Standard Lesson

Review Redux: Introducing Literary Criticism Through Reception Moments

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 60- to 90-minute sessions
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Using Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, this lesson introduces high school students to the idea that literary works do not contain fixed meaning but are open to interpretation. Students are invited to participate in this interpretation using information about the author, her culture and historical period, as well as today's context. Exploring literature in this way also provides an opportunity to introduce literary criticism that is suitable for secondary class instruction. Working collaboratively and alone, students develop critical responses to the play based on research and analysis. This lesson can be modified using different authors and historical periods.

From Theory to Practice

  • Literary works do not contain a single "correct" meaning. Creating meaning from them involves collaboration among the author, the reader, the reader's culture, and the author's language.

  • Classroom teachers can help students learn more complex ways of interpreting texts by showing them how language, culture, and history influence the way we react to things we read, regardless of when they were written.

  • Specific reactions to texts in the forms of reviews, critical essays, and even statements banning a work can be introduced as "reception moments" and used to encourage student discussion of literary interpretation.

  • Literary theory can be introduced as a way to find answers to the questions about interpretation and meaning raised in classroom discussion.


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

  • 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).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (Vintage, 1994)

  • Computers with access to the Internet




1. Before beginning this lesson, students should have read A Raisin in the Sun or the alternate text you have selected. The sessions in this lesson should fit into your schedule for discussing this book, but do not need to happen on consecutive days.

2. In advance of the lesson, spend at least one class period talking in general terms about A Raisin in the Sun, or the alternate text you have selected. Students should be familiar with the plot, the characters and their relationships, and the overall significance of the play before you introduce the critical history.

3. Make sure that students have permission to use the Internet, following your school policy. If you need to, reserve one 60- to 90-minute session in your school's computer lab. Bookmark the websites listed under Student Resources on the computers that students will be using and familiarize yourself with these sites so that you can help students if they have questions. You might also prepare a written list of the websites for your students, in case they want to access them after class.

4. Prepare definitions of the words culture, society, politics, and government for use in classroom discussion. You might find to be a useful resource.

5. Obtain information about Lorraine Hansberry (or the alternate author your students will be studying). You should include information about her life, about A Raisin in the Sun (for example, that it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959), what other work she produced, and how she was viewed during her lifetime and afterward. Voices from the Gaps: Lorraine Hansberry is a website you might find useful.

You might want to prepare an informational handout for your students, or you can simply provide this information in lecture format and tell them to take notes.

6. Obtain and make copies of some reviews and some literary criticism of A Raisin in the Sun or the alternate text you are using. Include both contemporaneous and current examples. You will use these during Sessions 1 and 2. Students will read them in pairs, so you should decide how many different examples you would like to use and then make the appropriate number of copies based on how many groups of two there are in your class.

Good resources for this information include:
  • A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway: News and Reviews

  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: Hansberry, Lorraine

  • Pages 175-177 in Contemporary Authors (Vol.109). (1983). Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale.

  • Page 182 in Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 17). (1981). Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale.

  • Pages 165-157 in Current Biography Yearbook (1959). New York: H.W. Wilson Company.

  • Pages 1725-1729 in Gates, H.L., Jr., & McKay, N.Y. (Eds.). (1997). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Familiarize yourself with the basic concept of literary criticism by accessing Literary Criticism: Different Ways of Looking at Texts.

You should be prepared to provide your students with a definition of literary criticism and the many different forms it can take. For example:

When a work of literature is published and often for a long time afterwards, there is the possibility that professional reviewers or critics will respond. Literary critics analyze the selection from many angles (for example, style, structure, and language) and on many different levels (for example, emotional, moral, and philosophical). Critics analyze the work to see if they feel it is an appropriate representation of the particular genre. Additionally, especially in biography and nonfiction, critics look for the writer's point of view, and the inclusion of previously unknown facts.

Like the author of the work, these critics are being influenced by the times in which they live. As a result, literary criticism reflects both the point of view of the critic as well as the social and political period during which it is written.

8. Make a transparency of the Collaborative Work Skills Rubric.

9. Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Make five or six copies of the Political/Governmental Factors Worksheet and the Social/Cultural Factors Worksheet for each group.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Demonstrate that they comprehend the idea of literary interpretation and how it influences readers by reading reviews and explaining their significance

  • Interpret information about current events by applying it to literary works in a hypothetical context

  • Gain knowledge by locating historical and cultural information related to a specific time period

  • Synthesize that knowledge by categorizing the information they collect on written worksheets

  • Work collaboratively to further interpret and sort the data they and their peers have collected

  • Analyze literary texts by discussing the data they have located in groups

  • Demonstrate an understanding of literary interpretation by composing their own work and explaining what has influenced it

Session 1

1. Talk a little bit about Lorraine Hansberry and her background, using the materials you have prepared. Either distribute a sheet about her to the class, or ask them to take notes while you are talking. Talk a little bit about how her life-and the time in which she lived-influenced her work.

2. Referring to your previous discussion of A Raisin in the Sun, ask students what kinds of things may have influenced their opinions about the play. Your goal is to introduce the idea that there is no one correct "factual" interpretation of the play, but many different ways of looking at it, and that these different perspectives are influenced by many different factors. These factors include the author's own experience, his or her use of language, the political climate when the author lived, the author's culture, as well as each reader's personal experience and specific cultural background.

3. Ask students to define culture, society, politics, and government, working toward the definitions that you generated in your preparation. Explain to students that at any given time, all of these things can influence how a work is received. You might provide a few examples of what you are talking about, such as:
During the beginning of the Cold War, in the 1950s, there was a powerful movement to stop the spread of Communism in the United States. The color red, symbolic of the Communist Movement, was considered to be negative. Some libraries removed books with the word red in their titles from the shelves. Even Little Red Riding Hood was removed from many libraries.
Tell students that responses like this one, extreme as it is, can be called reception moments. These are reactions to literature based on very specific cultural and political situations.

4. Ask students if they are familiar with the term literary criticism and ask them to define it if they are. Talk about the written form that critical responses take, using the literary criticism materials and definitions that you prepared.

5. Explain to students that they will eventually be looking at the culture and events that influenced the critical responses to A Raisin in the Sun, but first they will look at some of the written reactions to both the text of the play and its performances. Explain that these reactions represent different reception moments.

6. Divide students into pairs and distribute the reviews and critical materials that you copied for the class. Students should read them and spend the rest of the class discussing the following questions:
  • What are the key points the author is making?

  • What is the author's overall response to the play?

  • Are they surprised by the reaction to the play? Why or why not?

  • Do they agree with the author's interpretation? (This question may be more relevant for the selections that are not focused on a specific performance of the play.)

  • What kinds of factors do they think may have influenced the author's reaction?
Tell students that you will discuss their responses to these questions in a future class, so they should take notes.

Homework: Tell students they are to jot down stories from the news with a view to how these events might influence a current production of A Raisin in the Sun. This assignment will be due at the beginning of Session 2.

Session 2

1. Go over the homework. Get the students to discuss how current events might influence a presentation of A Raisin in the Sun.

2. Ask students to take out their notes from Session 1. Each pair of students should provide an overview of their author's reaction. List these on the board so that the class can see the variety of responses. Ask students if the criticism itself gives them any insight into cultural and political factors influencing these interpretations. List these on the board as well. (You might want to record both of these lists for the students to use in Session 4.) Has reading the criticism influenced how the students themselves see the text? What kinds of questions do students have after reading the criticism?

You want to make sure that students get a good background in how the play has been received, both in the past and during its recent revival. They will need this information to draw conclusions in a later discussion.

3. Place students in their groups and hand out the Political/Governmental Factors Worksheet and the Social/Cultural Factors Worksheet. Tell them that each group is responsible for finding information regarding reception moments for A Raisin in the Sun using these worksheets as a guideline. Assign half of the class to work on reception moments during the time when the play was first written and presented and the other half to work on current reception moments from the play's recent revival.

Although the general headings are "Political/Governmental Factors" and "Social/Cultural Factors," students are welcome to divide the assignment however they like. For example, they might have some group members look at the international political climate while others look only at what is happening in the domestic administration. Some students might explore the advertising of the time, while others look at music. You might ask students for some additional examples of how they might break up these broad categories.

Explain that although there is only room for two examples on each sheet, the groups are encouraged to fill out a number of the sheets while they are doing their research; they will then be responsible for selecting three or four of the most relevant examples to share with the class.

4. Have students work on breaking up the assignment; circulate among the groups and answer questions while they do this. Tell them they will do their research online and let them know when you have reserved the computer lab (or when you will have them use classroom computers).

Session 3

1. If you prepared a list of the websites that students are to use for research, distribute it; otherwise, direct the students to the bookmarks that you created. Remind them that they should each know what type of information they are to look for.

2. Students should use the remaining time to locate information on their topic from the list of websites. They do not need to talk with other group members at this point. Since the links they need are provided, the students ought to be able to complete their research in one session, but you can also encourage them to work at home or in the library if they have not found sufficient information by the end of class. Circulate and make yourself available to answer questions while the students work.

Session 4

1. Go over the Collaborative Work Skills Rubric. Explain that you will use this to evaluate the group work that they complete during this lesson.

2. Have students move into their groups. Pass out two clean copies of the Political/Governmental Factors Worksheet and two copies of the Social/Cultural Factors Worksheet to each group.

3. Explain to the students that they need to decide what information from the worksheets they completed in Session 3 is most significant to understanding the reception of A Raisin in the Sun, excluding any items that are not relevant. In making this determination, they should consider the information you gave them about Lorraine Hansberry and the play, as well as the criticism they read during Session 1. If you prepared a sheet with the lists from Session 2, hand it out now; if not, review what the different reactions to the play were at different times.

Other criteria students might use include:

  • Legal and human rights issues

  • National and global events

  • New forms of technology

  • The availability of mass communication

  • Ethical and religious issues
4. Give students time to fill in their worksheets as a group. Collect these at the end of the session and make copies for the entire class. You should also collect the worksheets that students completed individually.

Homework: Have students compose a brief essay, short story, or poem that expresses their reaction to A Raisin in the Sun. Once it is written, students should also write one or two paragraphs describing what their influences in writing it were, including personal history, current events, and pop culture influences. (This will be due whenever you schedule Session 5.)

Session 5

1. Collect the homework.

2. Staple together the worksheets for each group and distribute them to the class. Review their findings together.

3. Discuss how the reception of the play was influenced both in the past and during the current revival. Ask students to back up their claims using their group's research.

4. Conclude the discussion by asking students how their research has affected the way they view the play versus how they viewed it before gathering all of this background information.


  • Make a literary magazine using the poems, stories, and essays that students completed. You might also add student artwork or photographs. Share the magazine with other students, media specialists, administrators, and parents.

  • Discuss student reception of the material in the literary magazine based on the paragraphs students wrote about their influences and the current atmosphere in the United States and elsewhere around the globe.

  • Have students write a brief critical essay responding to A Raisin in the Sun.

Student Assessment / Reflections


  • Evaluate student comprehension and critical thinking skills by observing student contributions to the class discussion in Sessions 2 and 3. Did students understand the author's main point? Were they able to connect the theses of the various arguments to a social or political context? Were students able to apply information about current events to A Raisin in the Sun?

  • Use the Collaborative Work Skills Rubric to assess the work students did in groups. Your observations of students during Sessions 2 and 4, the individual and group worksheets they completed, and student contributions to the discussion in Session 5 should help you do this.

  • Assess student understanding of literary interpretation by looking at their explanations of what influenced their own work. Does the explanation make sense when considered in the context of the essay, story, or poem that the student created?


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