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Ralph Ellison
Overview Procedures for Teachers


Activity One

1. Read & discuss

Provide students with a copy of The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Have students read the book in several sections, and conduct classroom discussion after each section. Students could also be asked to keep a learning journal for the duration of the book & subsequent lesson.

Start the first discussion with the following quote from the novel:

"I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe;
nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me." (Ralph Ellison)

As you go through the novel, discuss each major character and how he or she interacts with the protagonist. How does the character see or not see the protagonist? How does the protagonist see himself in these situations? How does his "invisibility" affect this character? What are some of the strategies he uses to deal with it?

Upon completion of the novel, return to the quote about invisibility. Hold a discussion in which the students sum up the ways in which the main character is seen and not seen. They can refer to their learning journals to refresh their memories.

2. Essay project

Assign students to write an essay on the following topic. When and how in your life have you felt invisible? Encourage them to explore why they felt that way, and what strategies they used to handle the situation. (See Student Organizer 1.)

This could be a homework assignment, but it would be a good in-class writing exercise as well. Writing in-class for 30-45 minutes may help students bring up fresh ideas on the subject. Essays should be evaluated by the teacher, and possibly sent back to the student for revision, but they should not be shared with the class. Make sure students know the essays will be private up front, so they feel comfortable working in autobiographical space.

3. Group project

The final component of this lesson is a group project where students identify a group of people in their own community that might be seen as "invisible". Start by leading a discussion on how, in Ralph Ellison's novel, the personal experiences of a fictional character ripple outward, describing greater social conditions in a very vivid way. The students can discuss their own essays, sharing examples of how a personal feeling of invisibility can be part of a larger social structure.

Next, have them break up into groups of 3-4 students. Each group will select a group that they see as socially "invisible". Circulate among the groups to help them make an appropriate selection. Some examples might be: people who work at night, homeless people, stay-at-home mothers, children, the elderly, or a particular ethnic group that lives in the community.

Once the topic is selected, the project group will create a multimedia essay "revealing the invisible." This might be done as a posterboard project, incorporating photos, magazine cut-outs, short essays, poetry, quotes, and drawings. If you have the facilities, this would be a great Web project, with each group creating their own "Revealing the Invisible" Web page. See Student Organizer 2 for more information on the assignment.


Students will be assessed on the quality of their participation in class discussions and in the group activity, and as well as on the quality of the essay and the final group project. Students can also assess one another for the group activity. Points should be given for understanding of the more abstract aspects of this lesson, i.e. invisibility as an element of societal structure.

Extension Activities

  1. Connect this lesson plan to other American Masters lessons to develop the theme of "what makes an American Master."
  2. This could be part of a larger study of African-American literature.
  3. Students could write and perform a play on the subject of invisibility in their own community.
  4. This topic could be the foundation for a literary project, such as a themed collection of poetry and short fiction.
  5. This lesson could be extended to include taking action to address and assist one of the groups brought to light by the class. You could bring in community leaders to talk about the social actions being taken on behalf of that group, and to help students formulate an action plan of their own.

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