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Teaching Guide

Teaching A Tale of Two Cities

What the Dickens?


It the best of class, it was the worst of class. It was that time you taught A Tale of Two Cities without our teaching guide. Why the Dickens would you do that? It wasn't bad enough that the students called it "The Reign of Terror 2" (we hope), but it was close. We at Shmoop won't let that happen again.

In this guide you will find

  • related history on both the French and American Revolutions. 
  • reading quizzes that go quite a bit deeper than "This is a tale of how many cities?"
  • activities that break down the book into more digestible chunks…just like how Dickens wrote.

Once you have the teaching guide (which you don't even have to read in weekly installments), you can avoid the worst of times and stick to simply the best.

What's Inside Shmoop's Literature Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring literature to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 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.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Most of your students probably got their start in reading with picture books, and as you know, most of Dickens' novels were illustrated. Not like children's books, with elaborate pictures on every spread, or anything, but still—the pictures were important to readers then, and they're still important now. Which is why we're going to have a little fun with them. 

First, your students will scrutinize the plot of A Tale of Two Cities (and their understanding/memory of it) by placing the original illustrations for the novel in chronological order and providing brief annotations for each illustration. Then, they will reorder the pictures however they choose and write a new narrative to accompany this "re-plotted" pictorial outline. 

Length of Lesson: 2 days of class time (one for instruction, one for presentation, with a 3-5 days in between for students to complete their stories)

Materials Needed:
Hard copies of the set of original illustration panels, enough for each student to have their own complete set; if your students have the technology available, you could distribute these as digital files instead of prints

Step 1: As a warm-up exercise, ask students to pair up. Give each pair one set of illustrations, mixed-up—not in the order in which they appear in the novel. The challenge is for each pair to arrange their set of illustrations correctly according to the plot of  A Tale of Two Cities. Ask each pair to write a brief description (one or two sentences) of each scene under each illustration. This should take them 15-20 minutes.

Step 2: Lead the class in a discussion about the correct sequence for the book's plot, with a focus on how the illustrations encapsulate the gist of a scene and what elements move the book's plot along. (Another 15-20 minutes)

Step 3: Present the assignment: to rearrange the pictures in order to create a new (short) story and write the accompanying story. A lot of creative license can be given to the students to make their new stories work logically. Ultimately, they need only keep the same major character names so that everyone is working with the same palette, so to speak. 

Step 4: Once the stories are complete, ask each student to find a partner and exchange stories. Partners can read each other's stories and discuss them, using the following questions as prompts: 

  • Compare your stories—to one another and to Dickens' original story. How are they the same? How are they different? 
  • Did the pictures limit you in your retelling, or were the possibilities virtually endless? 
  • If you had to create three new illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities, what scenes would you choose to depict and why?
  • And finally, how does your classmate's story make you think about A Tale of Two Cities in a new way?

Alternately, if you want your students to get more writing practice, they could answer these questions—you guessed it—in writing.

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: 9th and 10th grade Reading 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.6, 3.7, 3.8, 3.9, 3.11; Writing 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, 2.1, 2.2; Written & Oral English Language Conventions 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5; Listening & Speaking 1.14. 11th and 12th grade Reading 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.7; Writing 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 2.1, 2.2; Written & Oral English Language Conventions 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Listening & Speaking 1.1, 1.3, 1.14.)

Instructions for Your Students

Remember in A Tale of Two Cities when Garfield gets mistaken for that super-rich cat who inherited a castle and—oh, wait. That's the plot of A Tale of Two Kitties, not A Tale of Two Cities. Oops. Our bad. 

Actually, it's not our bad. It's 20th Century Fox's bad. And Jennifer Love Hewitt's bad. And most of all, Bill Murray's bad. (We hope he made some major money on those movies.) But anyway ...

Now it's your turn to have a little fun with the plot of A Tale of Two Cities. No, we don't want you to make a bad movie that puns on the title of Dickens' classic. We have something a little clever-er-er in mind. 

Most of Dickens' novels, including were illustrated; A Tale of Two Cities is no exception. If you're lucky, the edition you read included the illustrations—all 16 of them, including the title page. If not, no worries. You can find them here. But what are you supposed to do with them, you ask? Use them to write a new story. How? Good question. Let's take the answer to that one step at a time. 

Step 1: Before you start working on your new story, take a moment to review the original tale. Your teacher will provide you with printed copies of the illustrations from A Tale of Two Cities in no particular order. Your job? Pair up with someone and put the pictures in the correct order, i.e., the order in which they would appear to tell Dickens' original tale. While you're at it, be sure to label each picture with a brief description (a sentence or two) of what's going on.

Step 2: See how well you did at reconstructing the plot of A Tale of Two Cities via its illustrations. Compare your pictorial plot with others in the class and determine the correct order. Then discuss the importance of the plot structure in class. For instance, you can think about how the plot's sequence builds suspense and helps to develop the characters throughout the novel. You may want to check out Shmoop's A Tale of Two Cities Plot Analysis.

Step 3: Next, set your creative demons loose! Get your own set of illustrations and reorder them however you see fit. How, for instance, might the story go if "After the Sentence" were the first picture and "The Shoemaker" were the last? The possibilities are endless. Well, not endless. If you do the math, you'll realize that 16 different illustrations could be arranged close to 21 trillion different ways. Seriously. (We did the math.) But don't throw your back out trying to come up with all of those possible combinations. You only need one. 

Step 4: Once you've re-ordered the  illustrations, create a new narrative to go with them. What happens in A Tale of Two Cities now, with this new pictorial outline? Write a short story, accompanied by the illustrations, and let's see how Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette fare in your version of the classic. 

Step 5: Before you hand in your re-plotted AToTC, exchange your completed story with a classmate. Read one another's stories and discuss the questions below:

  • Compare your stories—to one another and to Dickens' original story. How are they the same? How are they different? 
  • Did the pictures limit you in your retelling, or were the possibilities virtually endless? 
  • If you had to create three new illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities, what scenes would you choose to depict and why?
  • And finally, how does your classmate's story make you think about A Tale of Two Cities in a new way?

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