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Education: Higher Education

The Rest Cure: Gender in Medicine and Literature

  • Grade level: 11–12
  • Subject: history and social studies

Time Needed

Three 40-minute class periods


Students will examine both primary and secondary sources, fiction and non-fiction, in order to understand how a writer can use literature as social criticism. In Class 1, students examine a letter protesting the publication of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as “Perilous Stuff.” They scan in class and reread closely “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to complete reading guide homework. In Class 2, students build on their comprehension of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” with further readings of the online materials, The Literature of Prescription exhibition and four digitized primary source readings. Students are assigned as homework to draft a short essay on a topic they have selected. In Class 3, students engage in a writing workshop where they provide and receive feedback and revise draft essays.

  • learning outcomes

    Students will be able to:
    • understand how authors may use their literary works for social criticism.
    • read and comprehend the main ideas in the primary-source writings from the late nineteenth century.
    • synthesize their reading and discussion into a coherent, well-constructed response to a given writing prompt.
    • compose a written essay that demonstrates logical thinking and the development of ideas for academic, creative, and personal purposes, and that conveys the author’s message using an engaging introduction (with a clear thesis as appropriate), well-constructed paragraphs, transition sentences, and powerful conclusion.
    • edit for style, tone, word choice, and sentence variety; then proofread to check sentence structure, mechanics (spelling, punctuation, capitalization), layout, and font; and prepare selected pieces for publication.
    • identify and evaluate the primary focus, logic, style, and structure of a text or speech and the ways in which these elements support or confound meaning or purpose.
    • recognize literary and persuasive strategies as ways in which communication can be influenced through imagery, irony, satire, parody, propaganda, overstatement/understatement, omission, and multiple points of view.
  • background information

    Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” a short story set in the late nineteenth century, fictionalizes the struggles of a young married woman enduring Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure.” In the late 1880s before writing the short story, the author contacted Dr. Mitchell and he treated her ‘nervous disease’ with a rest cure. The Literature of Prescription exhibition features Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her short story, offering historical background and primary-source documents that provide social and medical context of Gilman’s time and her fictional work. The exhibition sections, Introduction, The Woman Question, and Reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, are directly related to this lesson plan. Teachers are encouraged to read these sections before implementing the lesson plan.

  • vocabulary

    The following words may be introduced/incorporated into the lessons.

    ataxia, chintz, convolution, costive, despondent, declension, discursive, elucidation, eminent, enthrall, fatuity, impertinence, indictment, indolence, infirmary, maniacally, myelitis, neuralgia, neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion), phosphites, phosphates, prolific, querulous, reversion, sticketh, treatises, untenanted

  • Materials

    Print All Materials
    • Discussion Rubric (PDF, MS Word)
    • “Perilous Stuff” transparency (PDF)
    • “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (PDF)
    • Reading Questions for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (PDF, MS Word)
    • Critical Reading Notes (PDF, MS Word)
    • Primary Source Reading Questions (PDF, MS Word)
    • Essay Rubric (PDF, MS Word)
    Other materials and set-ups:
  • class 1 procedures

    (Preparation: If appropriate, distribute copies of Class Discussion Rubric to students and review it so that students have a clear understanding of how their discussion participation may be graded.)

    1. Have students define the phrase, ‘perilous,’ and provide examples of what they or others may consider ‘perilous.’
    2. Tell students that the same phrase was a title of a letter that was sent to and published in Boston Evening Transcript in 1892.
    3. Display the “Perilous Stuff” transparency for all students to view and read it aloud.
    4. Follow the read aloud with a brief class discussion using the following questions:
      • What is the main idea presented in the letter?
      • Who wrote the letter, and what possible motives might you infer from how the letter writer signed at the end?
      • Whose perspective would you guess that the story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” is written from?
      • How can the two perspectives, one from the letter and the other from the story, be generalized?
    5. Introduce to students that the object of the letter’s protest, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” was written by Charlotte Perkins Gillman and was first published in January 1892 issue of The New England Magazine.
    6. Distribute copies of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and assign students to scan the short story briefly to determine whether they agree or disagree with the “M. D.” who claims that “such literature contains deadly peril.”
    7. Have a couple of students share whether and why they consider “The Yellow Wall-Paper” dangerous or not.
    8. Handout copies of the Reading Questions for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” to students whose homework for the next class is to reread the story more closely and complete the handout.
    9. Class 1 Evaluation: The class discussions in steps 1, 4, and 7 allow for assessment of students’ preliminary comprehension and perspectives on “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” which can be used to tailor instructions during Classes 2 and 3 more specifically in order to support the desired learning outcomes.
  • class 2 procedures

    1. Group students into teams of four to conduct a brief, small-group discussion using their completed Reading Questions for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” handout.
    2. Debrief as a whole class by having teams take turns to share their responses to one of the questions. Afterwards, collect the completed handouts for evaluation.
    3. Tell students that they will work in teams to learn more about the medical experts’ perspectives on mental illness and gender in the late nineteenth century.
    4. Distribute a copy of the Critical Reading Notes sheet and one of the following digitized primary-source documents to each team to read and summarize (if appropriate, model how to use Critical Reading Notes): (Optional: If a sufficient number of computers with Internet access are available, assign all teams to view The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” exhibition, as well as to read and summarize the main ideas in one of the above digitized primary-source documents.)
    5. Have teams summarize their reading notes and record on transparency.
    6. Review the main ideas and engage students in discussion of how Gilman depicted some of the ideas of her time in “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” (See examples of discussion question in Primary Source Reading Questions.)
    7. List and review the following possible essay topics with students:
      • Literary imagery in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
      • Mental Illness in fiction and in medicine
      • Social criticism in “The Yellow Wall-Paper”
    8. Distribute the Writing Project handout to students and assign them to choose a topic and draft an essay as homework for next class.
    9. Class 2 Evaluation: The completed handouts of Reading Questions for “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Critical Reading Notes and discussions in steps 5 and 6 provide opportunities to evaluate how students are deepening their understanding of the literary work and how it reflects the contemporary society of the author’s time.
  • class 3 procedures

    1. Volunteer students to share the working title and thesis of their essays. Highlight and explain the differences between strong and weak examples.
    2. If possible, arrange students in groups of four with at least one strong writer in each group. Once students are in the group, have them exchange papers. This exchange will happen several times; the goal is for the strong writer to give feedback to each person in the group.
    3. Provide a few examples of constructive feedback and model how to provide feedback on the draft essay of another student.
    4. For the first round, walk students through the basic structure of the paper with the following suggestions:
      1. Read the introduction and check for background and history of topic, TAGS—i.e., title(s), author(s), genre(s), summary—where applicable, and a strong thesis statement.
      2. Read each topic sentence/statement in the body paragraphs.
      3. Read the thesis statement. Are the ideas of the body present within?
      4. Read and assess the efficacy of the transition sentences between paragraphs.
      5. Read the supporting evidence of each body paragraph and assess format.
      6. Does the writer use the evidence (quotes) to reinforce the topic statement?
      7. Does the writer provide a strong conclusion with a general summary of the paper, as well as a summary of the conclusions reached in each body paragraph? Is there a strong clincher?
    5. Have students work in groups to read each other’s drafts and provide constructive feedback for finalizing the essay.
    6. Allow student to consider the feedback and work on their own draft using: STAR (Substitute, Take Out, Add, Rearrange).
    7. Handout copies of the Essay Rubric document and ask students to review the rubric and peer feedback in order to complete the homework of revising and finalizing their drafts into 4-5 page essays that should be turned in at the beginning of the next class.
    8. Class 3 Evaluation: Observations of the peer review of the draft essays serve as assessment opportunities as well as the finished student essays to be collected at the next class.
  • extension activities

    Students may choose one topic below and compose additional 4-5 page essay.

    1. Read Gilman’s diary pages and her two poems, “To the Young Wife” and “The Mother’s Charge.” Compare/contrast the social criticism in her three literary works.
    2. Compare/contrast the portrayal of women in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” How does each writer show one of the elements of the Modern period in the female character(s) in each?
    3. Compare/contrast the use of setting or imagery in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Willa Cather’s “A Wagner Matinee” as a means for social criticism.
  • national health education standards

    Language Arts (NCTE / IRA Standards for the English Language Arts):
    1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary works.
    2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
    3. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.
    4. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
    5. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members & of a variety of literacy communities.