Activity Overview

Allusions are present in many stories, referencing actual people, places, events, art, and literature. They help to plunge the reader into the time period in which the story takes place. Allusions can reference the political, social, artistic, and technological influences that are present in the characters' lives and, therefore, provide greater insight into the characters' thoughts and motivations.

Allusions provide important connections for readers to understand themes and characters on a deeper level. However, they can sometimes be hard for students to grasp, especially if they do not have the background knowledge to understand them. That is why it is important to point out and delve into allusions when they appear in a story so that students can learn their significance, and then analyze how their meaning enhances our understanding of the point the author is trying to make.

A great way for students to keep track of allusions in a story is in a visual and descriptive way using storyboards! Using the example and template provided in this assignment, teachers can have students track the allusions and their context in the work, and then after researching or class discussions, have them integrate a new cell that explains how that allusion enhances the meaning or the events of the work.

Allusion Definition:

Allusions are references to well-known

  • Events
  • People or Characters
  • Works of Art or Literature
  • Places
  • Religions

Allusions in Literature

To tailor or scaffold this activity, teachers may provide students with a list of allusions before reading, before a new chapter, or afterward. They may also edit the template to add more cells depending on how many allusions they would like students to identify. Teachers can add as many templates as they want for differentiation and student choice! Be sure to update the student instructions as necessary.

Template and Class Instructions

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Activity", update the instructions on the Edit Tab of the assignment.)

Due Date:

Objective: Create a storyboard that identifies allusions present in the text. Allusions are references to actual people, places, events or works of art or literature. Illustrate each allusion and write a short description below each cell.

Student Instructions:

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify different allusions made in the text.
  3. Describe the meaning of the allusion in the description.
  4. Illustrate the allusion with appropriate scenes, characters, and items.
  5. In the next cell, explain how that allusion enhances the meaning or the events of the story using an illustration and description.

Lesson Plan Reference

Common Core Standards
  • [ELA-Literacy/RH/9-10/3] Analyze in detail a series of events described in a text; determine whether earlier events caused later ones or simply preceded them.
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/1] Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/11-12/4] Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)
  • [ELA-Literacy/W/9-10/9] Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research


(You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Tracking Allusions
As we read and discuss, identify and track the different allusions that appear in the work. For each allusion, create a scene that depicts the original meaning of the allusion, along with the quote and some background information. Then, create a scene that depicts the impact of that allusion on the deeper meaning of the work, along with a short analysis. Make sure the scenes you depict are historically and factually accurate, both to the allusion itself, and to the work of literature. Your scenes need to be neat, eye-catching, and reflect creativity and care. Please proofread your writing and organize your ideas thoughtfully.
25 Points
19 Points
13 Points
The allusion and its depiction are historically or factually accurate. The quote which contains the allusion is included, or context is given for the quote's place in a brief summary.
The allusion and its depiction may be slightly inaccurate historically or factually. The quote may be missing or no context is given.
The allusion and its depiction have serious errors in accuracy. The quote and/or context are missing, or there is no description at all.
How It Enhances Meaning
The allusion's connection to the work is accurate and thoughtful, with meaningful commentary provided to accompany the scene.
The allusion's connection to the work is slightly inaccurate, or only partially described. The commentary may be too limited.
The allusion's connection to the work has serious errors in accuracy. The commentary may also be missing or incomplete.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes are historically appropriate to both the allusion and to the work of literature. Time and care is taken to ensure that the scenes are neat, eye-catching, and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes should be historically appropriate, but there may be some liberties taken that distract from the assignment. Scene constructions are neat, and meet basic expectations.
The art chosen to depict the scenes are historically inappropriate. Scene constructions are messy and may create some confusion, or may be too limited.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.

How to Implement Role-Playing to Understand Allusions in 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'


Introduction to Allusions and Historical Context

Begin the lesson with an introduction to the concept of allusions. Explain how allusions are used in literature to reference historical events, figures, or other literary works. It's important to provide students with background information on the specific allusions found in "Letter from Birmingham Jail." This could include references to religious figures, historical events, or key documents. Providing this context is crucial for students to understand and effectively enact the allusions during the role-play.


Assigning Roles and Preparing for Role-Play

Next, divide the class into small groups, assigning each a different allusion from King’s letter. Each group's task is to research their assigned allusion, understanding its historical and cultural significance. Once they have a firm grasp of the context, instruct the groups to prepare a short role-play that brings their allusion to life. This could involve dramatizing a historical event, delivering a speech from a historical figure, or representing a scene from a referenced literary work. Encourage creativity in how they choose to present their allusion, allowing the use of props, costumes, or multimedia elements.


Role-Playing Session

Allocate time in a subsequent class for each group to perform their role-play. This part of the lesson is critical as it allows students to engage actively with the material and present their understanding of the allusions in a creative format. After each performance, ask the group to explain how their role-play relates to the allusion in King’s letter and its significance to the letter's overall message. This not only reinforces their understanding but also helps the rest of the class grasp the importance of these allusions.


Discussion and Reflection

Conclude the lesson with a discussion and reflection session. Lead a class discussion on how the presented allusions contribute to the depth and persuasive power of King’s letter. Discuss how understanding these allusions changes or enhances the students' interpretation of the text. Finally, conduct a reflective activity where students express how the role-play activity helped them understand the allusions and the historical context of the letter more deeply. This reflection can be facilitated through various methods such as a class discussion, written reflections, or small group conversations.

Frequently Asked Questions about Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do historical allusions in the letter contribute to King’s message?

The historical allusions in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" significantly enhance his message by placing the civil rights struggle within a broader historical and moral context. King references historical figures and events such as Socrates, the early Christian church, and the Boston Tea Party to draw parallels between these pivotal moments of moral courage and the civil rights movement. These allusions serve to align his actions with those of revered historical figures and events, thereby legitimizing the movement’s methods and goals. For instance, by comparing his civil disobedience to that of early Christians and other historical figures who challenged unjust laws, King situates the struggle for civil rights within a legacy of justifiable and necessary resistance against oppression. This strategic use of historical allusions not only strengthens the ethical foundation of his argument but also appeals to a broad audience by invoking shared values of justice and equality rooted in history.

Can you explain the significance of King’s allusions to philosophers and reformers?

King's allusions to philosophers and reformers in the letter are significant as they underscore the intellectual and moral grounding of the civil rights movement. By referencing thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan, King aligns his arguments with established philosophical and religious principles that advocate for justice and moral righteousness. These references serve to demonstrate that the principles of the civil rights movement are not new or radical ideas, but rather are deeply rooted in philosophical and religious traditions that value justice, human rights, and ethical resistance to unjust laws. This not only elevates the moral stature of the movement but also provides a solid intellectual foundation for King’s arguments, appealing to readers who respect these historical figures and their contributions to moral and ethical thought.

Can storyboards help in teaching King’s allusions to philosophers and reformers?

Storyboards can be an effective tool in teaching King's allusions to philosophers and reformers. They allow for the visual representation of abstract ideas, making them more accessible and engaging for students. A storyboard can depict scenes or concepts associated with the philosophers and reformers King mentions, helping students visualize and better understand the context and significance of these allusions. For example, a storyboard can illustrate the principles of civil disobedience as articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, or visually represent the historical context of Martin Luther’s reformation efforts. This visual approach can help students grasp the philosophical and historical dimensions of King’s arguments, providing a clearer understanding of how these allusions reinforce the letter's themes. Additionally, storyboards can encourage creative engagement with the text, as students can depict these allusions in a manner that resonates with their understanding and interpretation of the letter.

This Activity is Part of Many Teacher Guides

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