This Christmas the most recent film adaptation of Little Women hits the cinemas. Louisa May Alcott's classic novel was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, and was an instant success. Its popularity hasn't fallen since, and now Greta Gerwig's film brings this story back into our lives, giving you a great opportunity to work with it in class.
To help you inspire your students to watch the film and read the book, we have collected a number of projects which explore different themes in the story. This way reading the book for pleasure and then watching the film can be extended into a rewarding project.
The novel has also been adapted as a Helbling Readers Red Series Classic by Jennifer Gascoigne with illustrations by Cecilia Tamburini. Check out the reader here.
With these project ideas, our aims are to:
- raise interest in the story,
- become familiar with the reader,
- find pathways into the story through projects,
- expand the social, cultural and historical setting of the story,
- explore the scientific topics in the story,
- make personal links,
- and, last but not least, have fun.
- History: the American Civil War
- Society: Women at work
- Society: Family
- Psychology: The March Sisters
- Communication: Letters
- Geography: New England
- Meet the author: Louisa May Alcott
1. Talk about the title and read the blurb.
"This is the much-loved story of the four March sisters. Meg is the eldest and is about to fall in love. Then there’s tomboy Jo who wants to be a writer. Kind Beth who always puts other people before herself, and finally there’s Amy, the youngest and most precocious. Although times are difficult and their father is away at war, they never forget their sense of fun. Growing up is not always easy but it is very rewarding."
- Who are the four girls on the cover?
- Why are they called 'Little Women'?
2. Look at the cover and the characters.
Ask your students what the characters in the novel are like based on these images. You can also show a picture (from the Helbling reader, a film adaptation or another illustrated book) to give some help if needed.
3. Watch the film trailer
Show the 2019 film trailer to your students. Ask them if the girls are similar to how they have imagined them. As they are watching, ask them to guess as much of the story as possible. They should write their predictions down, and then compare them with their reading experiences.
Tip: When the students have also watched the film, they can compare their reading experiences with the film.
4. Show this Wordle image to your class.
Before you start discussing the projects, share this Wordle image with your class. It shows the fifty most frequently used words in the reader (the bigger the word the more it is used). What do these words tell us about the story? Get the class to ask questions and make statements based on the words.
When you have become familiar with the book, offer a series of projects for your students to explore on their own or in pairs/groups. We recommend that your students choose their topic whenever they feel best prepared to do so (before, during or after reading). Some students might not be comfortable reflecting on the story from a personal point of view and they might not have the linguistic toolkit to analyze it critically. Projects can provide friendly pathways into the stories and they can also provide the basis for cross-curricular projects.
History: The American Civil War
The story is set at the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865), and it affects the March family in several ways. Not only is the sisters' father is in the army and away from his family, the family also has to deal with poverty.
Some students can work on this project and tell the others about the Civil War. They can start by answering some of these questions:
- What were the reasons for the American Civil War?
- How did it start?
- Who was fighting who?
- Who was the President of the United States during the Civil War?
- Which states belonged to the Union?
- Which states belonged to the Confederacy?
- How did the Civil War end?
Society: Women at work
The March sisters are encouraged to work by their father. What jobs do they do in the story?
Similarly to the girls, the author Louisa May Alcott also had to work to help her family. What jobs were available for women in the 19th century? Students can find out about Louisa May Alcott's life, and then do some research to learn what jobs - apart from housework - women could do.
There are different families with different structures, facing different difficulties in the story. There are four sisters in the March family and their father is away. Their neighbours, the Laurence family face different difficulties: Mr Laurence is alone with his grandson, Laurie, whose parents have died. We also learn about the Hummel family, who live in deep poverty: there are seven children and they share a single room.
These examples show how each family is different and how both the members of each family, and outsiders, can help each other. Ask students to present different examples of family structures in stories they have read.
Psychology: The March sisters
The four sisters are very different, and they were all inspired by the author, Louisa May Alcott and her three sisters. Ask students to do some research and compare the lives of Louisa May Alcott and her sisters Anna, Lizzie and May with the March sisters: Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth.
How are the four girls different? What are they like? What are they interested in? What happens to them?
The girls can only communicate with their father through letters. Ask your students to do some research into letters and written correspondence.
- When was the last time they sent a letter?
- How much does it cost to mail a letter?
- How long does it take for a letter to arrive within your country?
- How long could it take in the 1860s for a letter to arrive?
- What is nice about letters?
Geography: New England
The story is set in New England, and this is where Alcott wrote the story. Her family moved a lot in her childhood, and one of her favourite places was in Concord, Massachusetts. Find the town on the map and show it to your students. Ask students to find answers to the questions below.
- Plan a visit to Concord. How can you travel there from your place?
- How many people live in Concord?
- What is the town famous for?
- Who were the members of the literary circle in Concord in the 19th century?
- What are the most famous sights in the town?
Visit the website of Orchard House. This is where Alcott was living when she wrote Little Women. Find out about the house and take a virtual tour in it on the website.
Meet the author: Louisa May Alcott
Read page 6 in the Helbling Reader or find information about Louisa May Alcott. Answer the questions below.
- Where did she grow up?
- What jobs did she do?
- What was her dream profession?
- Where did she move during the Civil War?
- Why did she go to Switzerland?
- How did her life inspire the novel?
- How many sequels to Little Women did she write?
More resources for teachers
- Read the original story on Project Gutenberg.
- You can also watch the 1994 film trailer.
- Read about the Japanese animated adaptation of Little Women.
- Do this quiz on the Guardian: Which of the March sisters from Little Women are you?