literature

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Five 45- to 60-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Elizabeth Nolan Conners

Weston, Massachusetts


International Literacy Association


Student Objectives

Session 1: Introduction to Critical Literacy

Session 2: Discussion of Louisa May Alcott and Introduction to Godey’s Lady’s Book

Session 3: Godey’s Lady’s Book

Session 4: Comparing Texts

Session 5: Essay Writing


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Develop an understanding of the concept of critical literacy

  • Practice skills involved in being critically literate as they integrate the ideas of voice, perspective, and author intent into their reading

  • Explore perspectives of critical literacy in a guided class discussion of an assigned text

  • Develop individual skills of critical literacy through critical analysis of a self-selected text

  • Demonstrate persuasive writing skills in a comparison essay

  • Demonstrate an ability to critically read and respond to 19th-century literature through class discussions and writing assignments

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Session 1: Introduction to Critical Literacy

1. Introduce students to the concept of critical literacy using a "Critical Literacy K-W-L" chart.
  • What do they know about critical literacy? Have they ever heard of it? Where and when have they come across the term?

  • What do they want to know about it?

  • (Save the what have they learned portion for the end of the lesson.)
2. Distribute and discuss the Critical Literacy handout. In small groups, have students read the handout and brainstorm examples of critical literacy. Students can then share their ideas with the whole class. Ask them to contribute any published examples of critical literacy they can think of (e.g., letters to the editor of a newspaper, critical essays, and book and theater reviews).

3. Have students share their current perceptions and knowledge of women in 19th-century American literature. Make notes of their comments on the blackboard or overhead transparency. The following questions may help to guide the discussion:
  • What did women do in their daily lives?

  • Were women employed outside the home? In what kinds of occupations?

  • What kind of things do you think the typical woman read?

  • What type of material do you think women authors wrote and published?

  • What was considered appropriate education for women? Were most women in the United States literate?

  • What reading material was considered "appropriate for women"? What sorts of actions and thoughts were "appropriate for women"?

  • What was the rationale for restricting what women read, thought, and did?
4. Explain that this lesson will cover two types of literature from the mid-1800s, and will show two different depictions of women. The first selection is an excerpt from a book originally serialized in a magazine; the second selection will be an article chosen by students from a popular ladies' magazine of the time. As they read and analyze the texts, students will see whether their current impressions of the era are correct, or whether their ideas are modified by new information.

5. Explain that an important consideration in critical literacy is the voice and intent of the author. As they read the two selections in the lesson, students should focus on these issues by asking the following key questions:
  • How are women portrayed in these pieces?

  • Who are the authors and who is the intended audience for each?

  • What messages are being sent to the reader?
6. Introduce Louisa May Alcott, the author of Behind A Mask. Ask students whether they have heard of her and what they know about her. (Have they read Little Women or seen the movie?) Distribute the Louisa May Alcott biographical sketch and the additional Louisa May Alcott: Magazine Publications handout. Read and discuss these together as a class, making sure students realize that Alcott was not a simple, sweet writer of children's books, but a mature author from an interesting, though poor, family and an ardent feminist.

7. Introduce the selection from Behind a Mask. Explain that Behind a Mask was originally published as a serial piece in a magazine, and is now available as a book. In the 1800s, longer pieces of fiction were often serialized in popular magazines. This format encouraged the reader to keep coming back and reading the magazine from month to month. (It also required authors to write shorter pieces, with shorter deadlines.)

Homework: Have students read the selection from Behind a Mask. Remind them to be thinking of the key questions discussed in Step 5 as they read.


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Session 2: Discussion of Louisa May Alcott and Introduction to Godey’s Lady’s Book

1. Review or read aloud the selection from Behind a Mask.
Note: Presentation of the text should be based on your knowledge of your students' strengths and skills. While this a fairly long text, a read-aloud has the advantage of addressing various learning styles, including students who are auditory learners or who find independent reading challenging (not to mention those who have not done their homework).

2. Discuss the text as a class, using the following questions to guide the discussion:
  • What is your impression of the character of Jean Muir? (Seems like a simple governess at first, but isn't; could be devious; wears disguises; etc.)

  • How is this character portrayed? What clues are provided that she is more than she appears? (Her interactions with the men in chapter 1, her costumes, her speaking French, etc.)

  • How are the endings of chapters 1 and 2 significant? (We see that Jean has a plan and is scheming, but we don't know why)

  • What is the possible significance of the subtitle "A Woman's Power"? (What is a woman's power? Will Jean use her "power" to do something? What might it be?)

  • What purpose might Louisa May Alcott have had in writing this piece (beyond monetary compensation)? (A message to women? A protagonist that doesn't fit the mold of 19th-century society? A "thriller" piece that is deliberately "inappropriate" for women and a woman writer?)

  • Why did Alcott publish this piece under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard?
3. Distribute copies of the article Selected Images From Godey's Lady's Book and introduce Godey's Lady's Book. Explain that the second piece students will read will be chosen from this popular ladies' magazine of the 1800s. Students will select their own excerpt from the magazine's online archives.

4. If time allows, have students access Godey's Lady's Book: Hope Greenberg and explore the contents of one or two issues in the archives.

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Session 3: Godey’s Lady’s Book

1. Have students access Godey's Lady's Book: Hope Greenberg. Ask them to think about the following questions as they browse the site:
  • What types of selections are included in Godey's?

  • What does the content tell us about the reader?

  • What does it say about the publisher?

  • Who was the intended audience for Godey's Lady's Book?

  • What messages are being sent to the reader?
2. Have students choose and print one selection to share with the class and use for a critical essay. Explain that the selection should be an article or short story that can be analyzed in terms of critical literacy. (A poem or very short piece, or an excerpt from another publication would not be appropriate.)

3. Have students share their selections with the class. If the class is small, you may have each student read a portion of his or her chosen piece. For larger classes, students should give a brief summary of the piece they have selected. These readings or summaries will give the whole class a general feeling for the type of material found in Godey's.

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Session 4: Comparing Texts

1. Finish any sharing of selections from Godey's that was not completed previously.

2. Conduct a class discussion of the similarities and differences between the selections from Godey's Lady's Book and Behind a Mask, using the questions below to help focus the discussion. (These questions can be written on the board, if desired.)
  • How are the two publications (Godey's and Behind a Mask) similar?

  • How are they different?

  • What do you think was the primary purpose of each author? (Note that Alcott portrays women as strong and even conniving, willing to use power, and sometimes unattractive.)

  • What reasons might the publishers have had for publishing each of these pieces? (Note that Godey's is marketing to men so they will buy the publication for their wives, depicting the "perfect woman" as a model for society.)

  • What beliefs and attitudes towards and about women does each author reveal in the writing?

  • Are the intended audiences the same?
Note: If you prefer, students can first discuss the questions in small groups and then present their conclusions to the class. For this activity, students may want to use the Comparison and Contrast Guide or interactive Venn Diagram.

3. Remind students to keep in mind that the historical period in which these selections were published was very different from today. If students need additional background information, schedule research time for accessing historical websites, such as 19th Century U.S. History Sites Online (see "Women's Rights Movement & Women in 19th Century History").

4. Return to the K-W-L chart that the class began in Session 1 and complete the chart as students share what have they learned about critical literacy.

5. Distribute the Essay Assignment and Grading Rubric handout and introduce the essay assignment. If time allows, have students begin to outline their essays.

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Session 5: Essay Writing

Have students continue their work on the essay assignment. Depending on your students' strengths and skills, you may suggest that they use the Comparison and Contrast Guide, interactive Venn Diagram, or Compare & Contrast Map to help them organize their essays.

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  • Have one or several students read the rest of Behind A Mask. A student who does this could give an oral summary to the class, telling what occurs in the rest of the story, to earn extra credit.

  • Have students read (critically!) other "blood and thunder" tales by Louisa May Alcott (find a number of them listed at Louisa May Alcott: Biography and Works) and share their impressions about these stories with the class through a traditional book report or an informal oral report.

  • Have students learn more about the Alcott family and Orchard House, their home in Concord, Massachusetts, at the website of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association. Groups of students could work on individual members of the Alcott family and present a paper or oral report to the class on what they learn.

  • Invite students to learn more about Godey's most famous editor, Sarah J. Hale, and her beliefs in the importance of women's education, by reading the essay Godey's Lady's Book and Sarah Josepha Hale. A student choosing this assignment could then present his or her information to the class as an oral report to earn extra credit.

  • Have students read a selection (or the entirety) of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights as an example of the work of an earlier 19th-century writer. Students can then write a comparison essay comparing Brontë's writing with Alcott's. The website Emily Brontë (1818-48): An Overview offers an analysis of themes and family in Bronte's work. (This activity could also be the foundation for another lesson unit).

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  • Use the rubric provided in the Essay Assignment and Grading Rubric handout to assess students’ essays.

  • Observe and assess students’ participation in class activities and discussions.
    • Have they demonstrated a working knowledge of critical literacy?

    • Have they participated actively in class discussions?
  • If time and resources permit, have students keep a journal of their reflections throughout the lesson and use their journal entries as an assessment of knowledge and growth.


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