NEA Big Read
A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying

by Ernest J. Gaines

In all my stories and novels, no one ever escapes Louisiana.

These activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. News video: Have students script and shoot a video news segment about Jefferson’s case that might appear on a national network broadcast. The segment could include any of the following: on-the-spot interviews with the two attorneys immediately after the trial verdict, an interview with Miss Emma, Mrs. Gropé, Reverend Ambrose, or an eye-witness account of the execution from Paul. Students might choose to combine several segments to make a whole program on Jefferson’s case. Screen the video for the class, at an assembly, or as part of a showcase for parents.
  2. Performance: Have students choose one or more powerful scenes from the novel to dramatize, using Gaines’ dialogue and his narration as direction. Present the scenes as part of an assembly, or as part of a showcase for parents.
  3. Photo Gallery: Create a photography exhibit using archival photos (or a combination including students’ photos) to illustrate the South of the 1940s. The photos should correspond to the setting, the events, or the society portrayed in the novel. Each photo should be captioned. Students should be able to discuss the photos and explain their choices. Have students display this gallery at the school or local library.
  4. Retrospective: Have students do further research on sports in the 1940s, especially with regard to black athletes. They should focus on the life and career of either Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson. They should include photos of the athletes, posters (either authentic or student-created), enlargements of trading cards, and either audio or video of a boxing match or baseball game. Students may obtain a transcript of the event and present it as it would have been broadcast live. Students may choose to assume the identity of the athlete for an interview discussing his life. Students should do an in-class presentation, an in-school assembly, or a showcase for parents.
  5. Reading: Have students read the James Joyce short story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” mentioned in the novel. Have students summarize the story and choose to read one or two particularly meaningful passages. Have them explain why this story might be considered universal, “regardless of race, regardless of class.” Explain how this story applies to the novel, citing passages that show the connection.
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