I love teaching Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. This is usually the first text that I teach with a new class as I want the first literature unit to be a success that the class can build on. The student interest is high (the drama of the Younger family engages students thoroughly) but the grade level (text complexity) is low.
Before teaching A Raisin in the Sun…
Think about grade level.
The A Raisin in the Sun grade level is 9th grade and up. (I have used the play for an advanced group of 8th graders.) Even though the reading grade level for A Raisin in the Sun is low, the issues, themes, and context are more appropriate for High School.
- ATOS Book Level: 5.5
- Interest Level (AR): Upper Grades 9-12
- Lexile Level: NP (non-prose)
- Leveled Reading: Z (Grade 7-8)
Prepare to address sensitive material.
While the language is not complicated, there are some sensitive issues to navigate:
- Racism and internalized racism
- Alcohol abuse
- Religious arguments (atheism)
- Words: the n-word, “negro,” “colored,” “fa**oty,” “chick,” “ass,” “damn,” and “hell”
This is not kids’ stuff. Think about how you will handle these topics. Warn the students about this content, and explain your expectations. Remind them that you are trusting them to address these topics with sensitivity and maturity.
Plan your reading and lesson schedules.
You must decide what works for you, but this is the A Raisin in the Sun reading schedule that works for me in my current teaching assignment:
- Week 1 Act I, scene 1
- Week 2 Act I, scene 2 – Act II, scene 1
- Week 3 Act II, scene 2 – Act II, scene 3
- Week 4 Act III
Note: I know this reading schedule is lax, but with this text I want to build habits that will prepare students for more rigorous reading schedules.
I expect my secondary students to read the text independently on a weekly basis. I hold them accountable for the reading with brief reading quizzes that count as homework grades. They need to start approaching grade-level texts without having it spoon fed to them. They have a full week to read the assignment in a way that works for them and receive additional support.
Explore the concept of “The American Dream.”
Ask students what “The American Dream” means. What are the connotations of this term? Does it mean different things to different people? Has the meaning changed? Does it mean something to them personally?
Explore the different conceptions of “The American Dream” as a class. You may want the entire class to read the same articles or you may want to “jigsaw” the exploration by assigning different students (or groups) different texts to present.
- “How Rural Students Define the American Dream” by Magdalena Slapik
- “What the man behind the ‘American Dream’ really meant” by Ted Widmer
- “I Have a Dream…” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
- “Is There an American Dream for Black Children?” by Sean McElwee
- “African-American History Timeline: 1950 to 1959” by Femi Lewis
- “Donald Trump Claims ‘The American Dream is Back,’” by Natalie Waters
Another lesson that I enjoy teaching is a comparison of poem that inspired Hanberry’s title, “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, and the “I Have a Dream…” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. This lesson lends itself to performance, and I encourage the students to organize choral readings of both texts before starting our analysis.
Video connections for “The American Dream”
Videos are a great way to spark discussion on “The American Dream.” It becomes clear that term means different things to different people. The meaning can focus on individual expression, personal freedoms, opportunity, or prosperity.
- Where Does the American Dream Live” video (14:45) from Retro Report: This is an engaging video focusing on race and opportunity. Clear connections to the play (1950s Chicago). Content Advisory: “black bastards” (1:45)
- “Park Avenue: Money, Power & the American Dream” preview video (0:36) from Independent Lens: Short promo asserting that “The American Dream” has been hijacked.
- “Is the American Dream Still Alive” video (7:29) from CBS Sunday Morning: Economic point of view focusing on the struggling middle class.
- “The American Dream in 2016” video (4:41) from the New Yorker: People use an art exhibit to reflect on their views of “The American Dream.”
- “American Dream” MKTO music video (3:46) from Disney: Focusing on personal expression as the new dream.
Teaching A Raisin in the Sun: Historical Context
Make sure that students understand the context of the play within the Civil Rights Movement and why the the original production was ahead of its time. By the late Fifties, when Hansberry wrote the play, what had African Americans gained and what did they seek? By this point in the Civil Rights era, what issues were in the forefront of the minds of African Americans?
The Younger parents (Mama and Big Walter) moved to Chicago as part of The Great Migration. How was the Civil Right era different for families like the Youngers and African Americans in the South? How were the issues of the day different for Walter, Mama, Beneatha, and the other characters respectively?
There is a excellent documentary that I like to use when studying the Civil Rights Era in the South that is always a big hit with the students: The Children’s March (40 minutes). I rarely see students so interested in a documentary.
Plan to support resistant and struggling readers.
My students have an entire week to read so that they can receive any needed support. In order to identify students who may need additional support, you must have reliable data. You may need to use a reading diagnostic tool if the data you have is questionable or out-of-date. I typically give seven or eight identified students scene summaries (discretely) from the start.
Helping students to read independently
Reading every word together as a class may be possible with a play or novella, but is it desirable? We want to scaffold independent reading so that the scaffolding can be minimized as the student progresses. Additionally, students should be familiar with the text so that class time may be spent on thoughtful analysis, collaboration, or, in this case, performance (i.e. dramatic reading).
- Chapter summaries: These can be printed from Sparknotes, Shmoop, and the like. I feel that it is not dishonest as long as the students still reads the actual text (before or after reading the summary).
- Support services: Give your special education colleagues the book, schedule, etc. Parents can also provide support since the readings are on a weekly basis to accommodate busy schedules.
- Video: Use sparingly as you only want to orient their imaginations. Again, it is not dishonest as long as the students are still reading.
- Audio books: Many websites will read a text aloud, but remind students that they should still follow along and then re-read on their own.
- Reading groups: You may want to organize a weekly reading group or encourage students to do so. If the discussions are lively, they may even enjoy it.
- Modified assessments: Students with an IEP may benefit from modified quizzes, a different venue or alternative scoring (e.g. 7 or better is %100). Sometimes it is as easy as crossing off some of the toughest distracters.
Preview the final task for the A Raisin in the Sun unit.
Let the students know where this study is headed. By letting them know what they will be expected to demonstrate, you both alleviate anxiety and encourage reading with a purpose. Is there anything they could do as they read to make things easier later?
For example, if they will be writing the symbol and theme essay, students might pick a symbolic element now and “cheat” by taking notes as they read. You may even want to give a simple, two-column chart to track key citations and their initial analysis. I like this method because it increases engagement and yields better student products.
Symbolic / thematic elements in A Raisin in the Sun:
- The check
- Beneatha’s hair
- Mrs. Johnson
- Mr. Lindner
- Joseph Asagai
- George Murchison
- Music (Nigerian, Jazz / blues, and hymns representing the characters).
- Clybourne Park
RELATED POST: A Raisin in the Sun Projects
While reading a A Raisin in the Sun…
Teach A Raisin in the Sun as you would a novel.
A Raisin in the Sun is a masterpiece and offers so much to digest that simply viewing a performance or reading it as a class is not going to cut it. Class time is not when students read the text for the first time; class time is for thoughtful analysis, collaboration, and performance.
Analyze word choice so that students understand how Hansberry creates mood and sense of time and place.
Explain how Hansberry selects every word and phrase with care. Her word choices enable her to set the stage as she imagines. Review word connotations (feelings / associations), figurative language, allusions, mood, and tone as needed. Have the students give analysis on key excerpts.
“That was a long time ago. Now the once loved pattern of the couch upholstery has to fight to show itself from under acres of crocheted doilies and couch covers which have themselves finally come to be more important than the upholstery.” (23)
The apartment and furnishings are described as weary, tired, undistinguished, worn, etc. The apartment is given human traits (personification) and fights to show how run-down it is. The dreams and optimism signified by the furnishings initially have faded, the mood is of low energy and discouragement.
Include other texts to get students thinking about symbolism.
When teaching A Raisin in the Sun, I have students review symbolism by reading a short story like “The Grandfather” by Gary Soto. I like this story because, despite its brevity, the symbol of the avocado tree has many facets (just as the check in A Raisin in the Sun represents money but also death, deferred dreams, and waiting for change). It also keeps with the plant/family motif. I want them practice the type of symbol analysis that they will apply to A Raisin in the Sun.
Each line and action in A Raisin in the Sun characterizes the members of the Younger family and illustrates their experience. Hansberry allows each of the main characters to build the case for their point of view on life.
Main characters lesson idea:
Get students to think about their own values. What about life is important to them? Try to redirect material values into abstract values (e.g. a smartphone might really be about valuing social connection). Explain that they will be using evidence from the play so far in order to draw conclusions about the characters’ points of view and values.
Each student or group is to analyze one character: Beneatha, Mama, Walter, Ruth, Joseph, or George. They must create a three-column chart to share with the class. Remind them to include the character’s values in the analysis. Students could work in small groups to create a larger chart to share.
Key values to discuss in teaching A Raisin in the Sun: Dignity, familial love, religion, romantic love, raising children, helping others, money, respect, sense of self, heritage, enlightenment, etc.
Have students analyze Beneatha’s search for identity.
- What is the importance of this thematic element?
- What is behind her compulsion to try so many forms of expression?
- How is her view on identity different from the rest of her family?
- How do other characters react to her interest in African heritage?
- What views on assimilation are discussed, and can we decipher Hansberry’s views on assimilation?
Explore minor characters in A Raisin in the Sun as symbols.
Minor characters in the play act as symbols. Mrs. Johnson’s main role, for example, is to represent internalized racism. Mrs. Johnson accepts the oppression of African Americans and expects the Youngers to do the same. She resents the Youngers’ ambitions as an indictment of her own acquiescence.
Have the students choose a minor character and analyze their symbolic importance:
- Mrs. Johnson
- George Murchison
- Mr. Lindner
- Willie Harris (in absentia)
- Joseph Asagai
Related post: A Raisin in the Sun Discussion Questions
Put Mrs. Johnson in the spotlight.
Mrs. Johnson, despite her thematic importance, does not make it into many productions. I feel she is an essential inclusion.
Of Mrs. Johnson Robert Nemiroff writes,
“….(Mrs. Johnson’s scene) is included here in any case, because it speaks to fundamental issues of the play, makes plain the reality that waits the Youngers at the curtain, and, above all, makes clear what, in the eyes of the author, Lena Younger – in her typicality within the black experience – does and does not represent.”
Mrs. Johnson serves as a foil to Mama. Although their stations in life are similar, Mama will never accept second-class citizenry. Mrs. Johnson represents acceptance of the status quo and even internalized racism that must be overcome.
I like to have students compare the poem “Booker T. and W.E.B” by Dudley Randall and Act II, scene 2 (Mrs. Johnson’s scene) of the play regarding the themes and creative choices. What are the two positions taken on how African Americans should advance? How do Dudley Randall and Hansberry approach the debate differently?
Have students perform dramatic readings with purpose.
Dramatic readings as part of teaching A Raisin in the Sun can be both engaging and thought-provoking. Be advised, everyone wants to be Walter. Assign roles and ask the students to perform them with appropriate tone and emphasis. (I have to keep a list of who has had roles from lesson to lesson to prevent arguments.)
Add purpose by having the students discuss what elements need to be emphasized by the actors and why. What is each character’s motivation in the scene? This practice puts the students in the director’s chair. Chart direction notes from the students before reading the scene. Afterwards, ask students to critique the reading with constructive criticism.
It is key that students conduct dramatic readings after reading the assignment so that the performance choices and discussions are meaningful.
Use Beneatha’s subplot to analyze structure.
Have students analyze the structure of the play by connecting Beneatha’s subplot to the larger plot. How does her romantic choice fit within the drama? What function does it serve? How do the two plots relate to one another?
After teaching A Raisin in the Sun…
Have students demonstrate mastery with symbolism presentations.
After completing the drama, have the students give presentations on the thematic importance of Hansberry’s symbols. Students should cite textual evidence and give thorough analysis of how the symbol helps develop a theme. Students should include explanations of how the symbol and theme connect to other literary elements.
Have students extend their learning through creativity, research, argument.
Here are four of the extension task ideas from my A Raisin in the Sun unit:
Research projects: Develop focus questions based on your study of A Raisin in the Sun. Conduct a research project demonstrating your ability to use search terms, use varied sources, synthesize findings, consider credibility / accuracy, quote, paraphrase, cite, and avoid plagiarism.
- Neighborhood integration and A Raisin in the Sun
- Lorraine Hansberry’s life and A Raisin in the Sun
- The Civil Rights Movement and A Raisin in the Sun
- The Women’s Movement and A Raisin in the Sun
Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: In a cooperative group, stage one scene from the play. Adapt your speech appropriately for task, purpose, and audience. After the performance, read a rationale statement explaining the creative choices your group made and how they emphasize elements and reveal meaning.
Creative writing: Write an original drama. In a cooperative group, create a one-scene play focused on the thematic element of “The American Dream.” Make sure that you have a clear theme (about “The American Dream”), setting, conflict, plot, points of view, and other narrative elements.
Creative writing: Write an original narrative. Write a short story based on two key elements: “The American Dream” and symbolism. The rest is up to you. You can interpret “The American Dream” in any way that you want. Make sure to apply what you have learned about symbolism from studying A Raisin in the Sun. Your narrative must clearly demonstrate all of the key narrative elements: setting, plot, conflict, character development, and theme.
Thanks for visiting Teaching A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Teaching A Raisin in the Sun at the appropriate grade level has been a rewarding experience for me, and I think that my students learn a great deal from the unit. They always offer insightful comments, arguments, and observations. Students who have come back to their old school to visit me recall how much the play engaged them.
The play gives students access to discussing complex themes. I want my students to recognize that the Language Arts classroom is a place for exploring the complex, critical issues of their world. Hansberry’s themes on racism, sexism, heritage, identity, dreams, and money are still relevant today.