A Raisin in the Sun

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun contains an annotated list of characters, a brief synopsis of the screenplay, and teaching suggestions to be used before, during, and after reading the play. This literature guide makes a perfect lesson for Black History Month.
Teaching Strategies:
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Updated on: November 21, 2000
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Teaching A Raisin in the Sun

It is helpful to introduce students to a work of literature prior to reading it. This is particularly important when the work may be difficult for some students to read or may present themes or ideas that are complex and/or controversial. Although the screenplay of A Raisin in the Sun is simple in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure, many students will be unfamiliar with how to read a screenplay or even a play. Therefore, it is important to help them understand how reading a screenplay differs from reading a novel. In addition, the themes of Raisin are mature and may need some introduction, so that students can appreciate the power of Hansberry's deceptively simple work.

How to Read a Screenplay

Help students understand the differences between a play and a screenplay/film. In the screenplay, Hansberry's camera instructions are very clear. Most students will have no difficulty picking up on her cues as they read. Margaret Wilkerson's introduction (xxvix-xliv) explains them within the context of the entire screenplay. Teachers might find it helpful to read this introduction before teaching the screenplay. The teacher cannot stress enough the importance of the camera's role in this screenplay. It provides the most important voice, albeit a visual one. Hansberry's screenplay represents her belief that images, characters, and dialogue work as one entity. Her "cinematic vision" (Wilkerson, xxx) should be introduced to the students, since it is easy to get caught up in her words and lose the power of these complementary images.

As a class, go to a stage play being presented in your school, another school, college, or the community. If this is not possible, brainstorm stage plays the students have previously seen.

Either orally or in writing, have students respond to these questions: What did you like about the play? What did you dislike about the play? How was it different from watching a movie? How was it different from watching a video or television program at home?

(NOTE: If you cannot arrange to see a stage play and some or all of the students have never seen one, substitute a church pageant, rock concert, or any unfilmed event involving a stage, performers, and audience.)

Using one or two plays students have seen in common, or one they have previously read in common, review the basics of dramatic structure. Ask students to respond either in writing or in small group discussion to the following:

  • What is meant by exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution? Give examples from a play you have seen or read.

  • What purpose does an act serve in a play? Why do some plays have more acts than others? Give examples from plays you have seen or read.

  • What are stage directions?

  • What do the lighting and costumes add to a production?

  • What is the purpose of an audience in a stage play?

  • What is the purpose of the stage?

Either see a film or video as a class or have the students brainstorm ones they have seen. Using a film or video most of the students have seen, ask students to respond in writing or orally to the following:

  • What does a film have that a play does not? Give some examples.

  • What does a play have that a film does not? How does this change each medium?

  • What is the camera's role in a film?

  • How is the camera used to enhance our knowledge of the plot and of characters?

  • Of the two media (stage or film), which has the more fluid movement? Why do you think so? Give some examples from films you have seen.

To help students learn the technical terms related to a screenplay, suggest that they develop individual or small group glossaries of film terms: pan shots, tracking shots, traveling shots, full shot, two shot, close up, dissolve, P.O.V. (point of view), short, long, medium shots, high angle, and montage. Have students define each term and provide an example from films or videos they have seen of how each is used.

Group discussion: To give students a frame of reference, discuss a familiar film or video, asking the students for examples of each type of shot.

Assign two or three types of shots to several small groups. As a homework assignment, ask students to watch a video selected by their group and prepare to present examples of each type of shot to the class. They can show sections of the video to the class as they explain the camera technique employed.

In pairs, students can prepare a notebook of visuals from magazines or the students' own photography, illustrating several different types of film shots. Entries should be labeled and defined. Students should explain in writing the message the camera is attempting to convey and how this is accomplished.

Introducing the Themes

Because the themes of A Raisin in the Sun are mature and, in some communities, controversial, it may be helpful for students to be introduced to some of them prior to reading the screenplay. Students may first respond to the themes in a journal, then discuss their response in small groups prior to sharing them with the class.

Stereotyping and prejudice.

A frank exploration of cultural/racial stereotyping should "break the ice." Topics to which students are asked to respond should relate to their personal experiences and observations.

  • What is a stereotype? Give an example.

  • Identify the ethnic/racial/religious groups to which you belong. Discuss one way in which one or all of these groups are stereotyped. How does this make you feel?

  • Give some examples of how African-Americans have been stereotyped.

  • Give some examples of stereotyping of white Americans.

  • Using any stereotype you have been subjected to, explain the basis for this stereotype. How does this make you feel? How might this stereotype interfere with your ability to be successful or happy?

  • Using any stereotype of an ethnic/racial/religious group of which you are not a member, explain the basis for the stereotype. How do you think this makes the members of this group feel? How might this stereotype impede a group member's ability to be successful or happy?

  • Relate a situation in which one of your stereotyped attitudes turned out to be wrong. How do you feel now?

  • What is meant by prejudice? How do stereotypes relate to prejudice?

Dreams and dreams deferred.

Students can respond in writing and orally to the themes of the importance of dreams, what happens when dreams are deferred or destroyed, and the American Dream.

This topic is particularly good for individual or small group research. What is meant by the American Dream? Trace its evolution from 1600 to the present. When did the phrase come into vogue? How has its meaning changed? Does it mean the same for African-Americans as for white Americans? What must happen for the dream to come true?

Either read aloud or have a student who reads well read aloud Langston Hughes' poem "Dreams." Ask the students to respond to one or more of the following in writing or in small group discussion:

  • What is the mood of the poem? How does the poet feel about dreams?

  • What is the tone of the poem? If you were to hear the poet read it, what would be the sound of his voice?

  • What simile does the poet use? What does it mean? How might it relate to what is likely to occur in the screenplay A Raisin in the Sun?

  • Do you agree with Hughes? Give examples from personal experiences, books, and television or film plots about what happens when dreams are lost.

  • Find other poems or songs about dreams. How do they differ? How are they similar? Why?

  • Research Langston Hughes. Read other poems by Hughes. Present the result of your research to the class.*

  • Write your own poem (song or rap) about dreams.

  • Write an essay about your personal dreams (goals, aspirations). You might include why the dream is important, why you are likely to succeed, what could cause you to fail, and what you can do to avoid failure.*

The conflict between expectations.

This theme is a part of every student's life and students can respond to it individually or in small groups.

  • What is expected of you at home? At school (by adults)? Are these expectations realistic? How do your expectations of yourself differ from adults' expectations of you?

  • What do your peers (friends, members of your group or gang, others who are not friends or members of your group) expect from you? Do you share these expectations? How do they differ?

  • What problems occur if your expectations and others' expectations of you differ? Give a specific example from experience or the experience of someone you know.

  • If your expectations differ from those others have of you, how can you resolve this? Where does your personal loyalty belong?

A scene related to this theme that should capture students' interest is the confrontation between Walter Lee, Ruth, and Lena over the spending of the insurance check. Ask three students who read aloud well to present this scene (102-108) to the class. Or, present this scene from the film. Following the reading/viewing, have students respond in writing or orally to the following:

  • What is your opinion of each character?

  • What conflicts are taking place? Why?

  • How could they be resolved?

  • Why are the expectations of each character so different?

The strength of family.

Most students are a part of a family of one kind or another. This is an opportunity for them to explore their own feelings about family.

  • Write about or discuss what family means to you. You might include: different types of families, what type of family you are a part of, why your family is important to you, positive or negative aspects of being a member of a family, what you have learned by being a part of your family, loyalty or lack of loyalty within your family.

  • Imagine what it would be like not to be part of a family. Write a story or poem about how this makes you feel.

Use of Language

Lorraine Hansberry uses language to help develop her characters. As in Shakespearean drama, the language in A Raisin in the Sun reflects the social and economic status of the characters in the play. It is helpful for students to understand that the language of the characters helps viewers understand who they are.

Point out to the students some examples of how language helps us know Hansberry's characters.

RUTH: What you mean, out? He ain't hardly had a chance to be in there good yet.(9)

WALTER: Un-hunh. That's what you mad about, ain't it? The things I got to talk about with my friends just couldn't be important in you mind, could they! (11)

TRAVIS: Teacher says we got to do something 'bout teaching colored kids 'bout their history. So they set up a fund to buy special books that tell all about the things the poor Negroes did. (13-14)

LENA: Near 'bout. 'Cept - 'cept, Lord have mercy, when the war, praise God, come along a few years back. That sure changed things for a while. My husband had been a porter on the railroads all his life, and just as soon as we heard they had started taking colored in the de-fense plants and all, me and him both marched right on over and took the classes they was giving in the welding and all. (41)

ASAGAI: Because I suppose all Africans are revolutionaries today, even those who don't know that they are. It is the times. In order to survive we must be against most of what is. (50)

BENEATHA: Mama, you don't understand. It's all a matter of ideas, and God is just one idea I don't acept. It's not important. I am not going out and commit crimes or be immoral because I don't believe in God. I don't even think about it. It's just that I get so tired of Him getting credit for all the things the human race achieves through its own stubborn effort. There simply is no God! There is only Man, and it's he who makes miracles! (76)

LENA: Now - you say after me: "In my mother's house there is still God." (Silence.) "In my mother's house there is still God." (77)

LINDNER: Well - it's what you might call a sort of welcoming committee, I guess. I mean they - we - I'm the chairman of the committee - go around and see the new people who move into the neighborhood and sort of give them the lowdown on the way we do things out in Clybourne Park....And we also have the category of what the association calls - (he looks elsewhere) - uh - special community problems.... (161)

In small groups, have the students respond to or complete the following:

  • What does each of these quotes tell you about the person's character, beliefs, fears, frustrations? What emotions are you likely to hear in the person's voice?

  • Prepare one quote to present to the class as you believe the character would deliver it to the audience. Try it using different tones of voice. Does the meaning change?

  • If the quote is in non-standard English, rewrite it in standard English. Now, answer the same questions about each rewritten quote.

  • Prepare to deliver the quote you rewrote to the class as originally written and in standard English. Ask the class: What does each version suggest about the character?
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