LEARNING GUIDE TO:
SUBJECTS — U.S. 1945 - 1991, Diversity & Mississippi;
Description: Adapted from Katheryn Stocket's best-selling novel, The Help has two intertwining plot lines. One is the story of a young white woman who returns from college to her hometown in Mississippi in the 1960s to begin a writing career. She surreptitiously interviews black maids and writes their stories for a book to be published in New York while at the same trying to discover the reason for the sudden disappearance of the black maid who raised her and who she dearly loves. The second and more important plot line is that of the black maids who courageously reveal some of the harsh realities of racism by contributing their stories to the book.
Rationale for Using the Movie:
U.S. history classes: The book or the movie are valuable additions to a list of works to be read or watched as homework to explore the genre of historical fiction. See TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.
Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will engage in an analysis of character development in a popular story and will exercise their writing skills on a topic that interests them. They will become aware of how racism and classism distort human relationships and of the segregated society that existed in America as late as the 1960s.
Possible Problems: Minor. The film does not show the full extent of oppression suffered by female domestic workers in the South. See Links to the Internet in the Supplemental Materials. But then what film or story could do that?
LEARNING GUIDE MENU
SUGGESTIONS FOR USING THE HELP IN THE CLASSROOM
Introducing the Movie:
Before showing the movie, tell the class to watch for two things. First, how racism or classism distorts important personal relationships. Second, how characters develop and change over the course of the story.
After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.
1. [Ask the following question first of one student and then another until no one in the class has any ideas left. Start with the less capable students and move on to more perceptive students.] Describe how racism or classism interfered with an important personal relationship in this story.
Suggested Response: This occurred in almost every relationship. For example, between white children and the black women who raised them, between the maids and the women for whom they worked (including Skeeter and Constantine), between Skeeter and her mother, and between Skeeter and her boyfriend, Stuart. Note in the discussion that it must do something terrible to a child's psyche to learn that his or her primary caregiver was an inferior person. For students who have only seen the movie, tell them that in the book Constantine's father was a white man who used to visit her mother every Saturday. Constantine was his favorite daughter, and the most important thing he said to her, with tears in his eyes, was "I'm sorry." (pp. 77 - 79) As sometimes happened, when Constantine had a child, the baby turned out white, although the father was a black man. But a black woman with a white child could not exist in the segregated South, so Constantine sent her daughter north to Chicago to live in an orphanage while Constantine stayed in Jackson and raised Skeeter. (pp. 100 & 101) This is just another example of how racism distorted personal relationships.
2. What role does class play in this film? Suggested Response: Celia Foote is from a family and an area with less class than the other white women in the movie. She is treated terribly by them: they won't return her phone calls; they won't allow her to work on the charity drives, etc. It isn't just that Celia took Hilly Holbrook's boyfriend, but that she did this and was lower class that drove Hilly to hate her so much. There is also social climbing shown among the white women. This is a class-based activity.
3. Aibileen is the first of the maids to come forth with stories about her life as a housekeeper and a nanny. What personal characteristics enable her to risk such a bold move? Suggested Response: Aibileen has suffered terribly in her life, most dramatically from the unjust death of her only child. Respect for her son, who had wanted to be a writer, seems to drive her to reveal her truths. She also has no one depending on her, in contrast with Minnie, who has children still living at home. Aibileen seems to be aware that times are changing and her courage, dedication to friends, and sense of justice motivate her to come forward.
Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:
1. This story is about the changes in the characters of five women. Write an essay in which you identify these five women and for each, in one paragraph, describe the way in which the woman changed over the course of the story.
2. Write an essay in which you describe how classism plays a role in the story. Cite support for every opinion with direct reference to a specific scene or to dialogue.
3. Research the role played by women in the Civil Rights Movement. Using PowerPoint or a similar program create a presentation [or write an essay] that introduces two specific women who had an impact on the Movement and recount the activities in which they were involved. Be sure to describe any obstacles they may have met because of gender bias or other social norms.
4. Write an expository essay on the condition of housekeepers, maids and nannies in society today. Be sure to investigate any factors that may surface, such as ethnicity, age, or gender. Look for information on wages earned by domestic workers. Consider the jobs associated with maids in hotels as well as in private households.
For two additional assignments, click here.
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