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 shelf...to 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
- Disability in 19th and Early 20th Century Literature
How did other authors approach the subject?
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)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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 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.
- Teacher Link
Here you'll find details about linking The Secret Garden to various parts of the 4th and 5th grade curriculum. Students are taught to explore India and England -- and to examine the changes in Mary. I like these, and I think there are places where a
Secret Garden vocabulary activities.
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
- English Garden
- The Secret Garden Sign
- Child at Gate
Tina Phillips, Free Digital Photos
- Colin, Mary, Dicken
bluebirdsandteapots, Flickr. (Shared under an Attribution/ Share Alike license.)
- Secret Garden Collage
bluebirdsandteapots, Flickr. (Shared under an Attribution/ Share Alike license.)
(Many will recognize that line from the book... or one of the movies.)