What are stories without conflict? Well, pointless. But while conflict adds interest to writing, lesson plans on conflict are often pretty dull. Help your middle or high school students understand this important element in a memorable way, using the film Simon Birch and the following lesson plan.
For teaching students the types of conflict, I have found the 1998 Simon Birch to be perfect. Yes, it's an old movie in the eyes of the students, but its late 1950's setting gives it a timeless feel, its humor keeps them interested, and most have never seen the movie before, which keeps them watching. This PG movie is (very, very loosely) based on John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, and follows the stories of two coming-of-age boys. Simon is a boy born with dwarfism, who longs to prove himself to his taller peers. His best friend Joe has his own obstacles, growing up without a father and later, without a mother. Very rich in conflict!
The following lesson plan is based on Simon Birch, but if you prefer a different film, the procedures should still work for you. Note that between the pre-viewing, viewing and post-viewing activities, the lesson will take a few days at least.
1. As an anticipation activity, ask the question, "What is conflict?" to your class. Write the responses on the board and discuss. By the end of the discussion, students should understand that conflict is a struggle between forces.
2. Introduce these four types of conflict. As you explain the definition of each one, ask students for examples from the reading they have done in class so far. (Or if they haven't done much reading in class yet, ask for examples from other books or movies.) Direct students to take notes of the definitions and examples during this process.
Person vs. Person
A person struggles against another person. This struggle can be physical, but is often a struggle of ideas or emotions.
- Example: A child gets teased by a bully on the schoolyard.
Person vs. Self
A person struggles internally, often with a difficult decision or with confusion about herself.
- Example: A student must decide whether or not to cheat on a test.
Person vs. Nature
A person struggles against forces of nature. This can include natural forces like storms, struggles against animals, and struggles against physical ailments, like disease.
- Example: A child in a wheelchair struggles with the inability to walk.
Person vs. Society
A person struggles against social norms and social institutions.
- Example: A person wants to break a law because he thinks it's unfair.
3. Create a handout with four boxes: one for each type of conflict. Give one to each student and explain to the students that they are about to watch a film that contains many examples of each type of conflict. As they see examples, they are to write them down in the boxes.
4. Pause a few times during the film to discuss the conflict so far, and to answer questions. Do not talk about each example at these points, but enough that students are getting the right idea and staying engaged. Circulate as students view, to make sure they are taking notes.
A few examples of the conflicts you will see:
Person vs. Person: Simon is teased by others; Joe initially dislikes his mother's boyfriend; Simon is persecuted by his Sunday school teacher; Joe's mother gets angry with Sunday school teacher; Joe yells at Simon's mother; Joe gets angry at his minister
Person vs. Self: Simon struggles with guilt over Joe's mother; Joe struggles with grief; Joe struggles with identity; Simon struggles with his sense of destiny
Person vs. Nature: Simon struggles with dwarfism; Simon battles cold waters; Simon battles hypothermia
Person vs. Society: Simon struggles to be accepted by "normal" kids; Joe's mother doesn't fit 1950's societal expectations for women; Simon and Joe break the law by breaking into their coach's office
5. Discuss students' examples of conflict, noting whether the conflicts were resolved, and how. It's important for students to understand that, just like real life, some conflicts remain unresolved.
6. Ask each student to choose one conflict from the story and write a journal entry or essay that answers the following questions:
- What kind of conflict is this example?
- How does this conflict affect the story and characters?
- Was this conflict resolved? If so, how? Were you happy with the way it was resolved? Why or why not?
- If this conflict was unresolved, why do you think that is? Do you agree with the writers' decision to leave it unresolved? Why or why not?
Remember to create a rubric for your assignment, to help students stay organized and focused. After these activities, your students should be experts on the types of conflicts and how they affect storylines!