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A Dead Poets Society Teaching Unit

by Nick Senger
Teen Literacy Specialist

For more free teen literacy resources


Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

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by Nick Senger

Peter Weir's film Dead Poet's Society is an asset to any junior high or high school curriculum.
In it, students gain an appreciation of poetry. Also, the movie shows the dangers of peer pressure
and suicide. It encourages students to think for themselves and to live life to the fullest. It is a
movie about coming to terms with oneself and others. It practically teaches itself because
students identify with it so well.
Dead Poets Society is rich in symbolism, plot and imagery, making it challenging and ripe for
discussion. It is open to several interpretations, as all good art is, and provides teachers with an
alternative to teaching print.
Dead Poets Society works well with other literature. It may be viewed in conjunction with A
Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye. It also works well as an introduction to poetry, especially
that of the Romantics.
There are several approaches one might take in teaching Dead Poets Society. For instance:

• Feelings of alienation: Todd's low self esteem; the issue of conformity and peer pressure;
Todd's following in his brother's footsteps; the dilemma of feeling indebted to parents.

• Dealing with increased feelings of independence and rebellion: Neil's conflict with his
father; Charlie's illegal editorial; learning to spread one's wings slowly.

• Academic pressure: private schools as too competitive; preparatory schools as

babysitters for the elite; dictatorship of school administrators.

• Symbolism and imagery: Neil as Christ-figure; boys as flocks of geese; Mr. Keating as
scapegoat; Mr. Keating as Lincoln-figure.

• Influence of role models: Mr. Keating's influence on the students; Neil's father.

With any film it is always a good idea to preface it with things to look for. Pages can be read
again, but scenes from a movie come quickly and important items can be missed if a viewer is
not aware.

Dead Poets Society is an excellent anticipatory set to use when beginning a unit on poetry.
John Keating, the main character (played marvelously by Robin Williams), is a passionate and
lively teacher. His enthusiasm for poetry and literature flows from the screen to the viewer.
Students can't help but leave the film with at least a bit of curiosity about the power of poetry.
The film is a bit over two hours, and can be viewed in four thirty-minute segments. The
film's rich symbolism and controversial nature require periodic commentaries. Showing the film
in thirty-minute segments allows for discussion at the end of each session of viewing.

Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

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Part I (Beginning of movie to the end of Mr. Keating's "O me! O life!" speech - approx 32 min)

Part I establishes the setting and tone of the movie. The characters are introduced, as is the
personality of Mr. Keating. The year is 1959. Welton Academy is situated on a large campus in
autumnal Vermont.

Draw to students' attention:

• The four pillars of Welton are Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence. Which
pillars do the administration lean on? Notice the prominence that is given to the pillar of
• A scene of flying geese fades to a scene of the boys standing in line to receive their
extracurricular activities. Notice as the honking of the geese fades to the chattering of the
boys, setting up a connection that will later be commented on by Mr. Keating.
• Quick views of "typical" Welton teachers are followed by Mr. Keating's dramatic first
class. The juxtaposition of these scenes helps to distinguish Mr. Keating as a unique
• The sentiment of carpe diem is expressed by Donne in his poem. Discuss the point that
Mr. Keating is trying to make.
• Mr. Keating dares the students to refer to him as "O Captain! My Captain!" This
reference will prove to be symbolic.

Part II (First dinner scene to students standing on Mr. Keating's desk - approx. 20 minutes)

Part II reveals the secret of the Dead Poets Society. The boys decide to revive the
organization and meet in the cave at night. Later, they get a lesson in looking at life from new
perspectives from Mr. Keating via standing on his desk.

Draw to students' attention:

- T.S. Eliot's quote about dead poets (reference study questions)
- The boys run through the mist in dark cloaks as they head to the cave. Discuss what the
director might be saying with this imagery.
- Ask the students the question, Why would the "present administration" not look favorably on
the Dead Poets Society?
- Invite the students to stand on their desks and view the world differently.

Part III (From Neil's desire to act to Charlie's punishment - approx 35 minutes)

In this section, we learn of Neil's desire to act, even if it means disobeying his father. We also
see Todd's fear of expressing himself, and the talent he has hidden inside. Knox summons the
courage to call Chris, the girl he has a crush on. Mr. Keating gives a lesson about the evils of
conformity by having the students walk together.
Charlie brings two girls to a Dead Poets meeting and announces he has slipped an article into
the school newspaper. The article demands girls be allowed into Welton, and Charlie has signed
it in the name of the Dead Poets. This section ends with Mr. Nolan's paddling of Charlie.

Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

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Draw to students's attention:

• Mr. Keating's philosophy of sports.
• The way in which Mr. Keating brings out Todd - what is it that makes Todd come out of
his shell?
• The music involved (Handel, Beethoven)
• Discuss the poems used so far.

Part IV (Mr. Keating's meeting with Nolan to Knox's talk with Chris - approx 19 minutes)

Points for discussion:

• Is Charlie too daring?
• Is Mr. Keating a bad influence?

Part V (The rest of the movie)

Points for discussion:

• Who is most to blame for Neil’s death? Mr. Keating? Neil’s father? Neil himself?
• What is Peter Weir trying to say about life in this movie?

Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

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Viewing Guide for Parts I and II of Dead Poets Society

Main Characters:

Neil Perry
Todd Anderson John Keating
Charlie Dalton Knox Overstreet
Gerald Pitts Steven Meeks
Richard Cameron Dean Nolan

Part I

1. What are the four pillars of Welton Academy?

2. In what year does the story take place?
3. Notice the short scene with the flock of birds. What might this scene symbolize?
4. What do the Latin words carpe diem mean?
5. What is the point of Mr. Keating's first class with the boys?
6. According to Mr. Keating, why read poetry? Why does he have them rip pages out of their
7. "You may contribute a verse." What does this mean?

For homework, read the poems "O Captain, My Captain," and "To the Virgins to Make Much
of Time." Come in with an explanation of what they mean and how they might relate to the

Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

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O Captain, My Captain! by Walt Whitman

O Captain, my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather'd every crack, the prize we sought is won.
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain, my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you boquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

To the Virgins to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, That age is best, which is the first,
Old Time is still a-flying; When youth and blood are warmer,
And this same flower that smiles to-day But being spent, the worse and worst
To-morrow will be dying. Times still succeed the former.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, Then not be coy, but use your time,
The higher he's a-getting, And while ye may, go marry;
The sooner will his race be won, For, having lost but once your prime,
And nearer he's to setting. You may forever tarry.

Copyright 2007, Nick Senger

Part II

1. What was the Dead Poets Society? What did they do? Where do you think the name
comes from?

2. What is the symbolism in the scene where the boys go to the cave?

3. How does Mr. Keating get the boys to look at life differently?

4. What does T.S. Eliot mean by the following quote?

"No poet, no artist of any art, has complete meaning alone. His significance, his
appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot
value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead."

- T. S. Eliot, from "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

5. Summarize, in your own words, why Henry David Thoreau went to the woods:

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential
facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear; nor
did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and
suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that
was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it
to its lowest terms, and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole genuine
meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by
experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men,
it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of

- Henry David Thoreau, from -Walden

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