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Teaching Critical Literacy with The Secret Garden


Analysis and Lesson Plans for The Secret Garden

A few years ago, a school that I worked at cast off all its copies of The Secret Garden. The school library had limited space for its collection, so it had become an annual task: thinning out the shelves to make room for books that were newer and more relevant to the school's population, more aligned with the curriculum. Discarded books were carted to the teacher's lounge, where they were claimed by individual teachers and added to their sparser classroom libraries.

I took home The Secret Garden and reread it. It simultaneously enchanted and appalled me. I have always been fond of this book. Nature, friendship, and honest labor: who can argue with that? And such a sense of wonder we feel when the robin shows Mary the way into the garden!

Even so, I have concern about some of the underlying messages. Isn't that often the case with the classics? The Secret Garden was progressive for its time—but when all is said and done, it's still very much a product of a time. And so it's a good idea to take it down from the teach it.

I consider The Secret Garden an excellent book for developing critical literacy skills. In this article, you will find a bit of literary criticism, written with the teacher in mind. You will also find critical literacy lesson plans for this Frances Hodgson Burnett classic.


Portrayal of Disability in The Secret Garden

In Critical Literacy: A Way of Thinking, a Way of Life, Cynthia McDaniel invites the reader to question "the text's unspoken, underlying message -- the passive ideology of the author or the times." As teachers, or parents, we might question the author's assumptions about disability as manifested by Colin and those who interact with him.

Colin was seriously ill at points as an infant, but the illnesses passed. He is primarily a victim not of his body but of his father's belief system and that of the other adults who care for him. His father has a misshapen spine; he fears Colin will, too. Colin's mother died when he was an infant; his father believes he will, too. People treat Colin like an invalid and he grows up as one. Once he has companions, fresh air, and a spark of interest in something healthy -- bringing a garden back to life -- he, too, begins to bloom. He learn to walk... and run.

So far so good! The problem is not with Colin finding his strength and his competence, but in the underlying message that his future and perhaps the value in his life hinge on him being healthy and normal. His father has hyperlordosis (termed a hunchback in those days). Colin lives in terror of growing a lump. He believes it will ruin his life. (Will it?) He believes it will mean he is dying. (Will it?)

Colin becomes well without all of the assumptions being challenged. Not only he, but other characters marvel at his health. The old gardener who loved his mother and secretly tended her garden is moved when he realizes that Colin is as healthy as any boy... and that there is no lump!

What if Colin had merely shed his fear of death -- and his fear of interaction? Colin does indeed make the decision to allow friends into his life when he still believes himself an invalid. There is still a sense, though, that happiness depends on the lack of a lump. And that brings us to a vital question for children to explore: Is this assumption true?

Some children may be up for the challenge of rewriting the story with a twist. Suppose Colin can't learn to walk... What then?

Treatment of Disability in Children's Literature


Critical Literacy Lesson Plan for The Secret Garden: Rationale

Creating a villain who's a taxi driver doesn't mean the author dislikes taxi drivers! Still, we may get a sense of her beliefs (or cultural milieu) by examining many characters.

Children are probably not ready to consider what the author's prejudices may be (in relation to the characters presented). Chances are, though, that they're ready to examine the characters in the story and compare them to real people they know.


Critical Literacy Lesson Plan for The Secret Garden


  • Multiple copies of The Secret Garden
  • Post-It Notes (for taking notes straight on the book)
  • Markers for teacher (so that children can see her notes from their spot on the rug)
  • Teacher-made posters or butcher paper charts, each divided in two parts, and labeled to represent some dichotomy (Children/ Adults, Wealthy/ Poor, Educated/ Uneducated)


  1. Model comprehension. Read out loud from the book, stopping to think out loud about particular characters (for example, the doctor). Model the process of summing up characters in a few words but also having reasons (text support) for each judgment. Write these thoughts down on large sticky notes to model the process. (Questions can be included as well as judgments.)
  2. Ask children to write their responses to characters on sticky notes as they read independently. (They can stick these straight to the page of their own book.) They can discuss them in their small groups and bring them to class discussion on the rug.
  3. Discuss characters. Organize notes onto the appropriate section of the charts. Periodically sum up what has been added so far. The teacher might note, for example, that most of the educated characters are "weak" or "foolish". Children should be encouraged to make comparisons and generalizations.
  4. Ask children to reflect on their own experiences: Who are the most educated people in their lives? Are they like the ones in The Secret Garden -- or are they different?

Extension: Extend this activity to one or more other stories by the same author. A Little Princess would be a natural choice.

Reading Standards

The above lesson addresses the following common core literature standards at the fourth grade level:

  • 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text
  • 4.3: Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character's thoughts, words, or actions)

And at the 5th grade level:

  • 5.3: Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).

It could easily be adapted to meet the following 5th grade standard:

  • 5.1: Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Students may begin to explore theme in their responses, though it's not an explicit objective. Theme-related discussions address the following standards:

  • RL.5.2: Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

Source: Common Core State Standards ELA

Authors: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers

Title: Common Core State Standards (insert specific content area if you are using only one)

Publisher: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C.

Copyright Date: 2010

Secret Garden Collage

Secret Garden Collage

Secret Garden Collage

Try using sticky notes to track themes.

Themes of The Secret Garden

These are some of the themes that I personally find positive.

  • Social class doesn't define worth -- or smarts.
  • Humans can act toward nature with deep respect.
  • Children need love and attention far more than they need material things.
  • There is value in work.

The Secret Garden and the Issue of Labeling

I read recently a comment that one reason The Secret Garden was valuable was that it showed the harm in labeling. My response to that is...maybe. The problem is that the adults who label Colin are either mentally unstable and depressed (as in the case of the father) or fools (as in the case of the doctor). But a person who labels isn't necessarily one or the other. That seems obvious -- but do we behave as if it was?

As a teacher, I have encountered people who say that there child should not be tested because he'll be bullied or ostracized -- and made unhappy. They may be unable to see that the child is already being ostracized or bullied on a daily basis. I had a similar experience myself in childhood.

I don't want to criticize well meaning people who avoid labels. Sometimes I will hear someone express an idealized Secret Garden view of childhood -- that adults make people different with their labels and that, left to their own devices, children will see through them. That wasn't what I encountered in childhood. And often it isn't what I encounter in schools. Many of us have left our gardens behind by school age.

I have never encountered a situation, in childhood or adulthood, where someone was shut in a room, in a metaphorical sense even, by a doctor-granted label. I have encountered situations where the opposite took place. What is more likely to happen to a modern child who is given a label: that he gets some needed service -- or that he is shut in a room like Colin?

Critical Literacy

Critical literacy doesn't mean criticizing books -- at least not in the colloquial sense of the word. It means examining text instead of passively consuming it.

More Lesson Plans for The Secret Garden

Lesson plans are free unless noted otherwise.


Portrayals of Beauty

Beauty is another issue worth exploring. Mary's transformation is not all inner -- she also becomes a pretty child. At different points in the story, other characters remark on her appearance. Again, it's not a concern that she's changing. It is a concern the value that others place on it. A case can be made that even the kinder characters base her worth partly on her physical appearance.

Children can look for places in the story where other characters talk about her appearance and mark them with a sticky note.


Social Class, Colonialism, and Race

Implicit in Frances Hodgson Burnett's books is a casual accepatance of colonialism. They were written at a time when India was under Britain's control, and this is a part of the backdrop.

I believe that this is a theme that a teacher would do well to bring up -- and to make connections with in both a literary and historical sense. Many nations have been colonies of other nations, often very much to the detriment of the people living there. There is no shortage of books that explore the theme -- including simple (on the surface) picture books.

There is indeed subtle prejudice in The Secret Garden. There are few examples of overt racism, but there is at least one instance. It occurs when Mary first meets Martha (the not very subservient young servant). Martha suggests that Mary's peculiar ways may be the result of having lived among blacks, and also casually mentions that she expected Mary to be black. Mary is furious and calls Martha a "daughter of a pig". This can be a bit shocking. Mary's reaction here is perhaps less of a concern than Martha's -- at this point, after all, Mary is portrayed as a very disagreeable little girl who will insult any one. But we see that wise Martha also has some prejudices -- and so, probably, did the author.

One of the goals in critical literacy is to examine not just the voices who tell the story, but the voices that are left out: What might they say? We might take some time to explore what India's own people might have had to say about Mary and her family? And about Martha and hers? (Notable, Martha and her mother may be no wealthier than Mary's former native servants. It is mentioned more than one that they don't have enough to eat.)

By and large, it's the adults in the lower socioeconomic classes that are portrayed most positively. In this way, the book was progressive. It --and other classics from the time period -- pushed the envelope.

The Secret Garden Movie: Rethinking a Classic

The 1993 movie alters the plot somewhat. Some of the things that were more questionable have been altered or removed in this version. Colin announces that he's dying of everything, but no mention is made of a hump. There's less of a sense that he has to walk. Mary's physical appearance, too, is given less emphasis.

Mary does call Martha a "Daughter of a Pig," when she says that she expected Mary to be native. At the beginning of the story, at least, Mary counts racial prejudice among her flaws! There is no sense of prejudice on Martha's part, however. Martha makes her original quite cheerfully and responds that she has nothing against natives when Mary has a tantrum.

Not all of the changes are to sanitize. There is a more exaggerated, over-the-top quality to people's attempts to prevent Colin from getting ill.

The BBC version is the more faithful reproduction.

More Literary Criticism for The Secret Garden

Image Credits

(Many will recognize that line from the book... or one of the movies.)

How Does Your Garden Grow?

StewartClan on September 25, 2012:

This is a really interesting lens. I have a feeling that I have read the book, but I am not too sure. When I was young the BBC did a series The Secret Garden so I may have the two mixed up. Anyway, I will find the book and read it again. So many books are different through adult eyes.

Missmerfaery444 on September 16, 2012:

Excellent and fascinating! I loved this book as a child and it was interesting to think about the implications of the plot in today's terms. I expect many of the books I loved as a child would have things in that today make us uncomfortable or that aren't relevant. In addition to the wonderful exercises you have here for children to question the things in the book, it's also a great opportunity to demonstrate how times and opinions have changed, in most cases for the better.

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on September 16, 2012:

It always fascinate me when I dig into a story and try to find more meanings under the cover. Critical thinking is a great skill, although not very popular in the world of multinational corporations.

Beautiful lens with great book on important subject!

Michey LM on September 15, 2012:

Great Book, glad you speak your mind. Thanks

Carol Brooks from Florida on September 15, 2012:

This was my favorite book when I was growing up. I grew up reading Kipling as well and I never questioned the British Empire references. My parents were British and I lived in Canada and Barbados as a child. Things were the way they were. Your lens caused me to think about the book on a deeper level, which is what we should teach students to do. Great job!

RoadMonkey on September 14, 2012:

A fascinating lens. I never did that kind of analysis of stories when I was in early school years, certainly not that I recall and when it was introduced, (in high school years) it was so boring that I dropped English Literature classes as soon as possible, because I loved reading and the analysis put me off! I think I would have enjoyed it done this way.

Rosaquid on September 13, 2012:

I love this book

LynetteBell from Christchurch, New Zealand on September 13, 2012:

Nice lens

anonymous on September 13, 2012:

May we always have the joy and lessons The Secret Garden and you have opened it up to us in such a wondrous way with your critical teaching approach that will caused us to stretch and grow rather than discard, this is a work of excellence...and blessed!

BillyPilgrim LM on September 11, 2012:

Great lens - thanks for sharing x

JoshK47 on September 11, 2012:

Interesting - thanks for sharing! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 10, 2012:

I know that our grand kids love this book so this would be fun in the classroom.

aquarian_insight on September 10, 2012:

'The Secret Garden' was one of my favourite books when I was growing up. I think many stories have good and bad points, but as long as they are well written, even the bad points can be thought provoking. I don't think books should be banned based on what they are about, For example, I dislike the fact that Enid Blyton has been modernised. After all, could it not be argued that 'Harry Potter' is a book about child neglect and abuse? This is a wonderful, thought provoking lens. Thank you.

SheilaMilne from Kent, UK on September 10, 2012:

I've only ever read the book, and that was many years ago, but I remember loving it. Our family had just returned from abroad and I could feel for Mary, not fitting in.

MarcellaCarlton on April 02, 2012:

I just love this book. Despite the problematic thinking that may be introduced it is the way they thought in those days.

KarenCookieJar on April 02, 2012:

The secret garden has always been and still is one of my favorite novels.

anilsaini on October 03, 2011:

nice lens

Jeanette from Australia on September 30, 2011:

I think it's so sad that books like these are being discarded from libraries - no doubt to be replaced with some shallow, modern novel. Thanks for opening my eyes to things I would otherwise probably miss when reading this story.

KarenTBTEN (author) on September 29, 2011:

@liam999: Yes, modern literature has prejudices, too. Part of the premise of critical literacy is that all literature has a viewpoint, and, in some sense of the word, prejudice. Reading critically doesn't mean saying something's bad (or being unsympathetic), but rather recognizing the viewpoint and context. The goal is to give children the skills they need to be something more than passive consumers of literature... and electronic media. Some critical literacy lessons focus on the internet or other modern media. But as you point out, it's not necessary that every book turn into a lesson.

liam999 on September 29, 2011:

Thoughtful and insightful lens. But I wonder. Do you not think that modern authors are not also bound to prejudices; cultural and otherwise? Secondly, does not the value of the classics lay in their authenticity, irrespective of the attitudes, implied or otherwise, of their time? Must we incessantly 'correct' the past? Are not our children better served, as you so rightly point out to acknowledge injustice, but also remain sympathetic toward the author? For you cannot understand an author, or anyone, unless you read them with generosity. Are these books to be read and enjoyed by children or used as a 'tool' to teach critical analysis? A dubious undertaking that just might take more childhood out of childhood as it is. Anyhow a very thought provoking article and worthy of further consideration in my opinion.

anonymous on September 28, 2011:

I will add your lens as a Related Lens or Featured Lens to my lens "Another Ordinary Day". You so sound like one of my teachers when I was growing up. I had great teachers!

lemonsqueezy lm on September 28, 2011:

I rarely read a book twice. I have been contemplating reading this one again. Excellent resource! Fantastic!

franstan lm on September 26, 2011:

What a wonderful lens. It is funny how you can look at a book differently when you do so through the eyes of a teacher. Blessed

emmaklarkins on September 25, 2011:

Great stuff here! I loved this book as a child. A more recent re-reading was definitely eye-opening. Still a great book, but so many things I didn't notice as a child! Blessed :)