Standard Lesson

Exploring Setting: Constructing Character, Point of View, Atmosphere, and Theme

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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Typical lists of literary elements include the concept of setting somewhere near the end, subordinate to the more central concepts of character, plot, conflict, and theme. Though many texts do not rely heavily on setting for meaning, students need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to read for setting, especially as it relates to the construction of other elements of a short story or novel. After an in-depth discussion of how setting works at different levels, they read, discuss, and compare and contrast elements of setting in Stuart Dybek's "Blight," Dickens' Great Expectations, the lyrics for "The Town Is Lit," from Toni Morrison, and Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Finally, students sketch the two settings for "The Cask of Amontillado," before a closing discussion in which students reflect on the ways they have seeing setting function in all four texts.

From Theory to Practice

Calling attention to the crucial interplay between reader and text, Brian Moon and Bronwyn Mellor note that "character and other narrative elements [including setting] are highly selective constructions" that readers need to interpret actively (86). Moon and Mellor stress that the life-like appearance of some fiction is just that-an appearance. An author creates a fictional world from the blank page, and students need instruction, modeling, and applied practice in "analyzing and explaining how texts construct character (and other narrative elements), and with what effect" (86). Examining the language an author uses to create a setting not only allows students to situate themselves in the world of the text but also facilitates a study of the way setting constructs many other elements in the narrative as well.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Audio recording of “The Town Is Lit”

  • Lyrics for “The Town Is Lit”

  • Stuart Dybek’s short story “Blight”




  • Read the Dybek story carefully before sharing with the class. There are several instances of cursing by the narrator and other characters. Determine if the story is acceptable reading material for your students and school. For background information you may wish to read The Morning News interview with Stuart Dybek.

  • Listen to “The Town is Lit” and determine the amount of preparation students need for listening to an art song by a classical soprano. This style of music is largely unfamiliar to many students, and they may need a bit of prepping for what they are about to hear.

  • Obtain or make copies of all the literary pieces and student handouts.

  • Familiarize yourself with the concept of Urban Renewal in Chicago history, particularly the “Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act,” from which Dybek takes the title of his story. You may also find this map of Chicago useful.

  • Arrange for copies of the lyrics of “The Town Is Lit” from the CD booklet of Honey and Rue.

  • If you have not read Great Expectations, familiarize yourself with the story of Miss Havisham and her key characteristics.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • identify words, images, and details that construct setting.

  • explain multiple significances of setting in a literary piece.

  • analyze the significance in a shift from one setting to another.

Session One

  1. Engage students in one of these two prompts to begin the class (responses may be written or verbal):

    • Choice 1—Ask students to consider the extent to which their “setting”/time and place contributes to their behavior. For example, what are the signals that they are in a classroom? What behaviors seem appropriate for them as a result of these signals being present? If these signals were replaced by another setting (say, a party in a friend’s basement on a Friday night), how many of their current behaviors would still seem appropriate?

    • Choice 2—Ask students to discuss areas of their community that are known “by name.” These could be official or unofficial names of neighborhoods, names of streets that imply a certain part of town, etc. What do those place names suggest about the people who live there and the lives they lead? Why is this connection between place names and stereotypes both powerful and dangerous?
  2. Bridge the discussion to the literary concept of setting, the time(s) and place(s) during which a story takes place.

  3. Point out that setting works on macro- and micro-levels. Macro-elements of setting include features such as historical period and nation or city; micro-elements include specific times of day, locations within a house or room, etc.

  4. Introduce the short story “Blight” by Stuart Dybek. Point out that the author foregrounds setting in this story in three ways: It comes from a collection of stories entitled Coast of Chicago; the name of the story refers to the narrator’s neighborhood; the first sentence of the story suggests both the time and place of the action of the narrative.

  5. Provide background information on the “Blighted Areas Redevelopment Act.”

  6. Distribute the Guided Reading Questions for “Blight.” Point out how each question will help the students focus on setting and make meaning of the text as a whole.

  7. Model for students the connections you make as a reader between setting and meaning as you begin reading “Blight” aloud in class. Use the Guided Reading Questions as the focal point of your modeling.

  8. Ask students to continue reading the story for homework. They should take notes on the Guided Reading Questions sheet in preparation for the next class session.

Session Two

  1. Arrange the class into four small groups, and assign each group a question from the Guided Reading Questions for “Blight,” focusing on questions 2–5.

  2. After groups have had time to share and reflect on their responses, bring the class together for a full-class discussion on the story.

  3. Make sure students are making clear connections between details and elements in the story and their impressions and interpretations of it as they discuss the short story.

  4. Close class by telling students that during the next session, they will be reading excerpts from one of the most famous “Blights” in literature, the home of a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations.

Session Three

  1. Introduce the activity by pointing out that one of the authors Dybek mentions near the end of “Blight” is Charles Dickens, an author known for his attention to detail in a setting.

  2. Review the concept of setting and announce the objective of focusing carefully on how an author uses language to create a setting.

  3. Distribute copies of the excerpts from Great Expectations and the Analyzing Language handout.

  4. Provide the context for the passages:
    Pip, a poor and inquisitive young boy, is being sent by his sister to visit Miss Havisham, the richest woman in their small town, with hopes that she will begin supporting Pip financially. These passages are some of his first impressions of the interior and exterior of Miss Havisham’s house.
  5. Read the first excerpt with the class and model the use of the Analyzing Language handout.

  6. Assess your students understanding of the process and either continue modeling with the second passage or allow students to work in groups or on their own to continue reading and analyzing the text.

  7. Ask students to complete the analysis activity by synthesizing their impressions in the center box of the Analyzing Language handout.

  8. Facilitate a discussion of their analyses and ask them what kind of person they expect Miss Havisham to be.

  9. Provide validation and/or clarification of their responses by discussing the character of Miss Havisham.

  10. Reinforce the idea that Dickens uses setting to create Miss Havisham’s character. The house is more than a reflection of her state; it is both a cause and an effect of it.

Session Four

  1. Provide students with a copy of the lyric for “The Town Is Lit,” from Toni Morrison’s song cycle Honey and Rue.

  2. Guide students through a reading of the text, asking them to focus on details related to setting.

  3. Ask students to describe the atmosphere each setting establishes. Students should notice that the song contrasts two different settings.

  4. Next ask students to predict what music reflecting those settings should sound like.

  5. Play the song for the class, and ask students to share their impressions. Ask students to describe the music they heard and evaluate how effectively did music conveys the settings and atmospheres the text describes.

  6. Bridge to the session’s text by pointing out to students that the Morrison lyric employs a technique many authors rely on for creating meaning in text: contrasting settings and using setting to establish atmosphere or mood.

  7. Make connections back to previous readings as appropriate.

  8. Read the first three paragraphs of Poe’s story, and ask students to clarify the narrator’s persona and his attitudes toward Fortunato.

  9. Beginning with the sentence “It was about dusk . . . , ” ask students to identify the details Poe gives readers about the first setting of the story. Ask students what kind of atmosphere these details suggest.

  10. Connect to the session opener by asking them to describe what kind of music would reflect the scene being described.

  11. When you get to the paragraph ending “the catacombs of the Montresors,” stop and remind students of the activity you did during the previous session with the passages from Great Expectations.

  12. Pass out copies of the Analyzing Language: Setting and "The Cask of Amontillado."

  13. During the remaining class time and for homework, have students continue reading the story, stopping frequently to record their observations about the language of the text and its effect on characters and conflict. They should complete this activity as homework for the next session.

  14. Remind students that while they are focusing on setting—and study of setting in this story is valuable—they should read for other elements such as character, conflict, and theme as well.

Session Five

  1. Begin the session by asking students to get out their Analyzing Language handouts. Spot check for completion if desired.

  2. On the reverse of the handout, ask students to sketch or draw a the two settings for “The Cask of Amontillado.” Their drawings do not need to be perfect; they are simply to represent the two settings of visually.

  3. After they finish their sketches, ask students to justify their choices.

  4. Facilitate a discussion of the story by guiding students to note how integral setting is to Montresor’s method of duping Fortunato; how setting contributes to atmosphere; and how the surprise shift in setting—the events in the story took place 50 years prior to the narrator sharing the tale in the story—contributes to characterization and theme.

  5. If desired, enhance discussion of the story with additional focus on other elements or issues of your choice.

  6. Be sure to close the session by allowing students to reflect on the ways they have seen setting function in the four texts in this lesson.


Student Assessment / Reflections

Formative assessments in this lesson include the lesson opener (observation of discussion); assessment of the Guided Reading questions for “Blight” and the subsequent discussion; and evaluation of the Analyzing Language handout for Great Expectations and the handout for “The Cask of Amontillado.” Be sure to gauge student understanding at each of these points and adjust the level of support accordingly.

At the end of Session Five, give students the opportunity to quick write on the different ways they have seen setting contribute to meaning of the works they read during the sessions.

Haemraji Persad
I think this is quite a detailed and interesting lesson plan . Ii is excellent in that it is a step by step method of truly engaging students ' understanding of the importance of setting and how it relates to the story as a complete unit.
Haemraji Persad
I think this is quite a detailed and interesting lesson plan . Ii is excellent in that it is a step by step method of truly engaging students ' understanding of the importance of setting and how it relates to the story as a complete unit.
Haemraji Persad
I think this is quite a detailed and interesting lesson plan . Ii is excellent in that it is a step by step method of truly engaging students ' understanding of the importance of setting and how it relates to the story as a complete unit.

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