Author, Pulitzer Prize winner and 1993 Nobel Prize recipient Toni Morrison was the guest of honor at the Harvard Divinity School last week. She gave a talk on her perception of the term “Goodness”. Her insights were based on the surprising outcome of a horrible tragedy that occurred in 2006. Morrison also explored how other authors illuminate concepts of good and evil in their books and examined her “treatment” of goodness in her own novels.
ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key.
Excerpt: Toni Morrison Good, but never simple By By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer
“Toni Morrison silenced the audience in Sanders Theatre on Thursday afternoon, not with one of her own stories, but with a tragic tale from real life.
The author, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, recounted the “mindless horror” of the 2006 murder of five Amish girls in a one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse by a gunman who then committed suicide, and the shocking reaction to the tragedy. Instead of demanding vengeance, the community comforted the killer’s widow and children. Their behavior seemed to me at the time characteristic of genuine goodness, and so I became fascinated, even then, with the term and its definition, Morrison said. Above all it was the community’s silence, its refusal “to be lionized, televised…
That caused me to begin to think a little bit differently about goodness as it applies to the work I do.
Morrison expanded on the theme of goodness for the Harvard Divinity School’s (HDS) 2012 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. In a talk titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination,”…Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work, are never incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative…
A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful and mature that she or he did not know at the beginning. A true exploration of goodness demands a thorough examination of its opposite, Morrison argued. The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, said that she has never “been impressed by evil, and that she is “confounded by how attractive it is to others and stunned by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout.” Read more…
Level: Intermediate -Advanced
Language Skills: Reading, writing, speaking and listening. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.
Time: Approximately 2 hours.
Materials: Student handouts (from this lesson) access to news article, and video.
Objective: Students will read the article with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on Morrison’s topic of “goodness” through discussions, and writing.
I. Pre-Reading Tasks
- Stimulating background knowledge
The K-W-L chart is used to activate students’ background knowledge of a topic in order to enhance their comprehension skills.
The K-W-L stands for: what IKnow, what I Want to learn, and what I did Learn.
Directions: Have students use the KWL chart to list the information they already know about Toni Morrison, the terms good, evil, and any other terms or names from the article. Later in the Post- Reading segment of the lesson, students can fill in what they’ve learned about the topic. Students can use this excellent organizer from MSU for assistance.
II. While Reading Tasks
Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary or thesaurus for assistance. Have the students write sentences using each word.
- Toni Morrison silenced the audience… with a tragic tale from real life.
- The author, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993…
- Instead of demanding vengeance, the community comforted the killer’s widow and children.
- it was the community’s silence, its refusal “to be lionized, televised…”
- In a talk titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination”
- Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work…
- …are never incidental in my writing.
- A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital…
- Goodness hasn’t fared well since.
- Through portrayals of grief, melancholy… authors depict their versions of evil.
- Reading Comprehension
Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, then have them complete the following paragraphs taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.
“Toni Morrison___the audience in ___on Thursday afternoon, not with one of her own stories, but with a ___from real life.
The author, ___of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, ___the “mindless horror” of the 2006___of five ___girls in a one-room Pennsylvania schoolhouse by a gunman who then ___suicide, and the ___reaction to the tragedy. Instead of ___vengeance, the community___the killer’s widow and children…A true ___of goodness demands a ___examination of its opposite, ___argued.
The author, who won the ___for fiction in 1988, said that she has never “been impressed by___” and that she is “___by how attractive it is to others and___by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout.”
“Evil has a ___audience,” she said, “goodness ___backstage.”
With a few___exceptions, the 19th-century novel made sure goodness___ in the end. Writers such as Dickens, Austen, and Hardy mostly held to a ___that left their readers turning the final page “with the sense of the ___of order and the ___of virtue.”
But there was a “rapid, stark” shift away from such endings in the wake of World War I, as writers confronted a ___“too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of___.”
stunned, comforted, thorough, notable, silenced, Morrison, confounded, Sanders Theatre, demanding, committed, blockbuster, formula, Amish, tragic tale, the recipient, triumphed, triumph, recounted, murder, shocking, exploration, restoration, Pulitzer Prize, evil, lurks, catastrophe, goodness.
• Grammar Focus
Identifying Parts of Speech
Directions: Students aretoidentify the nouns words in the following excerpt from the article. Then they are to use these words along with words from other parts of speech to create their own paragraphs about Goodness. After have each group share their stories with the class.
“A true exploration of goodness demands a thorough examination of its opposite, Morrison argued. The author, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, said that she has never “been impressed by evil,” and that she is “confounded by how attractive it is to others and stunned by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout.”
“Evil has a blockbuster audience,” she said, “goodness lurks backstage.”
With a few notable exceptions, the 19th-century novel made sure goodness triumphed in the end. Writers such as Dickens, Austen, and Hardy mostly held to a formula that left their readers turning the final page “with the sense of the restoration of order and the triumph of virtue.”
III. Post Reading Tasks
• Reading Comprehension Check
Directions: Have students use the WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.
Who or What is the article about?
Where does the action/event take place?
When does the action/event take place?
Why did the action/event occur?
How did the action/event occur?
Directions: Have students fill in the last column of the KWL chart if they used one in the pre-reading segment of this lesson.
• Discussion/Writing Tasks
Directions: Place students in groups and have then answer the following questions. After, have the groups share their thoughts as a class. To reinforce the ideas, students can write an essay on one of the topics.
- In reference to the reaction of the Amish community to the tragedy of the murdered children, Morrison states, “Instead of demanding vengeance, the community comforted the killer’s widow and children.” Why is this behavior so surprising?
- How would most people react to the murder of their loved ones? How would you react?
- Morrison states, “… it was the community’s silence, its refusal “to be lionized, televised…” In your opinion, was this unusual behavior for the community? Provide reasons for your answers.
- According to Morrison, “A satisfactory or good ending for me is when the protagonist learns something vital and morally insightful and mature that she or he did not know at the beginning.” Can you think of a novel in which this type of ending occurs?
- Morrison states that, “ A true exploration of goodness demands a thorough examination of its opposite.” How would you translate this statement into your own words?
- What were the most significant ideas in Morrison’s discussion?
IV. Listening Activity
Video: Lynn Neary of NPR interviews Toni Morrison who discusses her book “A Mercy”.
“Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford; February 18, 1931) is an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved. She also was commissioned to write the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005. She won the Nobel Prize in 1993 and in 1988 the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. On 29 May 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” read more…
• While Listening Tasks
True /False statements
Directions: Review the statements with students before the watching the video. As students listen to the video if a statement is true they mark it T if the statement is false they mark it F and provide the correct answer.
- The interview took place at the NPR station.
- Morrison wanted the story to reflect a time when America was fluid and building.
- The era was during the early times in America.
- During the story, there are no new people coming to America.
- Each character represents the same aspect of life in America at that time.
- “Layered” means there are many stories and each story in the book builds on the next one.
- Morrison wanted the group of people to reflect American self-sufficiency.
- According to Morrison, In the end, the group could not survive because there was no leader to hold them together.
• Post-Listening Tasks
Questions for Discussion
Directions:Place students in groups and have them discuss the following questions.
- Did you agree with everything Toni Morrison said?
- Discuss which comments you agreed with and which ones you tended not to agree with. Explain why.
- With your group members, make up questions that you would like to ask Toni Morrison.