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Begin the lesson with an introduction to the author and the context of the piece. You can choose how much detail you give your introduction to Swift's life, but you will definitely want to point out the outrage he felt at the way that the British government treated the Irish, particularly the poor. During Swift's time, the Irish sought to join England, but were not permitted to, and the way England dealt in commerce with Ireland led to terrible living conditions for many, simply because economic opportunity was nonexistent.
"A Modest Proposal" was just one of many essays that Swift wrote during the 1720's, as he became passionately involved in Irish politics. Swift employed sarcasm which, at that time, was not nearly as intertwined with social discourse as it is in our own time. As a result, most of his rhetorical argument went misunderstood. This essay would actually be the last that Swift would write about poverty in Ireland.
To help your class establish context, as a warmup at the beginning of class, ask your class to jot down the two or three most important political issues in the country. Then, ask them to jot down a sentence or two detailing a way that they would solve these problems.
Then, move into a whole-class discussion of what people thought of. In a junior- or senior-level English class, you should get some interesting responses.
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Reading the Piece
Depending on your class, you can take one of two approaches to your A Modest Proposal lesson plan: Have your students read the essay as homework, or complete the project together during class. If you have your students read it outside class, you will be replicating the experience that Swift's readers had -- reading the essay without any outside information -- but if you have struggling readers, you may want to read it together.
Either way, as your students read it, treat it as a sincere essay. Have them identify the main idea of the paper, as well as points of support that Swift makes for his case -- the selling of the Irish young as livestock for consumption by the wealthy in England.
After your warmup, and after the students have been exposed to the essay, ask the students what they think of Swift's solution. Ask if any of the students think Swift is being serious about this plan. Then, move to a discussion of why Swift would write this way. Clearly, Swift has strong feelings about poverty -- what do your students think was Swift's purpose in using this ironic construction?
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Here are some activities for student response to the lesson plan. You can do these in class, or have your students do them as extension activities after class, if your discussion takes the rest of the period.
1. Write a modern version of Swift's essay, addressing a social problem in our own time. You could also address poverty, or unemployment, but if you wanted to shift to an environmental or other topic and keep the abrasively ironic approach, that would be fine too. Two to three pages.
2. Write a screenplay portraying a scene that could happen if the ideas in this essay became policy. Remember that Swift is writing this as a serious expression of anger at the English treatment of Ireland, so maintain a serious purpose in your writing. There are all sorts of creative ways to express this theme, as this video indicates.
3. Pretend that you are a leader in the English government. After seeing this essay, what would you write in response?
4. This essay is clearly an example of verbal irony, or sarcasm. How does sarcasm affect its environment? How does sarcasm affect interpersonal relationships? How does it affect the moral of the people who use it, and who hear it?
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For information about Swift's life: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/modestproposal/context.html