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Lesson Plans
A Wrinkled Relationship:
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Prep for Teachers

Prior to the teaching, bookmark all Web sites used in the lesson. Cue the videotape Women in American Life: Episode #2 to the photo of a family sitting around a kitchen table, when the narrator's voice is saying, "The Great Depression of the 1930's..."

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities

The following activities will prepare your students for a lesson on Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing by introducing them to the literary style of monologue and first person point of view through responding in writing to art. They also serve to familiarize students with the author and provide a sense of historical context.

Step 1: Introducing the Monologue

Ask your students to imagine they are alone in the midst of a simple, repetitive activity, such as a household chore or manual task. Ask them, "What happens in your mind as you perform this chore or task?" (Possible responses: thoughts wander, stream of consciousness, reminisce, daydream, etc.)

Tell your students that they will be examining a portrait by the famous artist Pablo Picasso called Woman Ironing. Hand out the question sheet. Have students log on to the Guggenheim Web site of Woman Ironing at The portrait serves as a writing prompt for the students.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to imagine the woman looking up and speaking to them. Ask the students to read the directions on the writing prompt sheet. Remind them write in the voice of the woman and use first-person "I".

Allow your students to write for about ten minutes. Encourage them to keep their pens going the whole time, allowing her to say whatever she wants. If they get stuck, suggest they reread what they have written and circle something they think is particularly interesting or intriguing. Encourage them to develop that item further.

Step 2: Sharing Different Voices

Divide the class into groups of three and ask them to share their monologues with one another. As the group members read, ask them to notice the differences in how each student presented the woman. After each student has read, encourage the group to discuss for two or three minutes the differences they noticed. Circulate among the groups inconspicuously, making sure they are on task. You may need to focus discussions as needed.

Step 3: Sharing Similarities in Style

Ask for two or three volunteers to read their monologues aloud to the class. Then ask the class to identify similarities in the style of writing. (Possible responses: first person point of view, only one character speaking, personal thoughts revealed, audience is present but not active in dialogue). Try to elicit all these responses. Tell your students that the similarities they mentioned are characteristics of a monologue. (A monologue is a lengthy speech by a single person directed toward another, who remains silent.)

Learning Activities

Step 1: Introducing Tillie Olsen and Historical Context

Tell your students they will be reading a story told in the form of a monologue called I Stand Here Ironing by a contemporary writer named Tillie Olsen.

Ask your students to log on to the Tillie Olsen page of the Nebraska Center for Writers Web site at At this site, they will study some biographical information about Olsen.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to find information that describes her life as a young mother and the time period she lived in. Ask the students to respond aloud to the following questions: What is the year of her birth? (1912 or 1913.) What is her age today? (88 or 89.) In what decade she was in her twenties? (1930's.) What was happening in the United States in the 1930's? (The Great Depression.) What was life like for American families during the Great Depression? (Possible responses: lack of work, poverty, food shortages, low wages.)

Ask them to read the brief biography next to her photograph. Ask them to respond aloud to the following questions: What do you think she meant when she says she was "silenced for 20 years"? Why do you think she began to write after so many years of working? (Answers will vary and may include time constraints, fear of social disapproval, accumulating life experience.) Tell them that Olsen raised her first child as a single mother.

Ask your students to click on the picture of Olsen, which reveals a photograph of her in the 1930's when she was a young mother in her twenties. As they study the photograph ask: What difficulties and obstacles did she probably face raising a child alone during this time in history? (Answers may include sexism, lack of resources and child care, unemployment, low wages) What do you think her child's life was like? (Answers may include unstable, lonely, neglected.)

Step 2: Understanding the Lives of Women During the Great Depression

Tell your students that they will be examining the period in history when Olsen was a young mother. They will be exploring this period through the use of a video.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to raise their hands when they can name two effects the Great Depression had on American families. START and PLAY the tape at photo of a family sitting around a kitchen table, as the narrator's voice is saying, "The Great Depression of the 1930's..." PAUSE the tape when you hear the narrator say, "Other families disintegrated."

Ask your students, "What effects did the Great Depression have on American families?" (Families combined efforts. Families disintegrated.) What factors might have contributed to families falling apart? (Possible responses: fathers leaving to look for work or abandoning their families altogether, sickness and death, parents giving up their children to shelters or orphanages.)

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to raise their hands when they hear the reason why farm women were hit especially hard and what happened to them. PLAY the tape. PAUSE when you hear the narrator say, "The YWCA also opened shelters for homeless women in the cities."

Ask your students, "Why were farm women were hit especially hard during the Depression?" (The drought forced them to uproot their families.) Ask them the result of the drought on women. (They were forced to become migrant workers and took paying jobs wherever they could.)

Ask your students if they can define drought and migrant. Ask them if they heard the nickname given to the drought conditions in the Midwest in the 1930s. (The Dust Bowl.)

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to determine the effects of the Depression on married women. PLAY the tape, and STOP when you hear the narrator say, "...women continued to enter the work force in record numbers."

Ask your students, "How were women discriminated against in the work force?" (Married women were not hired, or they were fired from jobs.) Ask your students why married women were discriminated against. (Men needed scarce jobs.) Ask them to infer other reasons they were discriminated against. (Possible response: They might get pregnant and quit. Their family demands might get in the way.)

Step 1: Establishing Background for Independent Reading of Literature

Distribute copies of I Stand Here Ironing. Remind them that the story is told in the style of a monologue. Ask students to log onto the Instant Knowledge Web site
and click on the "Summary" link.

Explain to your students that they will read I Stand Here Ironing for homework.

Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to read the summary of the story and speculate about the nature of Emily's problems. After they have read the summary, divide students into pairs and have them discuss why the counselor might be at the mother's home. Ask them to predict what the mother might tell the counselor in her monologue.

Distribute and assign reading the story for homework. Encourage students to underline significant parts and make marginal notes.

Step 2: Defining Theme

Explain to your students that they will be examining some themes that emerge in I Stand Here Ironing.

Divide your students into groups of three or four and ask them to spend two minutes brainstorming a list of words and phrases that come to mind when they think about the mother and Emily. Explain to them that one member of the group should be responsible for recording the responses in his/her notebook. Then ask your students to circle those items they think are the most significant.

Ask the groups to volunteer some of the items they circled and write them on the chalkboard or poster paper for all the class to see. (Possible responses are emotional neglect, lack of attention, time, single motherhood.) Ask your students, "What is the story telling us about ____________?" Choose one of the items listed on the board or poster paper. (A possible response is "Sometimes mothers have to neglect the emotional needs of their children in order to survive.) Elicit a few ideas and write the most thematically rich response on the board or poster paper. Ask the students to find support for that theme in the story. (A possible response is page 2, "She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all...") Explain to them that they have just come up with one theme of the story. Ask the class to think of a way they can define the term theme based on what they have just done. (Be sure that their definition of theme includes the idea that theme is a concept a piece of literature incorporates and makes persuasive to the reader.)

Step 3: Examining Theme

Explain to your students that they will be examining some themes in I Stand Here Ironing through a Web site. Ask them to log on to

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to click on "Themes and Motifs." Ask them to articulate the five themes presented: separation, nourishment, maternal anguish, choice, time. Divide the class into groups of five and assign each member of every group one of the five themes. Ask the students to read the overview of the theme you assigned. Then ask them to go back to the story and locate support for the theme. Encourage them explore the whole story and underline the textual support they find. Allow about five minutes for this. Then ask the groups to convene and each member to share the textual evidence they found for the theme.

CHECK for overall comprehension by asking one member of each group to share his/her theme and the textual evidence he/she found. Be sure to elicit a different theme from the students who respond to avoid redundancy. To keep the rest of the class involved and enrich the discussion, invite a few students to share other textual evidence.

Culminating Activitie

After reading and discussing I Stand Here Ironing, learning about the hardships faced by families during the Depression years, and studying the literary form of monologue, the students can perform this activity, in which they will assume the persona of a family member during the Depression.

Step 1: Providing a Visual Prompt

Explain to your students that they will be examining photographs of families during the Depression. Some of them were taken by Dorothea Lange, a famous photographer of Depression-era migrant workers.

Ask your students to log onto the site for Modern American Poetry: The Great Depression at Ask them to scroll down until they reach photos depicting families.

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to spend a few seconds studying each photo and choosing one to focus on. Ask them to choose one family member in that photograph for whom they will write a monologue.

Step 2: Writing a Monologue

After your students have made their selection, provide them with the Monologue Guideline Sheet. Ask them to fill out the sheet in regard to the family member in the photo they have selected. When they have completed the guideline sheet, ask them to write a monologue using the sheet as a guide. Give them about twenty minutes for writing.

Step 3: Sharing Monologues

When about two minutes are remaining in the writing activity, remind your students to bring their monologues to a conclusion. Break them up into groups of three and ask them to read their monologues to the group members. Ask them to show their group members the photo they chose, but they should not divulge which person in the photo they chose. The group members should try to guess the person for whom the monologue was written.

Step 4: Debriefing

When all students have shared their monologues in small groups, ask the students whether the monologues they heard contained themes. Write the themes on the board as they students articulate them. When three or four themes have been elicited, ask your students if they remember any textual evidence they can recall to support the themes.

Step 5: Publishing

As a homework assignment, ask your students to revise their monologues and type them. Remind them to proofread carefully for grammar and spelling. Ask them to print the photograph they chose and attach it to the monologue. Collect all the monologues and pictures and compile a monologue book, which you can copy and distribute to the class.

Cross-Curricular Activities

Students can visit the Library of Congress Web site and research the Works Progress Administration. They can write a newspaper article that could have been published immediately after the establishment of the WPA in which they explain Roosevelt's plan.


Students can research the history of the public assistance and welfare policy in their city.


In I Stand Here Ironing, the mother recalls how Emily contracted the red measles. Students can research the red measles and design a six-panel public health pamphlet educating parents about the disease. Students can create graphs, diagrams, and drawings on each panel to make it more attractive and informative.


In I Stand Here Ironing, Emily is described as an aspiring comedian. Her gravitation toward comedy can be seen as her way of coping with a traumatic childhood. Ask students if they think laugher is the best medicine. Ask them to explore the research on the health benefits of laughter.

Students can compare suggestions doctors have given new mothers through the years and make a visual representation of the evolution of mothering.

Community Conections

  • Contact a women's shelter and arrange for a representative to come in to talk about the plight of today's single mothers.

  • Research and develop ways for parents and teenagers to resolve tensions in their relationships. Develop a sheet that can be mailed home to parents.

  • Contact personnel departments of various corporations and conduct a statistical analysis of those companies that provide day care for children of employees.

  • Organize a fund-raiser for a children's hospital.