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Teaching Guide

Teaching Things Fall Apart

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The best literature shows us a world radically different from our own, and the best teachers make us realize how similar it actually is. Shmoop has what you need to bring these two worlds together.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity connecting Things Fall Apart to poetry and music.
  • essay questions exploring gender, religion, and metaphor in the book.
  • resources about Chinua Achebe, from biographies to interviews to magazine articles.

With our teaching guide, your classroom discussion won't fall apart.

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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.
  • 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.

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Instructions for You

Objective: While it's not always easy to figure out if art is imitating life or life is imitating art, one thing is for sure: art imitates art. Over and over again. 

One example? Chinua Achebe borrowed a line from William Butler Yeats's poem The Second Coming for the title of his book, Things Fall Apart. And then The Roots, an American hip-hop group, borrowed Achebe's title for their 1999 Grammy-winning album. If you look closely at these three works of art—Yeats' poem, Achebe's novel, and The Roots' album—you'll see that they have more in common than a borrowed phrase. And that's what your students are going to do. 

They'll consider how artists from distant times and places influence one another, and then they'll use this knowledge to produce their own art (a song, dramatic performance, poem, painting, etc.) inspired by Things Fall Apart

Length of Lesson: 2-3 class periods (one or two classes to explore and discuss the Yeats poem and The Roots album, and one class period for students to present their original art) 

Materials Needed: 

Step 1: First things first. Point out the epigraph (an excerpt from Yeats's poem) that appears in most editions of Things Fall Apart, and ask your students what they think of it. Why do authors include epigraphs, anyway? What's the point? 

Step 2: Now that their brains are warmed up, give your students copies of Yeats's poem.  Give them a moment or two to read it and then go ahead and discuss it. Feel free to use Shmoop's Study Questions for The Second Coming to get things going, and be sure to wrap up with a discussion of why Achebe may have chosen to take his title from this poem. 

Step 3: Achebe borrowed from Yeats. Now show your students how The Roots borrowed from Achebe. Explain that the American hip-hop band The Roots named one of their albums Things Fall Apart, and have your students read this article about the album and the 5 different covers that were available for a limited time when it was first released. When students are done reading, ask them to share their thoughts on the article and what they now know of the album. Here are a few questions you might ask:

  1. Why did the band and their art director decide to release 5 different album covers for Things Fall Apart?
  2. What scenes are depicted on the covers, and what do they seem to convey? Is there a common theme among the covers?
  3. How is this album related to Achebe's novel? Are there common themes between the novel and the album (based on what you know from viewing the cover art)? 

Step 4 [Optional]: Take five minutes to play a track from The Roots’ Grammy-winning 1999 album. As mentioned above, we recommend "100% Dundee," which mentions Achebe directly and includes the line "MC's unraveling," which is sort of a hip-hop take on Yeats's line "the centre cannot hold." You could also play "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)," which is the last track on the album. It's only 0:53 seconds, and features a conversation sampled from Spike Lee's film, Mo' Betta Blues. Man! Talk about art imitating art imitating art! 

After playing a track (or two), talk with your students again about the apparent theme of the album and its connection to Achebe's novel (and Yeats's poem).

NOTE: Both of these tracks contain profanity. You might want to read the lyrics first to make sure they'll fly in your classroom, and if they won't, skip straight to Step 5.

Step 5: You can suggest that the chain Yeats→Achebe→The Roots is a great example of the process of artistic influence in which artists borrow material from a predecessor and transform it in the creation of their own work. 

Then you can let your students know that they will now be adding to this chain (although it will be more of a web once they all create their own pieces of art based on Achebe's work). Here's the assignment:

Working alone or in a small group, create your own original art inspired by Achebe's novel: write a poem, write a song, write a dramatic scene; create a painting or a sketch; produce a photograph, or a series of photographs—all forms of art are welcome. The only requirement is that it must be inspired or influenced by the novel Things Fall Apart.

When you've completed your artwork, compose a short essay analyzing your original work and discussing how it draws its themes from the novel, as well as how it transforms the material that inspired it.

Step 6: When students have finished both their artwork and their analyses, give them time to present their artwork to the class and explain, briefly, how it is related to the novel. 

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: 9th & 10th grade Reading Standards 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 3.2, 3.5, 3.12; Writing 1.2, 1.6, 2.2; Listening & Speaking 1.1, 2.4; 11th & 12th grade Reading Standards 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.7 ; Writing 1.1, 1.2, 1.4, 1.5, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3; Listening & Speaking 2.3, 2.5.)

Instructions for Your Students

While it's not always easy to figure out if art is imitating life or life is imitating art, one thing is for sure: art imitates art. 

Ask any painters, songwriters, photographers, writers, or other artists about their influences and they're sure to name ... 12 other painters, songwriters, photographers, writers, or—you get the idea. 

Artists are always borrowing material from one another and using it to inspire original work of their own. Chinua Achebe, for example, borrowed the phrase “things fall apart” from a line in the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s famous poem, The Second Coming. And then, American hip-hop artists The Roots borrowed Achebe's title for the their 1999 Grammy-winning album. See how that works? 

You'll see it even more clearly after you create your own piece of art inspired by Achebe’s novel.

Step 1: First things first. In class, take a look at (and discuss) the epigraph that appears in most editions of Things Fall Apart. What do you make of it? Why do authors include epigraphs, anyway? What's the point? 

Step 2: Now that your brain is warmed up, it's time to take a look at the poem that the epigraph comes from, The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. Read and discuss the poem in class. Having trouble getting the meaning? Check out Shmoop's Analysis. And when you have a better handle on the poem, venture a guess as to why Achebe may have chosen to take his title from this poem. 

Step 3: Okay, so Achebe borrowed from Yeats. Now let's take a look at someone who borrowed from Achebe. The American hip-hop band The Roots named their 1999 album Things Fall Apart. Why? That's what you're going to try to figure out. 

Take a look at this article about the album which focuses on the 5 different covers that were available for a limited time when it was first released. 

Go ahead and read the article, including the art director's thoughts on the different covers, and then talk it all over with your class. Here are a few questions you might want to address:

  1. Why did the band and their art director decide to release 5 different album covers for Things Fall Apart?
  2. What scenes are depicted on the covers, and what do they seem to convey? Is there a common theme among the covers?
  3. How is this album related to Achebe's novel? Are there common themes between the novel and the album (based on what you know from viewing the cover art)? 

Step 4 [Optional]: Looking at the album covers gives you a pretty good idea of what this album is about, but if you can't judge a book by its cover, you shouldn't judge an album that way either, right? 

Take five minutes to listen to a track from The Roots’ Grammy-winning 1999 album in class. We're recommending "100% Dundee," which mentions Achebe directly, or "Act Won (Things Fall Apart)," which is the last track on the album. 

After listening to a track (or two), talk with your classmates again about the apparent theme of the album and any connections it seems to have to Achebe's novel (and Yeats's poem). 

Step 5: All right, so Achebe borrowed from Yeats, and The Roots borrowed from Achebe. And now you're going to borrow from Achebe, to. Here's your assignment (there are two steps, so read carefully):

Working alone or in a small group, create your own original art inspired by Achebe's novel: write a poem, write a song, write a dramatic scene; create a painting or a sketch; produce a photograph, or a series of photographs—all forms of art are welcome. The only requirement is that it must be inspired or influenced by the novel Things Fall Apart.

When you've completed your artwork, compose a short essay analyzing your original work and discussing how it draws its themes from the novel, as well as how it transforms the material that inspired it.

Step 6: Time to show your classmates what you created and see what they came up with. When it's your turn, present your artwork to your class and explain, briefly, how it is related to the novel. 

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Common Core Standards  

The following standards are covered in this course:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.5
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.6
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.5

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