[Alice Walker reviews a PBS teaching resource for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and imagines ways to introduce adolescent learners to Dickens’ novel. Alice is a graduate student in the Bard MAT Program in New York. She wrote the review for an MAT literature course, Victorian Spaces.]
Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens’ most well known novels. Innumerable adaptations of the text in multiple formats have been created (and are still being created) since the book was published. These adaptations include abridged and illustrated editions for children, musicals, and film versions of the text. The aim of these adaptations is often to make the original text accessible to a broader audience, which is a goal high school literature teachers share. How do we use these adaptations in the classroom to help students access and understand difficult literary texts?
PBS tackled that question in the 30th anniversary Masterpiece Theater American Collection. The goal of this series, which aired in the early 2000s, was to “broaden the appeal of the classics to students” by adapting them to film. Broken up into three two-hour long episodes, each adaptation comes with a teacher’s guide and a lengthy list of educational materials for educators to use when teaching the series in the classroom. Among numerous other seminal works, PBS adapted Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist for this series and developed a corresponding teacher’s guide. All of the lesson plans and resources for this adaptation are compiled in a well-organized webpage linked to the PBS website. The teacher’s guide itself can also be found in PDF format on the ERIC database.
The teacher’s guide offers a wide variety of instructional techniques and supplemental materials in order to get student to engage with Oliver Twist. It begins with synopses of the various episodes and suggestions for how to segment the viewings. The guide suggests that the students watching the series keep a viewing journal in which they write summaries and observations about the film. The viewing journal not only serves to help students keep track of events and plotlines in the film adaptation, but also provides them an opportunity to practice identifying the salient points of the supplementary material. They’re encouraged to take note of aspects of the material that are striking to them.
The next section of the guide provides educators with discussion questions and activities associated with each episode of the film. The questions are divided into lists to use before and after viewing each episode. The “Before Viewing” questions are broad and often address aspects of Victorian society that inform how the students will view the film. For example, in the Episode Two section, the guide presents a list of questions about workhouses, how Victorian society felt about poverty, and how living in a workhouse affected Dickens’ life. These questions frame and give focus to the viewing these students will do, showing them what themes and concepts to look for as they watch the episode.
The “Post-Viewing” questions draw the students’ attention to specifics of the film and how the broader concepts that were introduced in the pre-viewing discussion play out in the episode. In the Episode Two section, the post-viewing discussion revolves around how different characters in the film view Oliver based on their social class and asks the students to draw comparisons between the criminal underworld and the workhouse and weigh the relative merits of each. This portion of the discussion encourages students to dig into the film adaptation and make sense of the action both within the larger framework of Victorian culture and the smaller framework of the narrative. In doing so, they practice making arguments and providing evidence to support those arguments—important ELA skills and a focus of the Common Core.
Finally, each episode has a short list of activities attached that are intended to be completed after the post-viewing discussion. These activities range in format from fictional writing exercises to analytical responses associated with supplemental resources. In the final pages of the guide, there is a far more extensive list of additional activities and supplemental materials that educators can incorporate into their lessons. The supplemental materials within the guide are made up of a handful of essays on varying topics, including the New Poor Law, Dickens’ life, and the adaptation of the novel into a film. The PBS website also provides materials that include a character chart, an interactive map of Dickens’ London, Dickens’ timeline, and a literary quiz. These diverse materials stand to appeal to a range of student interests and abilities and provide educators with many possible angles on the film version of Oliver Twist.
While this teacher’s guide provides numerous valuable resources for teaching a complex work of literature, there is a problem in its premise. In the introduction, the creator writes that the guide “provides information that will help enrich students’ viewing of the series, whether or not they read the novel” (5). There is something fundamentally wrong with this statement. The intention of the PBS series is, supposedly, to help students enter into classic literature and engage with texts they would normally struggle with. However, by saying you can teach this series without having students read any of the novel, the creators are in a sense altering the purpose of this series. Rather than using the film as a steppingstone into the text, they eliminate the need for reading and engaging with Dickens’ writing.
Considering that this guide is intended for use in a literature classroom, this seems like a basic pedagogical error. It is my belief that supplemental materials like film adaptations are only truly effective when used in conjunction with the original text in order to help students achieve maximum comprehension and engagement. If only the film is used, one loses sight of the point of literature classes: to teach students how to engage with, analyze, and uncover the deeper meaning of literary composition. Throughout the various lesson plans, there are activities that allow students to practice the skills they need to break down a text, including analyzing character development, putting themselves in the place of the characters, and delving into context and the author’s intentions. Why not apply these skills to the novel as well as the adaptation?
Another factor that detracts from the effectiveness of this series is the adaptation itself. Upon reading the plot descriptions for each episode, I discovered a dramatic difference between the plot structure in the film version and in the original text. The screenwriter Alan Bleasdale rearranged the storyline, revealing Oliver’s entire background story at the outset of the film and in great detail, whereas in the novel it appears only in passing at the close of the novel. This one change alters some of the major themes and even the genre of the novel, making it more of a romantic tale than a story of poverty and the search for one’s identity. This major change, among many other shifts in the plot and structure, make significant portions of the movie nearly unrecognizable when compared to the original text. If the intention is to help students access Dickens’ work, these major changes are an impediment. Instead, the film presents the students with an entirely new Oliver Twist that carries only some of the original qualities, characters, themes, and ideas of the classic novel with the same name.
Finally, the sheer number of lesson plan options could create a certain level of difficulty for relatively inexperienced or unskilled teachers. Faced with this much material, one could easily become overwhelmed trying to pull certain ideas and activities to create a more succinct and cohesive lesson plan with a more specific focus. Attempting to cover the majority of the ideas and make use of a significant number of the activities and resources presented in this teacher’s guide, as a less experienced teacher might, would result in a lesson plan whose scope is far too broad for a single section of the curriculum. Students could become overwhelmed with information and miss the story’s key themes and concepts.
Despite these flaws, the teacher’s guide, or at least parts of it, could still be adapted in a number of ways for use in a high school classroom. If I used this guide to teach Oliver Twist in a high school English class, I would adapt it in the following ways. Considering the length of Oliver Twist and given the time constraints of the class periods and overall curriculum, it would not be plausible to teach the entire text straight through. Instead, I would narrow my focus by using the discussion questions, activities, and resources associated with Episode Two of the film version. These questions address how poverty and the impoverished were viewed in Victorian England and how Dickens’ own experiences could have impacted his writing of the novel.
Using these lesson ideas as a baseline, I would incorporate the themes of identity formation and the different treatments of gender into this question of what it meant to be poor in this period. These are key themes that are left somewhat in the background in the teacher’s guide because of the way in which the plot of the film is rearranged. However, I think they are integral to gaining a deep understanding of the original text. I would then select key chapters from the novel that explore these themes and would help support my lesson goals. Some examples of chapters I would include in my lessons are Chapter 3 (Relates how Oliver Twist was Very Near Getting a Place, Which Would Not Have Been a Sinecure), Chapter 18 (How Oliver Passed his Time, in the Improving Society of his Reputable Friends), and Chapter 40 (A Strange Interview, Which is a Sequel to the Last Chapter). To fill in the gaps between these chapters, I would screen portions of the 2005 Roman Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist, a film version that is much truer to the original text. In this way, I could move our Oliver Twist unit along at a brisker pace than if we read the entire text in depth.
I would also adapt and expand on the activities that are recommended in the Episode Two section of the teacher’s guide for the purpose of differentiation. The post-viewing activities for this section include having students enact a debate about the New Poor Law and look for current articles about the attitudes and policies surrounding poverty today as well as current statistics about poverty. While these activities are interesting and will help engage students with the context of the material, I believe students would also benefit from engaging with the text in other ways. In my own lesson plans, I would incorporate a variety of creative projects in multiple formats. Because I make partial use of a film adaptation to teach Oliver Twist, one project idea is to have students imagine they are creating their own modern film adaptation of the novel. For this project, I would put students into small groups and assign each group one of the scenes we have close read in the original text. The groups would then be expected to discuss and come to a consensus on how they would update that scene to modern times and portray it in a movie. They would have to decide the setting, the exact year, what the characters should look like (and which actors they would want to play them, if possible), what costumes they would wear, and anything else they would need to create a complete picture of the idea behind their scene. The final product of this project would be a PowerPoint presentation about their scene, including any headshots of actors, drawings of scenery, or other visual aids they feel should be included. During this presentation, they would be expected to explain their choices and why they believe they represent the original text. This project would require students to draw on their knowledge of the themes in Oliver Twist, the social roles and positions of the various characters, and their understanding of the context of the novel. How clearly and thoroughly they support their choices is a good demonstration of their level of understanding of and engagement with the text. This project and others like it would allow students to exercise their creativity while engaging with and demonstrating their knowledge of the text and hopefully that will, in turn, allow them to feel more connected with the material.
Oliver Twist is a challenging text to teach at the high school level. Its length and plot structure make it a difficult novel to tackle. The efforts of PBS to make the novel more accessible, while admirable, miss the mark if they intended the film to be used in the classroom. The corresponding teacher’s guide, however, can become a valuable resource to any educator who knows how to make use of it and adapt it to be appropriate for the students in their class.
Cashion, Carol and Fischer, Diana. “Oliver Twist”: A Teacher’s Guide. Boston, MA: WGBH-TV, 2000. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED446334.pdf