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Teaching Guide

Teaching Paradise Lost

Paradise found…in this teaching guide.

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Good vs. Evil. God vs. Satan. You and your students vs. John Milton. We can only help you with one of these struggles, but you wouldn't want anyone else in your corner.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity on Milton's use of simile in his epic poem.
  • a lesson staring evil straight in the face (i.e., analyzing the character the Satan).
  • pop culture connections starring the king of Hell, Al Pacino (well, he plays him in a movie), and the king of bad acting, Keanu Reeves.

Our teaching guide can't prepare you for the end of days, but it can prepare you for the end of term.

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  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
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  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
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Instructions for You

Objective: So, Adam and Eve have screwed everything up; they're being evicted from Paradise pronto and things are looking pretty bleak. The archangel Michael is having a come-to-Jesus meeting (how ya like that pun?) with Adam to discuss all the horrific things the future has in store, now that he and Eve have gotten everyone kicked out of the garden. However, in the final moments of the poem, Michael also leads Adam to have hope by revealing future acts of righteousness and mercy—so it's not all bad, just mostly.

If you and your students could have the opportunity to play "oracle" to an earlier generation, what awful things would you feel obliged to show them about our present life? More importantly, what hopeful events, actions, or customs could you reveal to give an earlier generation a reason to look forward to the future in spite of war and terrorism and West Nile virus? This project riffs off a major theme in Paradise Lost, in order to help students analyze Milton's purpose in writing the poem.

This lesson will take about one class period, but you might use it as a starting point for a longer project or essay.

Materials Needed:

  • Access to the Internet
  • Copies of Paradise Lost

Step 1: Hold a class discussion to choose an historical starting point for the project. Since Michael is speaking to Adam after a catastrophic event, you might suggest that your students "travel back" to a time that was particularly difficult or demoralizing (The Great Depression would work well). When in history did the human race need both a reality check and a pick-me-up (besides, you know, today)?

Step 2: Once you've agreed on a time period, break students into small groups and ask them to brainstorm two lists:

  • The difficult things yet to come (tsunamis, earthquakes, reality TV).
  • The hopeful things that might make it worth the suffering (medicine, civil rights, iPhones).

The lists do not have to be equal in length, but each one should be convincing in its own category. Allow students to use the Internet to get some ideas for each list and make sure they have enough time for discussion within the group.

Step 3: Once the lists are compiled, you can take one of several paths:

  • The simplest and most schedule-friendly option is to have each group present their list to the class and discuss their ideas casually.
  • You can turn this into a writing assignment where students would rewrite Michael's speech in the poem to include modern rather than Biblical history. For an added challenge, ask students to imitate Milton's writing style and throw in an epic simile or two.
  • For an artistic option, you can have students create a collage, drawing, or graphic novel-style representation of their lists.

However you choose to approach this, be sure to set aside time for some whole-class sharing and discussion when students finish the assignment.

Step 4: Okay, that was neat, but what's the point? Well, Milton claimed his purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to justify the ways of God. It's sort of like this poem is Milton's answer to the question, if there is a God, why do so many terrible things happen in the world? And Michael's great speech at the end of the poem is basically a highlights reel of the rest of the Bible—the good stuff and the bad stuff.

So here's the question for your students: Does Milton accomplish his stated purpose? How does this catalogue of all the good and bad to come demonstrate that there is a God whose ways are just? For example, does Michael's speech demonstrate that there's a purpose to all the bad stuff, or does he show how the good and bad are connected? Or is he showing that humans deserve all this bad stuff because we do bad things (like listen to Satan)?

To help students think about how good and bad might be related, take a look at some of their lists from more recent history. Are there any connections there you might point out? For example, building the nuclear bomb also led to the development of nuclear power and nuclear medicine. So to wish the bomb could be dis-invented would mean giving up significant advancements in medicine, especially our ability to treat cancer. That makes the whole "if God is good, why does bad stuff happen" question a little tricky, right? The good stuff isn't always 100% good for 100% of the world, and the bad stuff isn't always 100% bad.

So back to the original question: What's Milton's point? Based on the poem, how do you think he answers these questions? How does he "justify the ways of God?"

Note: It's helpful to remind your students that we're not asking them to justify the ways of God to each other or to decide or discuss what they personally believe. You'll want to referee this pretty carefully or the conversation could devolve into a personal religious debate, and that's not what we're after—all religions are welcome in Shmoopville. Keep bringing students back to the text and to Milton's purpose and what the text reveals about his message. Students are determining if he's successful as a writer here, not whether or not his beliefs are correct.

Instructions for Your Students

So, Adam and Eve have screwed everything up; they're being evicted from Paradise pronto and things are looking pretty bleak. The archangel Michael is having a come-to-Jesus meeting (how ya like that pun?) with Adam to discuss all the horrific things the future has in store, now that he and Eve have gotten everyone kicked out of the garden. However, in the final moments of the poem, Michael also leads Adam to have hope by revealing future acts of righteousness and mercy—so it's not all bad, just mostly.

If you could have the opportunity to play "oracle" to an earlier generation, what awful things would you feel obliged to show them about our present life? More importantly, what hopeful events, actions, or customs could you reveal to give an earlier generation a reason to look forward to the future in spite of war and terrorism and West Nile virus? This project riffs off a major theme in Paradise Lost, in order to help you analyze Milton's purpose in writing the poem.

Step 1: First things first: We need to choose an historical starting point for the project. Since Michael is speaking to Adam after a catastrophic event, you might want to "travel back" to a time that was particularly difficult or demoralizing (The Great Depression would work well). When in history did the human race need both a reality check and a pick-me-up (besides, you know, today)?

Step 2: Now that we've agreed on a time period, you'll brainstorm two lists with your group:

  • The difficult things yet to come (tsunamis, earthquakes, reality TV).
  • The hopeful things that might make it worth the suffering (medicine, civil rights, iPhones).

The lists do not have to be equal in length, but each one should be convincing in its own category. You can use the Internet to get some ideas for each list.

Step 3: Let's hear what you came up with. Tell us, Oracle, is the future bleak or bright? Each group will share their lists with the class. Be prepared to answer questions about some of the choices your group made.

Step 4: Okay, that was neat, but what's the point? Well, Milton claimed his purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to justify the ways of God. It's sort of like this poem is Milton's answer to the question, if there is a God, why do so many terrible things happen in the world? And Michael's great speech at the end of the poem is basically a highlights reel of the rest of the Bible—the good stuff and the bad stuff.

So here's the question: Does Milton accomplish his stated purpose? How does this catalogue of all the good and bad to come demonstrate that there is a God whose ways are just? For example, does Michael's speech demonstrate that there's a purpose to all the bad stuff, or does he show how the good and bad are connected? Or is he showing that humans deserve all this bad stuff because we do bad things (like listen to Satan)?

To help us think about how good and bad might be related, take a look at some of your lists from more recent history. Are there any connections there you might point out? For example, building the nuclear bomb also led to the development of nuclear power and nuclear medicine. So to wish the bomb could be dis-invented would mean giving up significant advancements in medicine, especially our ability to treat cancer. That makes the whole "if God is good, why does bad stuff happen" question a little tricky, right? The good stuff isn't always 100% good for 100% of the world, and the bad stuff isn't always 100% bad.

So back to the original question: What's Milton's point? Based on the poem, how do you think he answers these questions? How does he "justify the ways of God?"

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING PARADISE LOST?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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