Rethinking a Classic
I've known Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess most of my life, and it still captures my imagination. My perceptions of the story have certainly been different at different ages, and so I thought about my own history with the book when creating these lesson plans.
I received a pink paperback edition of A Little Princess as a Christmas gift when I was seven. I enjoyed the tale of little girls and big imaginations... at least up until the point Sara's father died. Then I stopped reading. I hid the book under my bed and took it out every now and then only to frighten myself.
At nine or ten, I encountered the novella Sara Crewe at the library. I didn't realize this shorter version had been written earlier -- a sort of precursor -- and so I assumed it was a young reader's edition. I was puzzled by what I felt was a change of character in Sara, and spent some time pondering the two books. Why had the author rewritten the character? I wondered. By that time, I had again embraced my little pink paperback. For the next few years, I was captivated by the not-quite-fairy tale about the not-quite-fairy-princess.
I studied the book again as an adult, and pondered themes that had gone unnoticed when I was a child.
Here I am including my own lesson plans, which focus on character development and themes. I am also including links to additional resources I have found, including a wonderfully detailed printable guide available from Gale Schools.
Organizing the Literature Unit
Many schools allow children to sign up for one of several books and study it in small groups during reading time. I believe this book could work well in this type of situation. There is a surprising must-have material for these small group literature discussions: the humble Post-It note! Children can be asked to look for passages that offer support to their answers to questions posed by the teacher -- or they may be asked to mark passages that they themselves find interesting.
A Little Princess could also be explored by homeschooling groups. Generations of moms have fond memories!
Exploring Character... and Character Change
The teacher or parent can introduce character exploration by reading and thinking aloud about Miss Minchin, posing the question, "What is this woman like, and how do we know?" An example of character-elucidating text support would be Captain Crewe's introduction of Sara. Miss Minchin gushes. However, the author notes that Miss Minchin tells all parents that their daughters are beautiful and promising. She speaks very differently about Sara to her own sister afterward. What inferences can be made?
The children can be character detectives and use their sticky notes to mark passages that tell about important characters, for example, Sara, Ms.Minchin, Becky, and Ermengarde. Then, in a group, they can compose a topic sentence and a few supporting sentences about one character.
Children can also look for passages that show character change. Some characters, like the milder Minchin sister, change a good deal during the story; others,like the elder one, remain static.
Journal and Discussion Ideas to Encourage Text to Self Connections
- Sara used her imagination to make her stay strong. Have you ever used your imagination in this way?
- When Sara gives away her bread to someone even hungrier than she is, the lady at the shop is motivated to pass the kindness on. Have you been in a situation where this has happened?
- Sara and Lavinia are both leaders, but in different ways. Sara inspires while Lavinia intimidates. Think of someone you know or have heard about who is a leader. What type of leader is he or she?
Pondering the Word 'Princess'
Background: Often people have trouble communicating because the words they choose mean different things to others. Exploring the word princess is an opportunity to also explore different perspectives.
To Sara, being a princess means conducting oneself with dignity and kindness, and being generous with the less fortunate -- even when it seems that very few people are less fortunate.
This may be very different than our perceptions of what it means to be a princess. Then again, it may match some student's perceptions. To some little girls, a princess represents all things good!
Activity: Be a word detective! Determine what different book characters believe about princess. Mark references with sticky notes and bring them to discussion.
Extension: Select another word -- some other noun that has taken on different connotations -- and explore the different meanings.
Frances Hodgson Burnett challenged the class system, and was in some ways, quite liberal. In other ways, she was a product of her times. Both A Secret Garden and A Little Princess reflect a casual acceptance of colonialism. I was an adult, or at least well into my teens, before I understood the context. I was a little shocked to realize that Sara's adored Papa was a part of African colonialism. In the time since, I've realized that many book characters, including the well-loved Ingalls family, were a part of movements that, seen against a lens of time, were wrought with prejudice or cruelty.
When we study fictional characters, we also learn a little about the author's viewpoint. Part of critical literacy is recognizing the author's viewpoint and placing the writing within this framework. The following lesson was designed primarily for A Secret Garden, but can be used for both books together.
- Critical Literacy Lesson Plan for Frances Hodgson Burnett Books
Explore character and author's viewpoint.
Theme: Spreading Kindness
Background: At her hungriest, Sara finds a coin and buys rolls, but gives them to a beggar child who appears even hungrier than she is. The woman who owns the bread shop is so moved by Sara's generosity that she decides to be generous herself. She takes the beggar child, Anne, inside and raises her as an apprentice. At the end of the story, Sara comes back to the store to share her re-found wealth. She meets up again with a much happier Anne -- and learns how her earlier act of generosity had already traveled on.
Activity: Toss a ball with a group of children. Everyone should try to toss first to someone who hasn't had the ball. Eventually there will be repeats and the ball will get back where it started. Explain: Often when we are kind to someone, they are motivated to spread kindness on. It's like the movement of a ball. Often the act does come back to the sender -- though not in quite the "The diamond mines were real after all!" manner of A Little Princess.
Invite children to look for others who need an act of kindness. They should be kind -- and write about it on a small sheet of paper. Collect the papers in a jar, and later look for connections. Do any of those acts of kindness make a chain?
Discussion: To what extent does kindness foster kindness? (This can be a tricky question to answer. Real life doesn't have the fairy tale element of A Little Princess and some kindness is never repaid.)
Multimedia Connection: The 1986 Movie
The story has been recreated several times, for both film and television. Some versions take many liberties with the plot. The 1986 version of A Little Princess stays generally true to the original. There are multiple versions: US and UK.
Study Guide for Book and Movie - An Excellent Resource
Film Education has designed a study guide that allows students to explore both book and movie. The guide appears to have been designed for the 1995 version, but the majority of it would work with any version. There's higher order thinking here!
- A Little Princess Activity Guide
From Film Education.
'Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's': Comparing Story Versions
Sara Crewe was written in 1888, and was later made into a stage version, A Little Un-fairy Princess or A Little Princess. Motivated perhaps by the play's success, Burnett penned a longer, and somewhat altered version of the story, A Little Princess, published in 1905.
Not knowing this, I made the assumption, when I first encountered Sara Crewe as a child, that this was a version written for younger readers, much like the condensed copy of Heidi that I owned. I was struck by some of the differences. Sara seemed different, and I did not like her as well. In the longer story, the author had noted that if Sara had been "another sort of child" (other than she was) her early experiences as a grand and rich show pupil would not have been good for her. In Sara Crewe, she declared that they had not been good for her. Between the two versions, Sara indeed became a different sort of child.
Advanced students can compare the two stories, taking notes on separate pages about differences in 1) plot 2) character and 3) language. (The last one is the most difficult, but the author does indeed write differently.) Which Sara do students like better? Do they like the way the character evolved?
A Little Princess Activities and Discussion Questions from Around the Web
- 'A Little Princess' Questions for Study and Discussion
Some of the questions here are ones that a child in the intermediate grades could answer. Others are for more mature readers.
- A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Search eText, Read Online, Study, Discuss.
There are more resources here than you may at first realize -- use the tabs at the top to navigate.
A Little Princess Analysis
A number of adults have shared perspectives on A Little Princess.
A Little Princess is in the public domain -- and widely available online.
Thoughts to Share?
tfsherman lm on October 14, 2012:
A Little Princess was my #1 book when I was a child. I named my daughter Sara. I've always thought the message about the need for inner strength was key. thanks for the lens on one of my all time favorites!
Sunbonnet_Sue on September 06, 2012:
One of my favorites as a child! I will have to read it again to see what I missed when I was younger. Maybe I'll use your lesson plan with myself :)
Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on August 08, 2012:
I love this kind of projects. They really use full potential of kids imagination. Thanks for great presentation and a lot of useful ideas:)
melissiaoliver on April 17, 2012:
This is a really interesting and thoughtful lens. A Little Princess has been one of my favourite stories ever since I was little - and whilst it's not the most accurate, I also love the 1995 Alfonso Curan film version. I had no idea that there was a precursor to the full story - I'm going to have to go and hunt it down now!
Have you read The Secret Garden by the same author?
Shannon from Florida on December 08, 2011:
henrylayla on October 19, 2011:
cool lens very much attractive images
Renaissance Woman from Colorado on October 19, 2011:
Somehow I missed this classic. Appreciated this collection of learning opportunities centered on A Little Princess. It is always interesting to revisit books. I have been rereading some books that I read over 20 years ago. I have such a different perspective now. Children's books truly have deep lessons for adults.
anilsaini on October 18, 2011:
anonymous on October 17, 2011:
nice new lens, enjoyed browsing it this morning, here's a 'thumbs up'.