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The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Lesson Plans by Kristy Littlehale

Find these Common Core aligned lesson plans and more like them in our High School ELA Category!

Handmaid's Tale Lesson Plans

Student Activities for The Handmaids Tale Include:

Margaret Atwood’s explosive dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has seen a resurgence in popularity with the popular TV series released in 2017. Many have said that the series’ release is timely because of the upsurge of troubling rhetoric that mirrors many of the dangerous ideas presented in the novel, both in the political arena and online.

Atwood’s novel follows the despair of the main character, Offred, a woman who is a Handmaid in the monotheistic regime called The Republic of Gilead. In a world where environmental disasters and diseases dropped the fertility rates of Caucasian men and women, this new society created a sect of fertile women called Handmaids to breed the next generations for the upper echelons of the government. The society’s use of religion as a means to subjugate women and men for political purposes is a warning of what could happen if women are not vigilant about protecting their rights.


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The Handmaids Tale Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The Handmaid’s Tale Summary

The Handmaid's Tale Plot Diagram
The Handmaid's Tale Plot Diagram

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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and helps students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

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



Example The Handmaid’s Tale Plot Diagram

Exposition

In the Republic of Gilead, Offred, a young Handmaid, has just started her newest post at the Commander’s house. As a Handmaid, it is her duty to bear the Commander and his wife a child. Offred is unhappy, remembering tidbits of her life before this one, with her husband Luke and their daughter. The Handmaids are forced into this life, and have been trained at the Red Center by the Aunts to be pious and to appreciate their new status.


Conflict

Offred’s primary conflict throughout the novel is that she has a two-year time period in which to bear the Commander a child. However, the Commander also wishes to get to know Offred better, and begins inviting her to his study late at night without his wife, Serena Joy. Offred and the Commander’s Guardian, Nick, have begun to notice each other as well.


Rising Action

Offred’s daily shopping partner, Ofglen, begins to reveal that she may be a part of an underground resistance movement called Mayday. The Commander plays Scrabble with Offred and begins to bring her gifts, such as women’s magazines which are no longer in print. Eventually, he brings her to a club where men and hired women mingle. Serena Joy desperately wants a child and knows her husband is probably infertile; she develops a scheme for Offred to sleep with Nick.


Climax

After a Women’s Salvaging, or public hanging, and a Particicution (where the Handmaids beat a man to death as punishment for the crime of rape), Ofglen reveals that the man was actually a political operative. Later, Ofglen has been replaced by another Handmaid - now “Ofglen.” Offred tests her by mentioning “Mayday”, and discovers that she’s made a terrible mistake when the new Ofglen warns her to forget about those old “echoes.”


Falling Action

Serena Joy finds out about Offred’s outing to the club, and confronts both Offred and the Commander. Soon afterwards, an Eye van arrives to take Offred away. Nick comes up to tell her that they are really Mayday operatives and to trust him, so Offred does. As she is taken from the home, the Commander believes that she will betray him.


Resolution

The final part of the novel is called “Historical Notes”, and is purportedly a transcript from a symposium looking at the Gileadean era from the year 2195. The speaker gives the history of “The Handmaid’s Tale” transcript, and their attempts to establish its origins and the identity of the Handmaid. The tale was told on a series of cassette tapes, and it was recovered in Bangor, Maine, a known stop of The Underground Femaleroad. It seems that the world has managed to balance itself out population-wise again, and the symposium is designed to understand the foreign and archaic ways of the Gilead nation.


(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment to Account", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of The Handmaid’s Tale.


  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.



Plot Diagram Template 16x9
Plot Diagram Template 16x9

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Character Map

The Handmaid's Tale Character Map
The Handmaid's Tale Character Map

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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!


The Handmaid’s Tale Characters

  • Offred
  • The Commander
  • Nick
  • Serena Joy
  • Ofglen
  • Moira
  • Aunt Lydia
  • Luke

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.


  1. Identify the major characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in Textables for Character Traits, Internal Traits, and Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.


Character Map 16x9 3 Field Rows
Character Map 16x9 3 Field Rows

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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Handmaid's Tale
Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Handmaid's Tale

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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 to Look For and Discuss

The Dangers of Totalitarian Societies

The novel highlights the totalitarian regime that takes over in the wake of a fertility crisis. Using religion in a selective manner to further their goals, the architects of Gilead manage to crush their enemies completely and maintain order through fear, torture, murder, and guilt. Friends and family betray one another to the government, people are hung on the Wall daily, and most people fear for their immortal souls if they disobey the Scriptures. This regime destroys the autonomy of women, and of the human spirit.


Defining Gender Roles

In the Republic of Gilead, women are stratified: the Wives run the households; the Handmaids bear the children for the Wives; the Marthas are housmaids; the Aunts train and keep order over the Handmaids. Each role centers itself around the reproduction cycle of the Handmaid. Women are seen as vessels for bearing children; those who willingly gave this duty up were sent off to hard labor in the Colonies as Unwomen. Their very womanhood was stripped from them once they could not bear children.


Loss of Identity

Handmaids were given the names of their Commanders with the prefix “of” to show possession. For example, Offred was Fred’s Handmaid; Ofglen was Glen’s Handmaid. Women lost their names, tattooed with an identification marker on their ankles, and put into the same, shapeless clothing. Makeup was forbidden, as was any hint of a past identity.


Environmental Responsibility

The start of the fertility crisis in Gilead had its roots in a few events: biological tampering for warfare purposes; a new super strain of syphilis along with the AIDS epidemic; widespread availability of birth control; and nuclear spills, toxic leaching from nuclear stockpiles, and irresponsible use of pesticides. While there were many factors, the environmental mishaps played a large role in why women and men found themselves sterile. It does seem to be a clear warning to take better care of the planet and the things we create.



Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

Colors

The women and men of Gilead are separated by job/class, and this was indicated by colors. Commanders wore black; Guardians wore black or green; Wives wore powder blue; Handmaids wore red; Marthas wore dull green; Econowives wore stripes of green, red, and blue; Aunts wore khaki-brown; and young female children wore white. For the Handmaids, the red made them stand out but also symbolized the life they were trying to create and carry. It symbolized their duty; for the Handmaids, it symbolized their curse.


The Eye

The Eye is the symbol of the Republic of Gilead’s government, supposedly to symbolize being “under His [God’s] Eye”. It was supposed to bring a feeling of comfort; however, it was utilized in a very sinister way. The black vans of secret agents that would pick people up for interrogations and torture bore this symbol in white. The Eyes were also a code name for spies who infiltrated different areas of society to turn people in to the government.


The Wings

The wings are what Offred and her fellow Handmaids call the bonnet that goes up and around their faces. It keeps others from being able to see their faces unless they are looking at them directly; it also prevents the Handmaids from being able to see their surroundings well. Sometimes, Offred expresses her frustration at the wings blocking her view of the world; however, at other times it offers opportunities to hide her feelings or thoughts in a veil of safety.


The Ceremony

The Gileadean society revolves around the Ceremony. Each month, after reading Scriptures that justify this proceeding from the Bible, the Handmaid would lie in the lap of the Wife while the Commander would have intercourse with the Handmaid. The intertwined hands of the Wife and Handmaid was supposed to represent being of one flesh. After the Ceremony, the entire household would wait with baited breath to see if the Handmaid became pregnant. It was typically humiliating for all parties involved, but they believed it necessary to the survival of the society.


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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Handmaid’s Tale. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Handmaid’s Tale you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for an example that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.



Template: Theme
Template: Theme

Example

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Dystopian Elements: Republic of Gilead

Dystopian Elements in The Handmaid's Tale
Dystopian Elements in The Handmaid's Tale

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Dystopian literature is a rapidly growing sub-genre of popular fiction. Authors often use dystopias to convey a message about the world we live in today. Dystopias are extremely flawed societies. In this genre, the setting is often a fallen society, usually occurring after a large scale war or other horrific event, that caused chaos in the former world. In many stories, this chaos gives rise to a totalitarian government that assumes absolute control. The flaws in this sort of a dystopia are center around oppression and restrictions on freedom by central authorities.

Students can track elements of the dystopian society of The Handmaid’s Tale as they read. Have students track the six common elements of a dystopia, and then depict these elements in a storyboard along with a supporting quote.


Dystopian Elements in The Handmaid’s Tale


The people are restricted from independent thought and action.

Example:
Women were not allowed to own property or hold jobs in the early days of the regime. Women were segregated into different classes, and they were not allowed to move freely into other countries, many families were split up, and they were not allowed to shirk their duties. Everyone had to be careful of what they said, because they could be turned in for treason.


The government in control is often oppressive.

Example:
The government restricts access to food, local areas, and travel with the use of food tokens, passcards, and checkpoints. The government requires Commanders' households with Handmaids complete the Ceremony each month, and that pious answers be given as responses for everyday conversations. Black vans ride around and pick up people who are accused of treason. They hang the bodies on the Wall for public display.


The setting is often futuristic, or in a fictional universe.

Example:
The setting is not futuristic until the end of the novel; however, at the time of the writing of the novel, this does take place sometime in the future: the 1990s. The Western Hemisphere has fundamentally changed; the United States of America no longer exists, replaced by the Republic of Gilead.


Contains elements of conformity, or extreme equality.

Example:
All classes of people are expected to wear the same clothing that corresponds to their class or duty. Handmaids wear red, Wives wear powder blue, Marthas wear dull green, Econowives wear red, blue, and green stripes, and so on. People were expected to greet each other with pious sayings, which assumed that everyone had converted to this particular sect of Christianity.


The government portrays their society as a utopia.

Example:
The Republic of Gilead does allow tourists to come and view the society as the example of the society that is doing things right. When the Japanese tourists ask Offred if she is happy, she is expected to say yes. The upper echelons of Gilead believe that when the population is replenished and women no longer have to work so hard at everything, then finally everyone will be happy.


The protagonist wishes to restore the people to conventional life.

Example:
Offred holds out hope that her husband, Luke, is still alive and that together they will be able to save their daughter one day. She toys a bit with the Mayday Resistance idea, but ultimately decides not to give in to it because she's falling for Nick. She does make the tapes which later become the transcript "The Handmaid's Tale", possibly in hope that it can be used for the Resistance. She does wish to escape in the hopes that she can eventually return to a normal life.


(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment to Account", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies the six elements of dystopian fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale. Illustrate instances of each element and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the dystopian elements from The Handmaid’s Tale and write them under each corresponding description.
  3. Create an image for an example that represents a scene that depicts this dystopian element.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.


Dystopia 16x9
Dystopia 16x9

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Vocabulary in The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid's Tale Vocabulary
The Handmaid's Tale Vocabulary

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary fromThe Handmaid’s Tale. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


The Handmaid’s Tale Vocabulary

  • palimpsest
  • archaic
  • fraternize
  • demure
  • fanatical
  • parley
  • bestow
  • perfidy
  • chalice
  • effigy
  • pier glass
  • heretical

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Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The Handmaid’s Tale by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose five 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.



5 Word Vocabulary Template
5 Word Vocabulary Template

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Women’s Rights and Freedoms Research

Most women alive now will be unable to remember when voting was outlawed, or when most women were expected to stay home and forfeit their careers. For students, understanding that the freedoms and rights women have fought so hard for seems like ancient history; however, we have yet to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Have students do research on Women’s Suffrage, the 19th Amendment, housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, and the feminist movements of various decades.

Consider linking students to these resources for these topics:


In addition, you may want to check out our lesson plans on “The Yellow Wall-paper”, which has information related to how doctors used to view women’s medical issues, especially postpartum depression.

Margaret Atwood



Blessed be the fruit.


Margaret Atwood herself is a very interesting person and writer. Born in Canada, Canada is often a source of refuge in her novels, much like it is in The Handmaid’s Tale. Known for her writings on feminism and her criticism of damaging environmental practices, Atwood is a prolific writer whose stories often brought some of these themes into the popular realm of discussion long before men like Al Gore did. Students should do some research on Margaret Atwood and take a look at some of her many interviews where she expounds upon the controversy surrounding her works and the recent Hollywood interest in her novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and The MaddAddam Trilogy.


Essential Questions for The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. What are the dangers of a totalitarian society?
  2. Can religion be used as a weapon?
  3. Should women be afforded the same rights as men in all parts of a society?
  4. What does it mean to be a woman?
  5. What is betrayal?
  6. What is freedom?
  7. What are gender roles, and who defines them?


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•   (English) The Handmaid's Tale   •   (Español) El Cuento de las Siervas   •   (Français) Le Conte des Servantes   •   (Deutsch) Die Mägde der Tölpel   •   (Italiana) Il Racconto Delle Ancelle   •   (Nederlands) The Handmaids Tale   •   (Português) The Handmaids Tale   •   (עברית) אגדת המשרתות /   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) حكاية حكاوي   •   (हिन्दी) हैंडमाइड्स टेल   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Сказка о Служанках   •   (Dansk) Tjenestemændene Tale   •   (Svenska) Tjänstemän Tale   •   (Suomi) The Handmaids Tale   •   (Norsk) The Tailors Tale   •   (Türkçe) El Yazmaları Masalı   •   (Polski) The Handmaid's Tale   •   (Româna) The Handmaid's Tale   •   (Ceština) Příběh Děvčat   •   (Slovenský) Príbeh Dievčat   •   (Magyar) A Szobalányok Tale   •   (Hrvatski) Priča o Sluškinjama   •   (български) Приказката на Слугините   •   (Lietuvos) Handmaids Pasaka   •   (Slovenščina) Pripomoček za Roke   •   (Latvijas) Handmaids Pasaka   •   (eesti) Handmaidsteade