LEARNING GUIDE TO:
to Teaching the Book, the Short Story, or the Movie
SUBJECTS — Science Fiction; Literature;Age: 12+; MPAA Rating -- None; Drama; 1968; 115 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.
MOST STUDENTS LIKE THE BOOK BETTER THAN THE MOVIE! This film is based on the award-winning novel, Flowers for Algernon. In our experience and that of other teachers, most students who have both read the book and seen the movie, prefer the book. However, students are eager to watch just about any film. Seeing the movie after they have read the book offers students the opportunity to make comparisons between the book and the film. This Learning Guide offers insights into teaching both the printed and filmed versions of the story.
Description: Charly, a mentally disabled man in his early 30s, works at a bakery where he is reasonably happy and believes that he has friends. After he qualifies for a scientific experiment to increase his intelligence through an operation that has only been tried on laboratory mice, his troubles begin. Charly rapidly changes from having a very low IQ to being a genius. In the process, he gains insight into the motivations of the scientists and some of the flaws in society. The effects of the operation reverse, however, and he returns to his former mental state.
Rationale for Using the Movie: An adaptation of the novel Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, Charly shows the humanity of mentally handicapped individuals and some of the difficulties they face in a society that has little tolerance for those who are different. Thus, its value lies in teaching the elements of adaptation as well as in opening the minds of the viewers.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Through research, discussion, presentation and writing exercises, students will be lead to appreciate the humanity of the mentally handicapped or persons who are simply different; students will also be given the opportunity to improve their ability to analyze the theme of a work and to exercise their writing skills.
Possible Problems: Minor. The production values of the movie are low by today's standards and thus students may be disinterested in the film even though they have read and enjoyed the book.
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING CHARLY IN THE CLASSROOM
Introduction to the Movie:
Suggestions for a Student-Centered Lesson Using the Short Story, the Book or the Movie
When students investigate basic facts about mental disability, their appreciation for the film, the novel, and the short story will increase. This provides opportunities for teachers to become facilitators for student-centered learning experiences. The following questions can be assigned to students working alone, in pairs or in groups. Students will then deliver the results of their research in a presentation to the entire class.
Students can develop their own topics or select from the list of topics set out below.
1. What percent of the population is considered mentally disabled and how is mental disability defined?
Notes for teacher as facilitator: Depending on the definition, one to three percent of the population is mentally disabled. DSM-IV, p. 46.2. Mental disability is determined in part by results of an IQ test. What do IQ tests measure?
Notes for teacher as facilitator: Intelligence quotient (IQ) tests measure an intelligence quotient rather than a mental age. The test is composed of verbal and non-verbal questions. The questions involve:3. What are some of the problems with IQ testing?
Notes for teacher as facilitator: Some argue that intelligence tests are subject to bias and that the tests do not measure attributes valued by non-mainstream groups. Studies indicate that questions on the IQ tests require test-takers to have information that is esoteric or more available to some ethnic groups than to others4. What are some of the most common causes of mental disability?
Notes for teacher as facilitator:5. What are the effects, if any, of socio-economic factors in causing mental retardation?
Notes for teacher as facilitator:6. What are some of the limitations faced by mentally disabled persons?
Notes for teacher as facilitator:7. What are the levels of mental disability and their defining characteristics?
Notes for teacher as facilitator:8. What kinds of treatment programs are available for mentally disabled persons?
Notes for teacher as facilitator: Most of the treatments available for mentally disabled persons center on education and training. Schools and other institutions provide opportunities for the disabled to reach their maximum potential. As of now, there is no treatment, nor any amount of education that can develop the skills of mentally disabled people any further than their innate capabilities allow.9. In 2006, members of the American Association on Mental Retardation voted to change the name of the organization. What is it now called? Why do you think they changed their name?
Notes for teacher as facilitator: The new name is "The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities". The name was changed because the term "retarded" and its derivative "retardation" were reviewed as demeaning and pejorative which would trigger prejudice against persons regarded as "retarded".
Have the class read the book, read the short story or watch the movie. The following additional activities are offered as part of the "Through" section of the lesson: Discussion Questions; Debates, Persuasive Essays, Expository Essays, and Presentations.
Should you wish to continue using a student-centered approach, the discussion questions are best addressed in groups with responses presented orally for further argument or discussion. Consider having a student from the group doing the presentation lead the subsequent class discussion. For generic questions arranged by the elements and devices of fiction, see TWM's Discussion Questions For Use With Any Film That Is A Work of Fiction.
The following discussion questions focus on the movie. They differ from the questions seeking to front load information because there are few right or wrong answers; there are only weak or strong answers, depending upon the level of support offered or the logic used in presentation of the argument.
1. Charly is seen in the opening moments of the film playing in a park. At the film's end, Charly is caught in a still shot on a swing back in the playground. In both scenes he looks happy. What is the point the director is trying to make about Charly in these opening and closing shots? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Although Charly was mentally disabled prior to the surgery, he was happy and enjoyed life. While he was a genius he suffered from problems with social adjustment, conflicts with the scientists who managed the experiment, and disillusionment with society. Once Charly returns to his former self, these are lost; he is, once again, happy. This suggests that intelligence is not all there is to life.
2. Charly takes a good deal of teasing from his friends at work. Using examples from the film, determine whether this type of teasing is cruel or simply a part of the good-natured give and take common to friendship. Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Charly experiences both kinds of teasing. He sees the humor in the locker full of rising dough and plays up to his fellow employees. On one occasion, Charly is left standing on the street corner waiting for snow. This joke is worse than the others because Charly is alone and does not have the opportunity to get in on the humor. Malicious, joyless teasing occurs when the person doing the teasing laughs, while the victim of the jest is hurt.
3. Charly holds onto his rabbit's foot hoping it will bring him luck in his race against Algernon. Under what circumstances do people rely on luck? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Luck is what people use to gain a sense of control in a situation they believe may be out of their hands. Charly is limited by his brain function; he knows this and feels he is going to need more than his own mind to beat Algernon.
4. When Charly is able to remember the instructions to operate the dough machine at the bakery, one friend is happy for him and another is not. What accounts for the differences in these two responses? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: One friend felt happy because he was not in competition with Charly; Charly's success did not diminish this friend in any way. The other friend, however, had taken a long time to learn the dough machine procedure that Charly was able to get with only one set of instructions. This friend felt diminished; he felt inferior to someone he had seen as a "moron."
5. The montage scene, showing Charly riding a motorcycle, dancing with women, and generally behaving as a teenager, is interspersed with images of Alice Kinnian walking and reading. What is meant by this combination of shots? What is the director trying to say? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Alice Kinnian cares for Charly and knows that he needs to experience adolescence which, to the director of this film, includes all the activities described in this montage. The director shows Charly going through these experiences while Alice patiently waits for him to mature.
6. Why does Charly help the mentally handicapped bus boy at the restaurant? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Charly empathizes with the bus boy and knows that before his operation, similar experiences had happened to him. Charly also knows that his increase in intelligence may not be permanent. Charly helps the young man pick up the dropped glasses in an effort to show the patrons in the restaurant the cruelty of their ridiculing laughter.
7. At the convention, Charly faces an audience of scientists interested in his case and is asked to comment on a variety of social issues. What does Charly say? What was the tone he used in his answers and what did his comments tell us about how Charly has come to see life? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: With a humorless and bitter tone Charly says he sees:
Charly's comments show that he has become cynical and discouraged. His increase in intelligence has caused a loss of innocence and he experiences despair when he views the state of the modern world.
9. When Charly understands that he cannot stop the process that will return him to his former self, how does he respond? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: At first, Charly tries to flee; he runs away, chased by the old image of himself. He becomes depressed but he pulls himself out of it and begins to use his considerable brainpower to seek a solution to the problem. He stays up for hours working with computers to find out what went wrong but finds only that the decline in his intelligence is inevitable. Charly is very depressed about this but, eventually, he accepts the inevitable.
10. Should Charly have taken Miss Kinnian's offer to marry him or was he right to send her away? Notes to assist in facilitating strong responses: Marriage is a union of two people to care for each other, not an exercise in self-sacrifice. Charly was right not to marry Miss Kinnian. Spending her life taking care of a mentally disabled man based on memories of what he was like when he was brilliant was not what Charly wanted for Miss Kinnian. Sending her away was a very loving thing to do.
Debates are always student-centered as the teacher takes a facilitating role in the process. Moderators can be students chosen by fellow students for leadership skills.
Once students have acquired the information from the front loading, either through lecture or their own research, they will be able to participate in a debate on one of the following resolutions:
Students can be asked to use their skills in literary analysis to address topics relating to the story told by the movie (or the book or short story). If students have trouble selecting topics, teachers can refer to the questions in TWM's Discussion Questions For Use With Any Film That Is A Work of Fiction or the assignments in Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories and Plays. Topics specific to "Charly" and Flowers for Algernon are:
Expository essays can be assigned that address any of the issues raised in the discussion questions or in the front loading questions. Students can also be asked to research the volunteer opportunities available in their community. From this research they can be asked to write an essay explaining these opportunities and encouraging fellow students to perform community service at one of these centers.
Any of the information or controversies mentioned in this Guide provide opportunities for students to deliver effective oral presentations to the class. Research should be required and presenters should be prepared to answer any questions raised among their listeners. Students should be encourage to use visuals, realia and comprehension aides in their presentations
Discuss this question in class or assign it as a topic for an essay using the procedures outlined above for Persuasive and Expository Essays:
Charly Gordon was the subject of a risky scientific experiment. He consented to it and his relatives gave their consent. But what about very intelligent animals who are used in scientific experiments? Chimpanzees form complex personal relationships, have strong family relationships, mourn their dead, etc. The DNA of chimps is almost identical to the DNA of human beings. 98% of human DNA is identical to Chimp DNA. Many people believe that experiments on any sentient animals are unethical and many others would limit this experimentation to situations in which there is no other alternative. See General Information on Animal Research from the Humane Society of the United States. (1) What is your position on scientific experimentation on chimpanzees? (2) Does this same logic apply to Algernon, the mouse? (3) Does the same logic apply to dissecting live animals in biology classes or keeping animals in cages for students to study? (4) Does the story of Charly Gordon provide any insight into the answer into this question?
1. Students can find community service opportunities with organizations that provide care for mentally disabled children and adults. There may be on-campus opportunities for tutoring and the like.
2. Students can advocate for change through letters or action when there is a local issue that needs to be addressed.
3. Research on autism, an increasingly common condition in society today, can be presented to the class in an oral report or written as an expository essay.
4. Students can read other novels dealing with mental disabilities, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. This student friendly book can be assigned for extra credit.
4. Students can be assigned to watch other films on persons with disabilities, such as "The Other Sister" and then present or write a film review.
End of student-centered lesson planning materials.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. Charly is seen in the opening moments of the film playing in a park. At the film's end, Charly is caught in a still shot on a swing back in the playground. In both scenes he looks happy. What is the point the director is trying to make about Charly in these opening and closing shots? Suggested Response: Although Charly was mentally disabled prior to the surgery, he was happy and enjoyed life. When he was a genius he suffered from problems with social adjustment, conflicts with the scientists who managed the experiment, and disillusionment with society. Once Charly returns to his former self, these are lost; he is, once again, happy. This suggests that intelligence is not all there is to life.
2. Emotional growth for Charly cannot keep pace with his intellectual growth. What problems does this cause? Suggested Response: Charly's romantic advances amount to assault, he becomes increasingly temperamental and arrogant, and he loses his humility. Students should offer evidence from the film to support these judgments.
3. Should Charly have taken Miss Kinnian's offer to marry him or was he right to send her away? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Some will argue that Charly was right not to marry Miss Kinnian who would have to spend her life taking care of a mentally disabled man based on memories of what he was like when he was brilliant. Others may have different opinions and suggest that Charley is still lovable on many levels.
For additional discussion questions, click here.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. If you have read Daniel Keyes' novel, Flowers for Algernon, and see the film, write an essay in which you determine whether or not the changes in the film advance the themes of the novel or deter the viewers from a full understanding of the Keyes' ideas. Refer specifically to scenes in the film and to journal entries in the novel to make your points.
2. Charly's story raises the question of the morality of changing a person to fit a social norm as opposed to valuing his or her life as it is. Research the current trend toward medicating students in order to enable them to better fit into the school system. Find information about the numbers of students given drugs to help them concentrate or perform better on tests or to lose their shyness or any other of the number of reasons they are now medicated. Write an informative essay, ending with your opinion about this trend.
3. Intelligence quotient (IQ) tests measure intelligence rather than a mental age. Some argue that intelligence tests are subject to bias and that the tests do not measure attributes valued by non-mainstream groups. Research the controversy about IQ tests and present your findings to the class. You may want to enliven the presentation with sample questions using The Original Australian Intelligence Test, The Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, and The Redden-Simons Rap Test. Look up the work of Jennifer Schobert and Stephen Jay Gould for clarity about the problems with IQ tests.
For additional assignments, click here.
This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden and was Last updated on April 7, 2010.
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