The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje

More Information About The English Patient

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Reading Activities

Reading Strategies

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  • Fragments of Identity

    One of the ways to make the book more enjoyable to the students is by showing them similar styles in other media. The English Patient is a narrative that is non-linear but where the main characters are examined in depth and detail. A recent, popular movie that depicts a similar style is The Bourn Ultimatum (only use the first two clips that show Jason Bourn for it to be effective). In addition to this common shared theme, in the beginning when the main character Jason is trying to find his own identity and make sense of random memories, a "scrap book" is shown. This idea parallels very well with the English Patient’s copy of Herodotus' histories in which he had annotated his own personal histories. (This copy of Herodotus' histories, or scrapbook, can also be a running idea throughout this unit, see below for more examples.) It is important to follow showing the clip with questions so that the students will be able to build a bridge from the movie to the book they are about to read. You can ask them how the disjointed, fast pace made them feel, and what they were able to extrapolate and put together in order to understand the bigger picture. These questions will open them up to the idea of joining non-linear narrative together to make sense of them. It is also important to show the students how they can relate it to themselves. In a class or small group discussion ask questions that will encourage the students to begin to analyze their own identity, such as: “How does your name (first, middle and/or last) provide you with an identity?” “What do those names connect you to?” “What music identifies the different social groups?” “Why do we associate this music with these social groups?” “What are things that identify the members of these groups – jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, teachers, bandos, snobs, emos, popular, scrubs?” “What does ‘Guilty by association’ mean?” This type of beginning can open the door to many ideas for further teaching. (Warning – The Bourn Ultimatum is rated PG-13. Check with your school’s policy with using clips from moves that are not G rated.)
  • National Center for PTSD
    Before reading the book it is imperative that the students understand at least the basics of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Many of the students have probably heard of this disorder because of the Iraqi conflict or they may have heard of it as "combat stress reaction," "battle fatigue," or "shell shock." This link above will direct the students to the informative National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder site. The site may be used in many manners; one way is by making a mini poster project. Divide the class into small groups and assign each a topic, such as: What is PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder)? Causes of PTSD? Symptoms of PTSD? What is dissociation? How/why do people re-experience symptoms? How do people with PTSD behave? What are possible treatments for those with PTSD? After assigning the topics, direct the students to use the site to find the answers and create a poster that states clearly the information that answers the question. Once the posters are done, have each small group prepare a short presentation to the class about what they have learned. By doing this, the students who are audio learners will hear the information, those who are kinesthetic learners will be hands on with the poster and writing, and those who are visual learners will have posters to look at. In addition to this, once the posters are made, they can be put up around the room and then referred to while reading the book. This will help the students to continually make the connection between the characters, their actions, and PTSD.
  • What makes me me?

    Lead a discussion about the over arching theme of identity. This will help the students begin to search for answers that are also asked by the book. A few ideas for starter questions are as follows. “What is identity?” “Who defines identity?” “Who defines what our identity is, us or the community?” “How is a personal identity different than that of a community?” “What is the origin of an identity?” “Is our identity based on negation (what we are not)?” “Does our identity change when we are around different people, or are those just actions?” “Do our actions define us or our values?” “What is masculine?” “What is feminine?” “What identifies a person more, their sex or gender?” “Who are you?” During the class discussion the students will likely come up with their own questions, too. Encourage this because it will allow them to connect more with these questions and encourage their search for the answers. Follow this discussion up with an introduction to the book, about how it is also a search for identity and different ways that a person's identity is defined.
  • You Tube -- The English Patient
    An easy way to make a clear and entertaining introduction for the book while providing a quick summary is through using the movie theater trailer for the 1996 film adaptation of The English Patient. This type of introduction will attract the attention of the students, as well as introduce many of the main themes such as identity, relationship, the desert, and war while planting the ideas of adventure, mystery and passion. This rendering of the book will also provide visual references to the vast expanses of the desert, the old abbey, war-torn European countryside, and ceilings covered in masterpieces allowing the students to imagine the setting of the book better as they read it. This can be an introduction into discussion or other front-loading projects. (Warning – though rated for general public viewing as a trailer, there are explicit images shown alluding to sexual relationships that do occur in the book. The movie is rated R and before use in the class room it is important to that you check on your school’s policy for use of films in the classroom.)
  • Roll the dice: Postmodern, what is that?

    Because this book is a form of postmodern literature, it is important to teach some of the basic ideas that are behind the creation of a postmodern piece. Some terms and explanations that will help the students to understand this style of writing are – the use of irony, playfulness, and black humor; pastiche; metafiction; historigraphic metafiction; temporal distortion; technoculture; hyperreality; paranoia; and maximalism. After providing the students with a handout with a definition and an example for each term that they can keep, play a game to ensure that they understand these terms.

Do before class: Make two cubes large enough to hold a note-card on each side (these cubes will act as dice) and set them aside. Take three note-cards and write on them "make up your own" and attach them to any random side of the cubes. Then take 9 note-cards and write down quotes that are examples of the terms above (try to have two to three quotes per card) and attach them to the cubes.

In class: Take one of the dice and let a student roll it. Read a quote from whichever side is face up and have the students select which term is appropriate. If one of the sides pops up that says "make up your own," have the student create a statement using one of the styles and have the class determine which style it is.

  • Topic Book
    Cronin, Gloria. "Topic Book." Feb. 2008.
    Because there are so many names, places or ideas that the students may not be familiar with, a simple and fun assignment can be a one-page response paper. Allow the students to select a on image, object, or idea that is in the book (i.e. morphine, sapper, Caravaggio, the cave of swimmers, St. Sebastian, etc.) Try not to have repeat topics. After the students select their topic, inform them that the one-page response will be broken down into three parts: 1) a simple explanation of what their topic is, 2) an explanation of how it is used in the book, and 3) analysis of what its use in the book may mean. In addition to the information, encourage the studentsm to include pictures as well. Allow one or two days for them to work on this project at home, and then have them bring it in with copies for each student. During this class period allow the students to pass around their pages and present a little of what they learned and how it ties to the book.
  • Herodotus Book

    Each student can be asked to make his/her own "Herodotus Book." Instruct your students to piece together phrases, pictures, and objects into a notebook during the following week that helps define their identity. In addition, include an in-class activity where the students keep a list in their English journal of the object and other things that the English Patent has collected to help identity him in his own Herodotus Book. At the end of the week have the students write a two- to three-page paper explaining how the objects, words or phrases placed in their book identify them. This will help them learn more about hidden meanings and how they can be used. The day that the books and papers are turned in, pass the books around to other students and have the students then write a one- to two-page paper in class analyzing the objects in the book their suspected meaning.
  • Dating Game

    To help the students with their characterization skills, divide them into four groups and assign each group one of the characters (Almasy, Hana, Kip, or Carvaggio). Explain that they are no longer in the classroom, but in the old abbey in Italy, and are to think and act as their character would in the book. Give each group a work sheet divided into three columns, one for each of the other character names. Direct them to consider what they may owe the other characters, what the other characters may owe them, how they know each other, what things do together, things they have in common, etc. After the groups have had time to do this, bring everyone back together and announce that you are going to have a dating game. Select one person from each group to represent each character in front of the class. Place Hana on one side and the three men on the other side; you will act as the host. Use the same questions you directed the students to consider, as well as any other good questions the students come up with during the group time, to use for the dating game. Direct the questions to the panel and carry the activity like the 1960’s Dating Game. Remind the students that they are to answer as their characters would. (If the student up front does not think he knows how to answer as the character, let his group help him.) After asking a few questions, have the student representing Hana explain why or why not she would choose each of the men.
  • Reading Response

    Another way to verify that the students are reading the book at home is by having them do a reading response book throughout the unit. Following some of their reading assignments, simply have them write a 200 to 300 word response regarding what they have read, what they liked, if they were able to relate to it, etc. Let the students know that you will not be grading these short/quick writes for structure and grammar, but on their ability to write down their ideas and show that they are actively reading the book. If the reading assignment involves important quotes, themes, or motifs that you desire the students to take note of, send a simple writing prompt home with them. Again, remind the students that will not be graded as a final paper, but that they need to ensure that they answer the prompt and support it with clear details and at least two quotes from the book. It is imperative that you have them turn these in at least two times before they finish the book to ensure that they are staying on task. Remember that though it is a more informal writing assignment, it is not to be an assignment of free points.
  • Character Map

    You may 1) divide the class into groups and assign each group a character, or 2) let the students select one character to focus on, or 3) encourage them to do the main characters (since there are only four main characters, it is not that hard) for their “Character Map.” Ask them to put the character’s name at the top of the page and divide the rest into three columns. Have them title one column "Physical Attributes," another "Emotional Attributes," and the last "Interaction with Others/Relationships." Remind them that for each attribute placed in a column, they need to include a quote and a page number so that they will be able to find it again when they use it later. To assist the students, model this for them a few times in class for each of the characters.
  • Character Analysis Paper

    If selected, at the beginning of the unit inform the students so that as they go through the book they can be aware of the character, their development, and begin to select quotes that may help them in their paper. After the book is read, allow them to choose which character they wish to write on, and organize them into character groups. Give each group a handout with the questions below and any others you or your students think would be pertinent. Encourage them to answer these questions as a brainstorming exercise to gather ideas they may want to include in their papers. It is also okay to give the students some ideas of how to organize their paper (i.e. around three central traits or major characteristics, around the character's growth, or allow them to create their own and pass it by you before they begin to write. Following the brainstorming activity, allow the writing process to proceed as normal, quick write/free write, rough draft, sample paragraphs to teach from, edit and revise, and finalize.

Questions for Character Analysis: Who is your selected character? Why did you pick this character? What do you like and/or dislike about this character? Why? Do you identify with this character? Why? How? Do you know someone similar to him or her? Explain. How is the character revealed at the beginning of the novel? How is he or she described in the book? What do these quotes show about the character? Does the character change throughout the novel? If so, how? Why? What are two examples that illustrate how and why the character changes? Are the changes for the better or worse? Is your character the protagonist or the antagonist? Is your character named after a real person? If so, is there any relation between them? How does your character express symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder? Provide examples with quotes. If your character was an animal, what would he or she be and why? Did you character come to terms with his/her own identity? How? Predict what your character will be doing five years after the story has ended.

  • Critical Analysis Paper

    This may be the more traditional English class paper, but there are a few things that are important for this assignment. To help the students develop their thesis statement, ask them the following questions: “What is the book/message about as a whole?” “What is the author/speaker saying in detail, and how is it said?” “Is the book/message true, in whole or in part?” “What is the significance of the book/message?” After they have answered the questions, encourage them to develop a "universal statement." (To better understand what that is, go to the link WHAT LINK, JOSHUA11111 above and select "Better Thesis Statement" presentation. This site can be read using Firefox, but if using Internet Explorer, you may access it as a Power Point presentation.) After they have developed their thesis, have them begin asking questions that need to be answered in order to accomplish the goal of the thesis. These questions can range from defining important words that need to be understood by the audience to relationships between topics, and anything else that would, if answered, make their paper stronger. After they have a list of good questions, use one student’s list as an example. Using those questions as an example, show the students how to develop a sound logic chain that in the end results in a greater insight as you write it out in a basic outline format. Remind them that in a critical paper they want to include a brief description, followed with interpretation, sound criticism, and clear insights. Stress the importance of the "therefore …" and the "so …" Remind them to look for faulty logic in the book that they can either expound on or defend, also well as to look for it in their own paper so that they can defend their logic.

Sidenote 1: For many students, this idea of asking questions from a prompt or thesis statement may be difficult, and organizing the answers to those questions to formulate a paper even more difficult. If this is the case, there are a few things that can be done. One option is to demonstrate with a thesis that you wrote, how you develop your questions, how answering them allows you to develop a paper, and what the larger insight is that will be included in your conclusion. Another option is have class discussion to develop questions and to direct them to topics they may want to write on. Yet, another option can be to create small discussion groups where they can talk about the topics they are writing on, and see what other insights the other students in their small groups may have on their topic.

Sidenote 2: Writing a universal thesis statement is difficult and very different from the simple three prong thesis statement that many teachers teach. It requires a higher level of thinking and for some students this, too, will be very difficult. It will take time to teach and develop this ability.

  • Day at the Museum

    Divide the class into small groups, and assign each group a theme from the novel. (Some possible themes are: healing vs. denial, passion vs. frigidity, drive towards life vs. drive towards death, loneliness vs. connection, love's ability to transcend time and place, and nationality and identity.) Each group will focus on their theme for the four parts of this project – a short 3-4 page thematic paper, the museum exhibit, group presentation, and a museum review.

The short thematic paper: Instruct them to state their theme in a form of a thesis statement. Encourage them to develop their essay by making specific references to the literature without lapsing into summary. Refer them to literary elements (i.e. plot development, suspense, rising action, climax, character, relationships, setting, irony, symbolism, tone, point of view, foreshadowing, allusions, motif, and imagery) that they can use as their supporting details. Remind them that they are to write about the insights that each of these gives about their theme, and then the great insight about life in their conclusion. Have them write it as a traditional paper including free write/brain storm, outline, first draft, revisions, and then the final. (Because this is a great deal of writing, have the first draft reviewed in peer editing, and for the second have a brief conference with each student.)

Museum Exhibit: For this portion of the unit, the students will need to select one of the literary elements that they selected to use in their paper and make a visual representation of it. Let them know that this can be displayed in any form of media (visual, audio, flat, three-dimensional, etc.). Along with their display, they need to include a three by five card stating the title of their exhibit, a brief explanation, and two to three reasons that it relates to the theme. (Remind them that this provides basic information about the object on view. The objective is to offer the information in the simplest, least distracting manner possible.)

Group Presentation: This will occur on the day in the museum, where each group will present all the exhibits connected to their themes. Let them know that this is not the time to read the three by five cards, though they may share some of the same information, but this is a time to discuss the theme as a whole and show how each exhibit is interconnected. Keep these short presentations, no more than 10 to 15 minutes. In addition to the presentation, have the groups create a pamphlet that they can hand the students that explains their group's exhibit. Encourage them to include pictures and short blurbs.

Museum Review: Encourage the students, after the group presentations, to go through again on their own and look at everything that was brought in. Have them identify their two favorite exhibits and explain why they liked them, and how believe that they relate to the book. Also, to cap it off, ask them to write a paragraph about their experience in the museum.

Note to Teacher: If you are going to have the class bring all of their "Museum Exhibits" on the same day, arrange the desks accordingly. If for space or time that would not be appropriate, you can have one or two groups present at a time and let them set the class up in a way that they feel it would be most conducive to their display.

  • Helping Spotlight

    Just as Hana provides continual care to the English Patient and relays his story at times through her own eyes, the students will have a similar, yet not as extreme, experience. Coordinate with a local retirement facility or elderly care provider so that each student, or a pair of students, can be assigned to visit the same resident five times over a two week period. Explain that each visit will range from one hour to two hours, and that the students are there to talk and interact with the residents. Inform the students that they are guests at the community centers, and that they need to act appropriately. Remind them that they may be the only guest that will visit these residents. Encourage them to ask the residents about the time that they grew up in, what they did, things they enjoyed, funny or scary experiences that they had. Encourage them to record these stories as they hear them to aid them in the short two page narrative that they will write after following the two-week period.

After the students have completed the writing process and compiled their final narrative about the elderly resident’s life, coordinate with the retirement home or a local newspaper to use their papers as a “spotlight” on local residents.

  • Graphic Poster
    Ruel, Jenny, and Williamson, Joshua. "Graphic Poster." 18 Sept. 2008.
    Pair off the students, and assign each group one of the ten books found in The English Patient. (If there are more than ten groups in a class, it is okay to have two or more groups assigned to the same book.) Provide each group with the handout explaining the project.


Your graphic poster has to have: • A picture in the middle which is a symbol from part of the book assigned from The English Patient. It can be an important object mentioned that ties to the main idea of the book. • At least three colors used to color the object. Each color has to represent a significant detail in the chapter, and you must write why you chose that color on the back of the poster. • Six to eight important quotes, placed around the edge of the poster. The quote can be any section that you think is significant, important, or tells something revealing about one of the characters. The quotes must contribute to the main idea of the chapter. For each quote, explain what it means and why you picked in a short paragraph on a separate page. • A "title" for the book. Determine the main idea of the book and make that the new title. Put your names at the top of the page.