Lesson Plan: Questions about Questions about The Scarlet Letter


This lesson, based on Andrew Newman’s “Balcony and Scaffold: Literary Theory and High School English, in the 1960s,” prompts students to analyze study questions about The Scarlet Letter from the 1960s. It’s designed for 11th and 12th graders. [For print-friendly version, use button at the bottom.]

Learning Objectives:

  1. ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1; RL.11-12.2; 11-12.3; 11-12.5; 11-12.6; 11-12.7; 11-12.9; 11-12.10
  2. Engendering meta-critical consciousness: What are the purposes of literary study? How have approaches changed over time?
  3. Learning about primary sources. How do historians and literary scholars approach these differently?


This “handout” includes discussion questions from the 1960 Cliff’s Notes on The Scarlet Letter and from the 1961 “School Edition” of The Scarlet Letter published by Macmillan, as well as questions about these historical discussion questions.


In addition to having the students respond to the questions on the handout, whether individually or in groups, in writing or in discussion, you might have them:

  • Select a chapter of The Scarlet Letter and compose a set of questions or prompts for writing or discussion. Before starting, they should specify what they want their students to learn or experience, and discuss these learning objectives in terms of text-centered or student-centered approaches. For example, a question about “The Conclusion” might focus the reader’s attention on its function within the structure of the novel, or elicit the student’s opinion about Hester’s transformation.
  • Alternatively, students might start by reading the Common Core’s ELA Standards for Literature for Grades 11-12, or the relevant standards for your district, and compose prompts that align with them. What does this exercise reveal about the theoretical orientation of the standards?
  • Questions 10 and 14, from the 1961 Macmillan School Edition, prompted student readers to relate their understandings of The Scarlet Letter to “recent years” and “present day life.” You could have your students write responses to one or both of these questions from the imaginary point of view of a student in the 1960s. As points of reference, you might have them read one or more of the following archival articles from The New York Times (the surrounding headlines might be of interest, too):

Teacher to Teacher:

The New Criticism and Louise Rosenblatt‘s “transactional” reader-response approach both originated in the Pre-War era, and as “Balcony and Scaffold” describes they both influenced secondary school teaching in the 1960s, and continue to do so today (see Carillo). Learning more about them should help students and teachers alike to reflect on the methodologies and objectives of literature instruction.

Balcony and Scaffold” describes New Critical pedagogy in terms of  “‘close-reading’ analyses that emphasized the formal properties of poems and novels, expositions of figurative language, irony and paradox, the relation of the part to the whole.” It contrasts this text-centered practice with the student-centered “’transactional’” approach,” which “recognized and validated the plurality of students’ responses, and actively cultivated their emotional engagement.” These capsule summaries are far from comprehensive accounts of theories of literature and pedagogy, but they should be sufficient to guide inductive analyses of the discussion questions on the “handout.”

That is, the students should be able to see how the 9 study questions from the 1960 Cliff’s Notes on the Scarlet Letter are text-centered, prompting past students to evaluate the structure of the novel, its symbolism, and “irony.” (It may be useful to discuss the value of  Cliff’s Notes as a primary source in the history of education: how might a commercial study guide reveal contemporary approaches to teaching literature?) They should similarly be able to see that questions 10-14, from the 1961 Macmillan edition, are student-centered. You might ask: how does the rhetoric of these questions engage the student-reader? And they may note the direct address to the student, “you.”

The Macmillan questions, especially, also provide an opportunity to think historically about reader-reception. How do readers understand literary works differently at different moments in time? With respect to The Scarlet Letter, our students might consider how readers of that era might have related it to McCarthyism and the Women’s Liberation Movement. It doesn’t demand a detailed understanding of the historical context to practice that sort of historicist thinking, and thereby to contextualize our own reading of a supposedly “timeless” classic, today.

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