Oliver Twist: Lessons on Empathy and Compassion
This lesson is appropriate for fourth and fifth graders. Sense of self is important at this age and students can be taught to be active participants in developing their sense of self-esteem and self-worth as well as appreciate the experiences of others using Oliver Twist reading lessons for elementary students.
The students will learn to identify acts of empathy and compassion.
Understand how realistic fiction can mirror real life.
Set the Stage
Prior to starting the lesson, give a brief review of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. Tell the students that it is a book about a child in their age group. Include a definition and discussion of the Victorian Era and how this period impacted children. Explain that Oliver Twist is realistic fiction and that after they have heard the story they will be able to distinguish between what was realistic and what was not realistic. At this point introduce and define the term "vicarious" to further support the objective of the lesson.
Prior to starting Oliver Twist introduce and define some of the key vocabulary words in the story. Following are examples:
Orphan – a person whose parents have died.
Workhouse – an institution set up to assist people who were poor, unemployed, too old, too young, or too ill.
Gruel – a thin soup made by boiling oatmeal.
Ague – a feverish shivering fit.
Indenture – the special contract which an apprentice signs. (Make the distinction between this term and "slave.")
Finger Post – an old fashioned signpost with arms pointing in different directions.
Read the book in installments to mimic the way the book was read in nineteen century London. Remind the students that this practice has continued today. A common example is "soap operas." Encourage discussion on other examples that the students wish to share. Ask the students why they think this practice has been successful.
Activities While Reading the Novel
Check the students' understanding after each installment to test empathy and compassion awareness. Have the students keep a journal with three columns to gauge "compassion" and "empathy." The first column will list the character's name, the second column will be labeled "caring," and the third column will be labeled "uncaring."
After the book is completed, discuss the main parts of the book: the setting, plot, major events, and conclusion. Ask the students to share their notes on the characters. Encourage a discussion on those characters who were "uncaring." Have the students offer reasons why some of the characters were "uncaring." Ask what would need to happen to change them into kinder people.
Create a chart entitled 'Empathy and Compassion Words,' which should list scrambled words. Have the children unscramble the words. Sample words include: patience, kindness, understanding, nonjudgmental, sympathetic, sensitive, generous, caring, helpful, and tolerant.
Have students construct a chart and list those events in the novel that seemed realistic and those that did not seem realistic.
Have students do a short research project on Charles Dickens. Ask students to discuss why they think he wrote the novel. How much of his life is reflected in the novel?
Find a film version of Oliver Twist and compare the novel to the screen adaptation. Ask how different were the character portrayals.
As a culmination to Oliver Twist reading lessons for elementary students, do an art project. Consult with the art teacher and have the students construct clay bowls. Arrange to have them fired. Invite the parents to compile small bags of soup mix to be inserted in the bowls. Initiate a fund raiser in the school. Donate the proceeds to a charity of the students' choice.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Puffin Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2008.