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SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 to Present & Nevada;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Mother/Son;
        Families in Crisis; Education; Disabilities;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring;Citizenship.

Age: 13+; MPAA Rating -- PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence; Drama; 2000; 123 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Description: A teacher in Las Vegas assigns his 7th grade students a project: think of a way to change our world and put it into action. Trevor, one of the students, decides that he will take three actions that make a difference in the lives of others and ask each of those people to do the same for three other people.

Rationale for Using the Story: This movie celebrates helping others and can fuel interest in community service, a concept that has become a part of the graduation requirements for most schools. It provides opportunities for discussion and written assignments associated with the motivation for generosity and exercising good judgment.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students can meet standards in writing and critical thinking with assignments that provoke in-depth analysis of the problematic aspects of pay-it-forwardism as shown in the movie and can exercise creativity in their own application of the concept.

Possible Problems: Scantily clad women undulate at the seedy Las Vegas bar in which Arlene, Trevor's mother, works. Arlene slaps her son. In one scene, Arlene and Mr. Simonet are in bed but there is no nudity and no suggestive movements. There is infrequent profanity.

Suggest that interested students read the book! The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde. No movie can include all of the incidents, descriptions and character development contained in a good novel. Recommend that students interested in the movie read the book, too. For an extra credit project, students can compare the two versions of the story.


Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points

Using the Movie in Class:
      Comments Before & After
      Discussion Questions


Additional Helpful Background

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
            Alcohol & Drug Abuse
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections
      Bridges to Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the worksheets to fit the needs of each class.

Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM's guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.


Comments Before and After:

Before showing the movie ask the class to evaluate the various ways that characters in the movie paid it forward.


At the end of the movie, tell students that there is a Pay It Forward Foundation with a web-site showing instances of paying it forward. See The Pay It Forward Experience.

Discussion Questions:

After the film has been watched, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1. What did you think of the different acts of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie? Suggested Response: The purpose of this question is to get students to realize that many of the acts of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie were problematic and that one must think about their actions to reduce the risk of unintended consequences. First, there were at least two instances of pay-it-forwardism shown in the movie that were simply unethical: when Trevor's grandmother aided and abetted the escape of a criminal fleeing the police and when that same man, paying it forward, shot up the hospital emergency room to get quick care for the girl having an asthma attack. Second, there were some instances of pay-it-forwardism that were motivated by self-interest, as when Trevor tried to get his mother together with Mr. Simonet. Trevor wanted a stable male in the household who could serve as the father he had never had. Then there were the actions which were not intelligent and exposed others to risk of harm, as when Trevor invited the homeless man into the house to take a shower. For more on this subject, see Supplemental Materials for Pay It Forward.

2. Have you ever seen people apply the concept of doing good for others because others have done good for you applied outside of the film, either in your own life or in mass media? Describe that situation. Suggested Response: Answers will vary depending upon the experiences of the students. You may want to mention the phenomenon of how drivers passing over the bridges in San Francisco often pay for the car following them in a "random act of kindness."

3. Does the story's ending, Trevor's death, help promote the film's theme or work against the concept of paying it forward? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Any idea well argued is acceptable. Some students may see his death as a warning; others may see it as a reason to continue the practice of pay-it-forwardism. Some may believe that a better ending would have been to have Trevor continue to live as a normal human being just like all other practitioners of paying it forward.

For fifteen more discussion questions, click here.


Some of the discussion questions can serve as writing prompts. Additional assignments include:

1. Like Mr. Simonet, assign the following extra credit project: "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into effect. Your suggestion should be both practical and ethical. It does not have to change the whole world in a major way, just a part of it." Tell students not to try to come up with something as broad and all-encompassing as pay-it-forwardism and that if we all do little things to help others, they will add up to something very big. The project can be as simple as volunteering at a food bank or to serve meals for the homeless. All ideas need to be first cleared with their parents and with the teacher, before they are put into effect. Students should keep a journal of the progress of their project and write an essay about the experience.

2. Write a personal narrative about a time when you, or someone you know, did something significant for someone in need. You may even write about a time when an animal was the recipient of your efforts.

3. There are several adults in this movie with terrible scars. For one of them, Mr. Simonet, some of the scars are on the outside. Most adult characters in this film have scars on the inside. Name at least two other characters who have scars on the inside and write an essay describing those scars and how they contributed to the story told by the movie. Note to Teachers Mr. Simonet has scars on the inside, as well as on the outside. Arlene's experiences with alcoholism and with men are her scars. Arlene's mother and Jerry have also been scarred by their addictions.

4. Do you find junior high (middle) school to be "a hellish shaky bridge you must get across" in order to go to high school? Describe in a shoart essay what that phrase means to you in your own life.


BUILDING VOCABULARY: utopian, variegated, interact, admirable, cosmic, pathetic, pertinent.

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more  .  .  .   Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.

Parenting Points: You may want to ask your children what they would do were the opportunity to pay forward three times presented to them.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

This is Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. This Guide was last revised on August 15, 2012.

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