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Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

Harrison Bergeron Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Harrison Bergeron Include:

”Harrison Bergeron”, the short story penned by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in 1961, imagines the world in 120 years, where the government has taken complete control over free thought and complete equality has finally been achieved – at a price, of course.

In the quest for true equality, people gave up their rights in favor of eliminating all competition, drive, and desire: the very things that inspire innovation and creativity. The people in charge are the only ones who are allowed to think, and that power has grave consequences for Harrison Bergeron, a 14-year-old boy who is already 7 feet tall and virtually uncontrollable. The story explores important themes, such as what total equality at the cost of individuality could look like, and the dangers of losing free thought to a tyrannical government. The dystopian world Vonnegut paints is frighteningly dull, and frighteningly realistic.

Harrison Bergeron Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

“Harrison Bergeron” Summary


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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 “Harrison Bergeron” Plot Diagram

Exposition

In the year 2081, true equality has finally been achieved: no one is more intelligent, better looking, or stronger than anyone else. This equality is imposed and maintained by use of handicaps, or items that citizens wear to create physical obstacles to make them equal to others, and enforced by the United States Handicapper General.


Conflict

In April 2081, agents for the Handicapper General took Hazel and George Bergeron’s teenage son Harrison away to jail for suspicion of trying to overthrow the government. The Bergerons are sporadically sad because they can’t think about it for very long. George’s thoughts are routinely interrupted by a transmitter in his ear that emits loud noises every 20 seconds; Hazel’s intelligence limits her mind to short bursts of thought.


Rising Action

Hazel and George are watching a ballet performance on television. The ballerinas are handicapped by weights and wear masks to equalize their looks. George wears a 47-pound bag of birdshot around his neck. A bulletin comes on the screen and announces that Harrison Bergeron has escaped from prison. At 14, he is 7 feet tall and has outgrown most of the handicaps the H-G agents have assigned to him. He is incredibly strong and good-looking, and poses a threat to the government’s equality ideal.


Climax

In the middle of the bulletin, Harrison bursts into the TV studio, ripping the door off of its hinges. He begins screaming, “I am the Emperor!” and tears off his handicaps. He calls for an Empress and a beautiful ballerina rises and joins him. Harrison removes her handicaps and those of the musicians and commands them to play music. He and the ballerina begin to dance, leap, and twirl around the set.


Falling Action

In the middle of the dance, Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, arrives with a shotgun and shoots the ballerina and Harrison, killing them both. At that moment, the television goes out at the Bergerons’.


Resolution

George has gone to the kitchen for a beer and seems to have missed his son’s murder. Hazel is concerned about the television blackout. George notices that she’s been crying, but she doesn’t remember why – just that there was something sad on TV. She can unscramble the thoughts in her mind, and George is unable to make sense of anything because at that moment, the audio transmitter blasts the sound of a riveting gun into his head.



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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of “Harrison Bergeron”.


  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.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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“Harrison Bergeron” Characters


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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!


”Harrison Bergeron” Characters

  • George Bergeron
  • Hazel Bergeron
  • Harrison Bergeron
  • The Ballerina
  • Diana Moon Glampers

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.


  1. Identify the major characters in “Harrison Bergeron” and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a Storyboard That 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 Physical Traits, Character Traits, and a Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.


(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Themes, Symbols, and Motifs Student Activity for “Harrison Bergeron”


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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 story, and support their choices with details from the text.


“Harrison Bergeron” Themes to Look For and Discuss

Total Equality

The ideal of equality has been fought for and is still being fought for all over the world. “Harrison Bergeron”, however, imagines what true equality, with the erasure of individuality altogether, might look like. The absence of differences in abilities, appearance, and intelligence paints a very grim picture of the world. Everything is boring, the same, and nothing needs to be questioned or discussed. While equality itself is an important ideal, it must be achieved without eliminating individual identity.


The Dangers of Losing Free Thought

Even though everyone in “Harrison Bergeron” is now officially “equal”, the government must maintain this through thought control. They achieve this by interrupting the thought processes of people with high intelligence, and maintaining the intelligence levels of those who are incapable of contemplating something profound. Without thought, there is no innovation, curiosity, or desire. In the absence of these things, there is also no rebellion, which allows the government to maintain complete control over its citizens. The story is a warning of what can happen when emotions, intelligence, and distinct characteristics are taken away from the basic human experience, leaving the oppressors in charge.



”Harrison Bergeron” Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

The Handicaps

The handicaps are assigned to people who go above the threshold of “normal”, according to the government. The handicaps perpetuate the idea of “sameness”, and those who don’t conform to this ideal are punished severely by the government. The handicaps provide a certain feeling of safety, where people no longer have to compete, think, or feel, allowing the government to remain in control.


The Ballerinas

The ballerinas are assigned various handicaps, including the use of masks to hide their differing beauty. George watches the ballerinas and it comes to him that perhaps they shouldn’t be handicapped… they are so clumsy and hindered by their handicaps, that George’s mind instinctively understands something isn’t right. However, before such a treasonous thought can take hold, he is interrupted by his radio transmitter noise. His moment of free thought is suppressed by those in charge.


Television

The television is where the people of this dystopia receive their news and entertainment from. It is the propaganda machine of the government, who use the opportunity to paint Harrison’s abilities – “a genius and an athlete, under-handicapped” – as a danger to the population. Hazel, after watching her son’s murder on live television, is unable to remember why she is so upset. She is confused by the darkened screen, and knows that something she saw on the TV was sad. She doesn’t seem to grasp that what she witnessed was a real experience, displaying the control that the TV has over her life and mind.


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


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in ”Harrison Bergeron”. 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 ”Harrison Bergeron” you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Identifying Dystopian Elements in “Harrison Bergeron”


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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 “Harrison Bergeron” 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 "Harrison Bergeron"

ElementExample from Text
The people are restricted from independent thought and action. Example:

“He tried to think a little about the ballerinas… George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.”

The government in control is often oppressive. Example:

“It was then that Diana Moon Glampers, the Handicapper General, came into the studio with a double-barreled ten-gauge shotgun. She fired twice, and the Emperor and Empress were dead before they hit the floor. Diana Moon Glampers loaded the gun again. She aimed it at the musicians and told them they had ten seconds to get their handicaps back on.”

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

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.”

Contains elements of conformity, or extreme equality. Example:

“They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.”

The government portrays their society as a utopia. Example:

“‘ If I tried to get away with it,’ said George, ‘then other people’d get away with it – and pretty soon we’d be right back to the dark ages again, with everybody competing against everybody else. You wouldn’t like that, would you?’”

The protagonist wishes to restore the people to conventional life. Example:

While Harrison is not the protagonist, he does attempt to buck the system by breaking out of prison, declaring himself better than others by making himself an “Emperor”, forcing the musicians to play improved music, and showing the viewers how to dance unencumbered by governmental handicaps. “Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.”



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


Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows the six elements of a dystopia in "Harrison Bergeron".


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify events or characteristics of the story that fit into the elements of a dystopia
  3. Illustrate the examples for each event or characteristic.
  4. Write a short description below each cell that specifically relates "Harrison Bergeron" as a dystopia.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for “Harrison Bergeron”


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from “Harrison Bergeron”. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the story, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


”Harrison Bergeron” Vocabulary

  • vigilance
  • handicap
  • impediment
  • spectacles
  • capered
  • gamboled
  • riveting gun
  • calibrate
  • consternation
  • cowered
  • hindrances
  • birdshot

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


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in ”Harrison Bergeron” 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.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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What is a Dystopia?

The word “utopia” was coined by Sir Thomas More for his book about an ideally organized society. It is from the Greek topos meaning “place”. The prefix is intentionally ambiguous; in Greek, the prefix ou- means “not”, while the prefix eu- means “good”. So a u-topia could either be a “good-place”, or a “not-place”, an imaginary place.

One of the oldest recorded and most widely-known utopias is the Garden of Eden. A utopia is a perfect society, where everything is ideally organized, and residents go about their lives happily.

A dystopia, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of a utopia, using the prefix dys-, from the Greek for “bad”. It is a flawed society, dys-functional and undesirable. In literature, these two terms often coincide. Many dystopias look idyllic to begin with, but over the course of the story reveal their true nature, which is typically sinister and flawed.

Check out our article on Dystopian Literature and the six common dystopian elements you and your students can track throughout the story!


Handicap vs. Handicapped

An important distinction to note before beginning “Harrison Bergeron” is that the handicaps given to the characters are not the same as being handicapped. The word “handicapped” that students will be most familiar with is similar in a way, because each indicates an obstacle that alters the abilities of the person affected. The handicaps given to characters in the story are meant to hinder them in some way in order to make them equal to others. Some of the handicaps they are assigned include:



Essential Questions for “Harrison Bergeron”

  1. What does true equality mean?
  2. How can society both ensure equality and protect individuality?
  3. What is a dystopia? What can we learn from dystopian literature?
  4. What happens when people are forced to conform?
  5. Why is individuality so important?
  6. How are emotions an essential piece of our humanity?
  7. What is free thought, and why is it important?



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