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Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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Student Activities for Flowers for Algernon Include:

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is a touching story about a man named Charlie, chosen for an experiment that offers him the opportunity to become “smart”, his deepest wish in life. The novel brings up several important themes and questions, including the ethics of human experimentation, the mistreatment of the mentally disabled in society, and the relationship between intellect and human interactions. Charlie discovers that the grass may not be greener on the other side, as he finds himself increasingly alienated from those he loves when his intelligence becomes markedly higher. By the end of the novel, Charlie regresses back into his former intelligence, but this time with a sense of self-worth that he has derived from his experiences.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Flowers for Algernon Summary

The novel is epistolary, written as a series of journal entries, known to Charlie as “progress reports”, a requirement from his doctors for the experiment. He is 32 years old, with an I.Q. of 68, and he is blissfully unaware of the cruelty with which he is treated by his “friends” at the bakery where he works. He is chosen for an experiment at Beekman College by Miss Kinnian, his teacher at the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults, because he has motivation to learn. Professor Nemur and Dr. Strauss are in charge of this experiment.

After the experiment, Charlie’s intelligence increases, along with his awareness of how others perceive him. He realizes that his “friends” at the bakery, Joe, Frank, and Gimpy, have been laughing at him, not with him, and he eventually loses his job at the bakery because the change in his intelligence scares his coworkers. He also crosses Gimpy when he confronts him for overcharging customers and pocketing the extra change, which seems to cement his firing.

Meanwhile, Charlie has developed a sense of kinship with the lab mouse Algernon, who underwent the same procedure that Charlie did. When he meets Algernon, he learns that Algernon needs to run a maze in order to eat, and Charlie thinks that is unfair. He races Algernon and eventually wins against him, surpassing Algernon in intelligence. Charlie comes to see himself reflected in Algernon, as they are both caught in the cage of this experiment and not treated as individuals. He frees Algernon at a scientific convention in Chicago where they are being showcased and put on display, and they take off to an apartment Charlie rents in New York City.

As the days pass, Charlie notices that Algernon begins to regress, and he eventually dies. Charlie realizes that this will soon happen to him, too, and he has a limited amount of time. He meets his next-door neighbor, Fay, an eccentric artist who is a welcome diversion to Charlie. However, as soon as he realizes he is running out of time, he devotes his life to working in the lab and concluding Nemur and Strauss’ experiment, calling it the “Algernon-Gordon Effect: A Study of Structure and Function of Increased Intelligence.” His conclusion of the study is that, “Artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase.” As soon as Fay realizes that Charlie isn’t looking to just hang out and have fun anymore, she quickly moves on.

Charlie’s relationship with his teacher Miss Kinnian becomes romantic, but he is unable to connect with her emotionally because his emotional intelligence cannot keep up with his intellect. As a child he was emotionally scarred by his mother, who routinely shamed him for normal sexual development. Alice confronts him with how his intelligence has changed him - and not for the better. They eventually overcome these obstacles, just before Charlie regresses back into his original I.Q. range.

Before Charlie totally regresses, he finally goes to see his mother, Rose, who is now senile and being taken care of full-time by his sister Norma. When Charlie and Norma hug and reconcile over the crazy events in their childhoods under the watch of their mentally unstable mother, Rose picks up a knife and screams at Charlie never to touch his sister again, accusing him of impure thoughts. This bizarre behavior is also what eventually drove Charlie’s father, Matt, away. Charlie visits Matt, too, a barber with his own shop, but Charlie is not brave enough to tell him his identity. Walking away from these two experiences with a deeper understanding of what happened to him in his childhood allows Charlie to move on from the “other Charlie” who he feels has been watching him, never quite disappearing, even with Charlie’s newfound intelligence.

Charlie decides, after visiting the Warren Home before his regression, that that will be where he goes to live. He doesn’t want people like Miss Kinnian or the people at the bakery feeling sorry for him, even though Frank, Joe and Gimpy now defend him rather than tease him.

Charlie writes that even though he’s not as smart as he used to be, he’s going to keep trying so that he can sit down and read all the time. His final wish is for someone to visit Algernon’s grave and leave him flowers, symbolizing the memory of Charlie’s experience, and Algernon’s, as a success, even though the experiment failed.


Essential Questions for Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

  1. What are ethics?
  2. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. When is it unethical to experiment in the name of human advancement?
  3. Does intelligence determine someone’s worth?

Flowers for Algernon Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Plot Diagram | Flowers for Algernon Summary


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Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a novel with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell have students create a scene that follows the novel in the sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.



Example Flowers for Algernon Plot Diagram

Exposition

Charlie Gordon, 32 years old and developmentally disabled with an I.Q. of 68, has been chosen for an experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. The doctors have told him to begin keeping a journal to record his thoughts and progress. The procedure has already worked on a mouse called Algernon, and the doctors are optimistic that it will be successful for Charlie, too.


Conflict

The surgery is a success, and Charlie’s intelligence skyrockets. However, he finds that his emotional intelligence hasn’t kept pace with his intellect. He also begins to realize the cruelty with which his “friends” have been treating him. Charlie develops feelings for Alice Kinnian, but he can’t seem to find himself on the proper emotional level with her. Charlie is also plagued by disturbing childhood memories of his mother mistreating him.


Rising Action

Charlie leaves his job at the bakery because the others treat him strangely now, and with fear. They don’t understand the change that is happening in Charlie. Charlie begins to read voraciously and absorbs so much information that he quickly surpasses his doctors. He develops a sense of affinity with Algernon, and feels increasingly alienated from the people he interacts with, including Alice.


Climax

Charlie is taken to a scientific convention in Chicago where he and Algernon are being showcased. Charlie becomes increasingly perturbed as they show films and pictures of him in early interviews, which he had not been aware of. He also realizes that there is a mistake in the scientific process, and that they cannot say with certainty how permanent the change will be. He lets Algernon escape from his cage and takes him back to New York City, where he rents an apartment and lies low for a month. In the meantime, Algernon begins to regress, and Charlie realizes he doesn’t have much time left.


Falling Action

Charlie and Algernon return to the lab, where Charlie continues his research round-the-clock. Charlie finally submits his report, which concludes that, “Artificially-induced intelligence deteriorates at a rate of time directly proportional to the quantity of the increase.” Algernon dies, and Charlie goes to visit his mother and sister. He finds his mother is senile, and his sister Norma is her caretaker. He discovers how much Norma resented him, and has since resented her life as a caretaker for her mother. He and Norma reconcile, as Charlie knows he won’t be able to play the “big brother” role for much longer.


Resolution

Charlie and Alice finally consummate their relationship before Charlie’s regression begins to worsen. They spend a few weeks living together before Charlie’s moods finally drive her away. His coordination, spelling, and grammar begin to worsen, He gets his job back at the bakery, but he decides to leave because he doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him. His final wish before going to live at the Warren Home is for someone to put flowers on Algernon’s grave, a symbolic gesture of remembering Algernon’s importance, along with Charlie’s.


Plot Diagram for Flowers for Algernon

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of Flowers for Algernon.


  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.



Story Outline Storyboard Template

Example

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Literary Conflict in Flowers for Algernon


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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the storyboard creator.

In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.


Example Literary Conflict in Flowers for Algernon

MAN vs. MAN

Charlie and Alice quarrel with one another when she finally becomes angry with Charlie’s attitude. She tells him that he has changed and he’s lost the qualities that used to make him likable. Charlie responds in anger because he feels like everyone expects him to stay the same, so they can continue to treat him with cruelty.


MAN vs. SELF

Charlie feels like he is being watched by “Charlie”, a disassociated version of himself. He says that you can’t put up a new building without destroying the old one, and the older version of Charlie interrupts his thoughts and comes between the relationships and experiences he’s trying to understand.


MAN vs. SOCIETY

The workers at the bakery treat Charlie differently before and after the surgery. Before the surgery, employees Jo, Frank and Gimpy tease Charlie viciously and see him as a target for their pranks and jokes. Once Charlie’s intelligence increases, however, they begin to fear him because they don’t understand the change. They stop talking to him and become openly hostile towards him.


Conflict in Flowers for Algernon

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in Flowers for Algernon.


  1. Identify conflicts in Flowers for Algernon.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.



Literary Conflict Template

Example

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Flowers for Algernon Character Map Graphic Organizer

As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

For Flowers for Algernon, a character map helps students remember each member of the novel and their important traits. Since Flowers for Algernon is written in a journal format, this map also prompts students to look at Charlie’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to himself and others.


Example Characters

Charlie Algernon
Important Traits 32 years old; has an I.Q. of 68 that is increased to 185 by an operation; emotionally immature; feels a connection to the lab mouse, Algernon, who had the same surgery; has an overwhelming desire to learn and “become smart”, which is why Miss Kinnian knows he’ll be motivated enough for the operation. White mouse with black eyes; soft like cotton; learns how to navigate an intricate maze increasingly well with his increased intelligence; at peak of his intelligence he can be hostile and throws himself against the maze’s walls instead of running the maze to get his food; regresses and dies
How Charlie Feels Charlie wants to get smart, because he feels as if there is something wrong with him. As his intelligence increases, he feels superior to those around him, but he also feels isolated and lonely. Charlie feels an affinity for Algernon, and seems to understand him. He is impressed by how smart he is. Finally, at the convention, he is so upset with how agitated Algernon is that he sets him free and brings him back to his apartment in New York City.
Quote “Burt kept saying Alice Kinnian feels he has an overwhelm** desir to lern. He aktually beggd to be used. And thats true because I wanted to be smart.” “Nemur’s conclusions had been premature. For both Algernon and myself, it would take more time to see if this change would stick. The professors had made a mistake, and no one else had caught it. I wanted to jump up and tell them, but I couldn’t move. Like Algernon, I found myself behind the mesh of the cage they had built around me.”
Character Map for Flowers for Algernon

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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols in Flowers for Algernon

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes, Motifs, and Imagery to Look For and Discuss

Intelligence and Social Relationships

The novel challenges our ideas about how social relationships are formed and maintained. When Charlie had an I.Q. of 68, he had lots of “friends” at the bakery who teased him and used him as their verbal punching bag. However, Alice notes that there was a kindness and warmth to Charlie when he had a lower I.Q. that made him pleasant to be around. As Charlie’s intelligence increases, however, his sense of intellectual superiority alienates him from those around him and because his emotional intelligence wasn’t progressing along with his intellect, he lacks the ability to deal properly with his anger and frustration. He notes that, “This intelligence has driven a wedge between me and all the people I knew and loved, driven me out of the bakery. Now, I’m more alone than ever before.”


Ethics of Human Advancement through Experiments

This novel highlights the ethical questions that come along with experimenting on humans and animals in the name of science. The first ethical question is: Is there something wrong with Charlie that needs to be fixed? Why does low I.Q. need to be changed when the person is perfectly happy in his life as it is? Why is being highly intelligent the goal? What possibilities might this lead to in terms of genetic engineering in humans later on? With so many of these questions in mind, students may also begin to question more recent high-profile scientific experiments, like cloning. Fanny Birden tells Charlie, “‘If you’d read your Bible, Charlie, you’d know that it’s not meant for man to know more than was given to him to know by the Lord in the first place. The fruit of that tree was forbidden to man.’” Religion aside, this does pose the question: How much is science able to change a person before it has crossed a cosmic or moral line?


Prejudice and Discrimination of the Developmentally Disabled

The novel delves into the mistreatment of Charlie in his childhood by his family, neighborhood kids, and at the bakery by Joe, Frank and Gimpy. Charlie can sense when something is wrong, like if he is in trouble, but he doesn’t understand what he’s done. He also doesn’t understand the verbal abuse, and those around him take advantage of it. Frank takes every opportunity to call Charlie a “moron.” While they assume Charlie doesn’t know any better, Gimpy rightly states, “But you know better.” The irony of Charlie’s mistreatment by the people around him before the operation is that as his own intelligence grows, he begins to mistreat those around him with a condescending attitude and feeling of intellectual superiority. So much importance is placed on intellect in society that the humanity of a person is often overlooked, and the motivations behind this attitude are important to examine.


Motifs & Symbols

Algernon

Algernon represents the intelligence that Charlie is striving for. When Charlie first meets Algernon, he is impressed by how smart he is. As they progress in intelligence together, Charlie notices how they are both treated as science experiments and not like individuals. Like Algernon, Charlie feels like he’s trapped in a cage. At the convention, Charlie frees Algernon and takes off with him, freeing both of them from the sideshow attractions Nemur and Strauss have turned them into.


The Other Charlie

Charlie often notes that he feels like he’s being watched by the old “Charlie”, the emotionally-stunted child who is still trying to figure things out for himself. Charlie notes to Alice that, “‘I can’t help feeling that I’m not me. I’ve usurped his place and locked him out the way they locked me out of the bakery. What I mean to say is that Charlie Gordon exists in the past, and the past is real. You can’t put up a new building on a site until you destroy the old one, and the old Charlie can’t be destroyed. He exists.’” The old Charlie interferes with new Charlie, consistently interrupting his thoughts and any attempts to advance his emotional relationships with women. The Other Charlie was routinely screamed at by his mother, Rose, for normal sexual development, leaving him with feelings of fear and shame when he tries to cross this threshold with Alice. The Other Charlie represents New Charlie’s attempts to reconcile his newfound intelligence and superiority with his former naivete and humility. Old Charlie is also New Charlie’s fear of this new emotional world he must now learn to navigate.


Inkblots (Rorschach Test)

The inkblots for Charlie first represent failure, as he is unable to see any pictures in them. The second time, when Charlie’s intelligence has increased and he now understands the directions, the test represents Charlie’s newfound anger as he explodes for the first time at thinking he’s being ridiculed. It’s one of the first times that the reader sees Charlie developing his sense of inner self-awareness. It also represents confusion, because Charlie’s mind has developed a more questioning side, as he wonders why anyone would make up lies about seeing things in the inkblots. When Burt gives him his final Rorschach Test, as Charlie regresses, the inkblots are the last straw of all of the testing for Charlie. He frantically goes through the cards, swearing that, “somewhere in those inkblots there were answers I had known just a little while ago. Not really in the inkblots, but in the part of my mind that would give form and meaning to them and project my imprint on them.” After Charlie realizes that he has lost this part of his intelligence, he tells Burt he is done coming to the lab, and sheds his identity as a science experiment.


Flowers

Charlie makes sure that Algernon’s grave is marked with flowers, because he was no ordinary mouse; this mouse was special. In a way, this also symbolizes that despite the experiment ultimately being deemed a failure, Charlie’s experience is special. Charlie himself hopes to be remembered as special, too. His last progress report notes his wish that someone visit Algernon’s grave and continue to leave flowers once Charlie is committed to the Warren Home. In doing so, Algernon’s memory will be kept alive - along with Charlie’s.


Symbols and Motifs in Flowers for Algernon

Example

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Character Development - Charlie Before and After His Intelligence Increase

As the novel progresses, there is a remarkable difference not only in Charlie’s style of writing before and after the procedure begins to take effect, but also in the ways that he thinks about and views the world around him. Have students find quotes from the novel that illustrate the changes in Charlie for the topics below, before and after his intelligence increase. They can then use the Storyboard Creator to illustrate these comparisons.

Charlie’s Impression of Himself

  • Before: “Prof Nemur said but why did you want to lern to reed and spell in the first place. I tolld him because all my life I wantid to be smart and not dumb and my mom always tolld me to try and lern just like Miss Kinnian tells me but its very hard to be smart and even when I lern something in Miss Kinnians class at the school I ferget alot.”
  • After: “‘What did you expect? Did you think I’d remain a docile pup, wagging my tail and licking the foot that kicks me? Sure, all this has changed me and the way I think about myself. I no longer have to take the kind of crap that people have been handing me all my life.’”

Spelling and Grammar

  • Before: “I tolld dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk and like I rite compushishens in Miss Kinnians class and the beekmin collidge center for retarded adults where I go to lern 3 times a week on my time off.”
  • After: “What a dope I am! I didn’t even understand what she was talking about. I read the grammar book last night and it explains the whole thing… After I figured out how punctuation worked, I read over all my old progress reports from the beginning. Boy, did I have crazy spelling and punctuation!”

Charlie’s Impression of His Doctors

  • Before: “Dr. Strauss said I had something that was very good. He said I had a good motor-vation. I never even knowed I had that. I felt good when he said not everbody with an eye-Q of 68 had that thing like I had it.”
  • After: “It’s paradoxical that an ordinary man like Nemur presumes to devote himself to making other people geniuses… I guess Nemur’s fear of being revealed as a man walking on stilts among giants is understandable. Failure at this point would destroy him… As shocking as it is to discover the truth about the men I had respected and looked up to, I guess Burt is right. I must not be too impatient with them. Their ideas and brilliant work made the experiment possible. I’ve got to guard against the natural tendency to look down on them now that I have surpassed them.”

Charlie’s Perspective of Miss Kinnian

  • Before: “One thing? I, like: about, Dear Miss Kinnian: (thats, the way? it goes; in a business, letter (if I ever go! into business?) is that, she: always, gives me’ a reason” when-- I ask. She”s a gen’ius! I wish? I cou’d be smart-like-her;”
  • After: “Why haven’t I ever noticed how beautiful Alice Kinnian is? She has pigeon-soft brown eyes and feathery brown hair down to the hollow of her neck. When she smiles, her full lips look as if she’s pouting.”

Treatment by the World

  • Before: “We had a lot of fun at the bakery today. Joe Carp said hey look where Charlie had his operashun what did they do Charlie put some brains in. I was going to tell him about me getting smart but I remembered Prof Nemur said no. Then Frank Reilly said what did you do Charlie open a door the hard way. That made me laff. Their my friends and they really like me.”
  • After: “I never knew before that Joe and Frank and the others liked to have me around just to make fun of me. Now I know what they mean when they say to pull a Charlie Gordon.’ I’m ashamed.”
Comparing Charlie Before and After in Flowers for Algernon

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Flowers for Algernon Vocabulary Lesson Plan


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from Flowers for Algernon. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


Flowers for Algernon Vocabulary

  • ethics
  • intelligence
  • I.Q.
  • regression
  • algorithm
  • outstrip
  • consciousness
  • interim
  • etymology
  • coalesce
  • Rorschach test
  • degenerate
  • deleterious
  • morbidity
  • exigent
  • vacuous
  • introspective
  • dilettante
  • feebleminded
Vocabulary in Flowers for Algernon

Example

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in Flowers for Algernon by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



Vocabulary Template Blank

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•   (English) Flowers for Algernon   •   (Español) Flores Para Algernon   •   (Français) Fleurs Pour Algernon   •   (Deutsch) Blumen für Algernon   •   (Italiana) Fiori per Algernon   •   (Nederlands) Bloemen Voor Algernon   •   (Português) Flores Para Algernon   •   (עברית) פרחים לאלג'רנון   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الزهور لألجرنون   •   (हिन्दी) Algernon के लिए फूल   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Цветы для Алджернону   •   (Dansk) Blomster til Algernon   •   (Svenska) Blommor för Algernon   •   (Suomi) Kukkia Algernonille   •   (Norsk) Blomster for Algernon   •   (Türkçe) Algernon İçin Çiçekler   •   (Polski) Kwiaty dla Algernona   •   (Româna) Flori Pentru Algernon   •   (Ceština) Růže pro Algernon   •   (Slovenský) Kvety pre Algernon   •   (Magyar) Virágot Algernonnak   •   (Hrvatski) Cvijeće za Algernon   •   (български) Цветя за Алгерн   •   (Lietuvos) Gėlės Algernon   •   (Slovenščina) Rože za Algernona   •   (Latvijas) Ziedi Algernon   •   (eesti) Lilled Algernonile