It’s a Wonderful Life Lesson Plans: Activities Related to Film and Stage Musical

Jerz > TheaterMusical Theater Education Packets

Based on Philip van Doren Stern’s story “The Greatest Gift” (1943), Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life celebrates the life of George Bailey, a good-hearted man who once dreamed of getting a college degree, travelling the world, and building big things (bridges, skyscrapers, airfields!) in the big world, but whose compassion and commitments to family, friends, and neighbors keep him in the small town of Bedford Falls. On the night when George feels most desperate and worthless, his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody intervenes and shows George an “alternate timeline” in which he never existed—leading George to a new appreciation of his town, his people, and himself. The story has been retold since in multiple radio plays, a gender-reversed TV-movie remake It Happened One Christmas (in which Clara Odbody helps one Mary Bailey, who wed George Hatch), and finally, in Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo’s popular stage musical It’s a Wonderful Life (1991).

  1. English/Literature
  2. English/Writing
  3. Math
  4. Social Studies/ Geography
  5. Social Studies/ History
  6. Social Studies/Economics
  7. Science/ Health
  8. Art/Architecture
  9. Music
  10. Catholic Connection

1) ENGLISH/ LITERATURE Activities:

1.1) Hold a Winter or Christmas-themed Spelling Bee for your students/children (with an elementary list & a secondary list, for a mixed age group) — in honor of Pete Bailey, who famously asks how to spell “frankincense” and “hallelujah.” Other suggestions: tintinnabulation; euphony; carillon; belfry; crystalline; nativity; myrrh; magi; (arch)angel; cherubim; seraphim; guardian; dominions; adoration; annunciation; mediatrix; melodious; multitude; merriment; jubilation; radiance; hallowed; majesty; divinity; sovereign; savior; swaddling; shepherd; virgin; immaculate; prophecy; vacancy; pregnant, cradle; manger; prayer; yuletide; glory; choir; hymn; sublime; census; crèche; figurine; Bethlehem; Emmanuel; Christmas; caroling; reindeer; sleigh; velocity; trajectory; (chimney) flue; fruitcake; cocoa; eggnog; wassail; recipe; mistletoe; wreath; tinsel; ornaments; icicle; snowflake; blizzard; avalanche; constellation; sphere; celestial; eternity; illumination; animatronic; automaton; commercialization; coniferous; migration; hibernation; equinox; hypothermia; cryogenic; thermometer/ thermostat.

1.2) George offers to lasso the moon for Mary. This sounds like a “Tall Tale,” so reread the tales of your favorite larger-than-life characters, such as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, or John Henry. (Perhaps reread “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” since it’s a story about saving a man’s soul—albeit by a skilled New England lawyer rather than a somewhat-inept minor angel.)

1.3) “No man is a failure who has friends.” Recalling Clarence’s famous remark in the film, review (or try to learn) other Famous Sayings or Proverbs.   Consider such sources as:

  • the morals of Aesop’s Fables (or their French retellings by La Fontaine)
  • the Biblical Book of Proverbs
  • Benjamin Franklin and/or Poor Richard’s Almanac
  • other “witty” individuals, like writers William Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde
  • marketing slogans: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
  • the Core Knowledge Series of seven books by E.D. Hirsch Jr., What Your Kindergartner Needs To Know through What Your Sixth-Grader Needs To Know (for each book includes proverbs/popular sayings which experts agree should be part of the common knowledge of all American children)

“Tempus Fugit” says Matthew to Clarence in the musical. What does this mean?   How many other famous Latin Phrases can you list and translate?  Begin with the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi,” and the USA’s “E Pluribus Unum.” Frank Capra’s film begins “in media res;” does the rousing ending illustrate “carpe diem”?

1.4) “Aw, you look like the kinda angel I’d get.”
Consider the character of Clarence Odbody, and discuss why he might be selected as the guardian angel for George Bailey. What makes these two a match? Are they alike in some fundamental ways? Or do they have differences, which will cause George to react in ways beneficial to the story or the mission? (Is it significant that Clarence was a clockmaker? That he carries around a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; why/ how is that relevant? How would you describe Clarence’s personality—sweet, naïve, bumbling, sort of a failure, or clever & creative in his way, a late bloomer?)

1.5) Trace the Allusions in the script:

  • How does the “David and Goliath” reference suit the late Peter Bailey’s Building & Loan project in Bedford Falls?
  • Why does George refer to Mary Howitt’s poem “The Spider and the Fly” in the scene in Potter’s office, where he considers/ almost agrees to work for Potter?
  • Why is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer carried by Clarence and passed on to George Bailey? How is it relevant to the story or characters?
  • In the musical, George is described as Atlas carrying Bailey Park on his shoulders. What does this mean?

1.6) Read Philip van Doren Stern’s original story “The Greatest Gift,” and discuss which elements were kept and which changed as it was adapted for film and stage? What is gained or lost by the changes or additions made? Overall, would you say the film and musical turned out better, worse, or as good as the original story?

1.7) Ryhyme

Every time a bell rings
An angel gets his wings.

Since these famous words form a rhymed couplet (two lines whose ending words rhyme), use them as a springboard to introduce or review the Elements of Poetry—especially Rhyme Scheme (using letters of the alphabet to mark the pattern of rhyming end words in a poem). Help your students/children mark the Rhyme Scheme of specific poems using this system: The end word of the first line is labeled ‘A.’ If the end word of the second line rhymes with the first, it is also labeled ‘A;’ if not, it becomes ‘B.’ If the end word of the third line rhymes with the first end word, it’s labeled ‘A;’ if it rhymes with the second end word, it’s another ‘B;’ and if neither, it becomes ‘C’ … and so on.

Ex. Roses are red, –A
Violets are blue, –B
Sugar is sweet, –C
and so are you. –B Rhyme Scheme: ABCB

Ex. “She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes …”
Rhyme Scheme: ABAB (see Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” for more)

Certain kinds of poems have a predictable rhyme scheme. Limericks are generally humorous 5-line poems (2-long, 2-short, & 1-long line) with the rhyme scheme AABBA. (ex. A Lolligag of Limericks, ed. Myra Cohn Livingston; N.M. Bodecker, A Person From Britain Whose Head of the Shape of the Mitten and other LimericksSonnets are 14-line meditations on a generally serious/mature topic or idea, in one of two forms: The Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet uses a group of 8 lines (octet), then a group of 6 lines (sestet), to convey its meaning; the rhyme scheme is often ABABCDCD EFGEFG, though it can vary. The English or Shakespearean Sonnet uses three 4-line stanzas, then ends with a rhymed couplet, so a typical rhyme scheme would be ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  Of course, poems made entirely of Rhymed Couplets will be very easy for children to mark. (Ex. Robert Louis Stevenson “Whole Duty of Children;” Joyce Kilmer “Trees;” Richard Armour “Rain;” Theodore Rothke “The Bat;” Doris Frankel “Song of the Truck;” T.S. Eliot “Macavity, the Mystery Cat”)
Sometimes two end words do not rhyme exactly, but are very close—like ‘pain’ and ‘again’ (a-gen, a-gain)—and it’s clear the poet meant them to be a match. This is called slant rhyme, and both words get labeled with the same alphabet letter in the poem’s rhyme scheme.
Free Verse does not rhyme at all; it doesn’t even keep the same length of lines, or same number of beats per line. (Ex. Walt Whitman “I Hear America Singing,” Carl Sandburg “Fog,” and Elias Lieberman “I am an American.”)

Some other elements of Poetry to review (Laura Bercquist’s anthology The Harp and the Laurel Wreath includes valuable explanations of these & other elements):

  • Alliteration (repetition of the same beginning sound in two or more words)
  • Consonance (repetition of a consonant sound in the beginning, middle, or end of words)
  • Assonance (repetition of a vowel sound in the beginning, middle, and end of words)
  • Onomatopoeia (a word that is an expression of a sound—basically the sound itself spelled into a word; ex. hiss, buzz, pop, aargh)
  • Simile (a comparison between two things which uses the words ‘like’ or ‘as’; ex. ‘My luv is like a red, red rose…’)
  • Metaphor (a comparison between two things which does not include the words ‘like’ or ‘as;’ ex. ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’)
  • Personification (a figure of speech attributing human characteristics or feeling to non-human things)
  • Symbolism (a figure of speech in which one object represents, and calls to mind, another object/person; for example, a hammer might represent a workman, or a poem might speak of ‘the lamb’ instead of naming Jesus Christ specifically.)
  • Imagery (language that conveys what the five senses perceive, ideally to produce a fuller picture in the reader’s mind)
  • Poets often have a favorite source, or field of knowledge, from which they frequently draw imagery, symbols, comparisons, such as nature, or technology/machinery, or religion, or fishing/sailing, or childhood, or sports.
  • Rhythm (basically the regular repetition of stressed and unstressed beats in each line of poem. Four different patterns are iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic.  Older students could also determine the Meter, named by the number of feet  in the line, such as -4-tetrameter or -5- pentameter; a ‘foot’ would be a group of two or three syllables including one stressed syllable– in basically one of the four rhythmic patterns listed above.)

1.8) Use your poetic knowledge from 1.7 above, to study poems offering various viewpoints on these topics, drawn from It’s a Wonderful Life:

  • Bells (Edgar Allen Poe “The Bells;” Alfred Tennyson ‘Christmas and New Year Bells’/”Ring Out, Wild Bells;” Eleanor Farjeon “School-Bell;” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Christmas Bells;” e.e. cummings “anyone lived in a pretty how town”)
  • Angels (Katharine Tynan “Michael the Archangel;” John Henry Newman “Guardian Angel;”  Hilaire Belloc “The Birds;” Edgar Allen Poe “Annabel Lee;” William Blake “The Chimney-Sweeper;” Michael Williams “Michael the Archangel;” W.H. Auden “Chorus of Angels;” plus angel & nativity in Madeleine L’Engle “O Simplicitas,” Three Songs of Mary)
  • Winter (Robert Frost “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “A Patch of Old Snow,” “A Winter Eden,” & “Dust of Snow;” Frank Asch “Sunflakes;” Francis Thompson “To A Snowflake;” Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Snowstorm;” Robert Louis Stevenson “Winter-Time;” Elizabeth Coatsworth “Cat on a Night of Snow;” Jeanne McGahey “Oregon Winter;” from “Snowbound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, in Winter Poems, ed. Barbara Rogasky)
  • Christmas (Clement Clark Moore “A Visit from St. Nicholas;” Walter de la Mare “Santa Claus;” Richard Eberhart “Santa Claus in Oaxaca;” Howard Nemerov “Santa Claus;” Philip Booth “Uncle Christmas;” Phillips Brooks “Christmas Everywhere;” Christina Rossetti “A Christmas Carol;” Eugene Field “Jest ‘Fore Christmas;” GK Chesterton “A Christmas Carol;” Sir John Betjeman “Christmas;” R.S. Thomas “Hill Christmas;” Langston Hughes “Christmas Eve;” T.S. Eliot “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees;” e.e. cummings “little tree;” Peter Cornelius “The Christmas Tree;” Eleanor Farjeon “In the Week when Christmas Comes” & “Holly and Mistletoe;” Countee Cullen “Under the Mistletoe;” Leslie Norris “The Stable Cat;” Norma Farber “Spider;” Edwin Morgan “The Computer’s First Christmas Card;” Gerald William Barrax “Christmas 1959 Et Cetera;” Frank Horne “Kid Stuff;” Carl Sandburg “Star Silver;” Vachel Lindsay “Star of My Heart;” William Carlos Williams “The Gift;” anthologies: American Christmas (1967), eds. Webster Schott & Robert J. Myers; Poems of Christmas (1980) & Christmas Poems (1984), ed. Myra Cohn Livingston)
  • Flowers (William Wordsworth “Daffodils;” Hilda Conkling “Dandelion;” Helen Gray Cone “The Dandelions;” Jane Taylor “The Violet;” Sydney Dobell “The Procession of the Flowers;” Edmund Waller “Go, Lovely Rose;” Ralph Waldo Emerson “The Rhodora”)
  • House(s) (Padraic Colum “An Old Woman of the Roads;” James S. Tippet “Old Log House;” Edgar A. Guest “Home;” Robert Frost “The Census-Taker;” Robert Penn Warren, “The Little White House;” Aileen Fisher “Best Little House”– picture book)
  • WWII, or Military Service (Joyce Kilmer “Prayer of a Soldier in France;” Cecil Roberts “Prayer for a Pilot;” John Gillespie Magee Jr.“High Flight;” T.S. Eliot “Defense of the Islands” & “A Note on War Poetry”)
  • Irish Immigration/Heritage (James B. Dollard “Song of the Little Villages”; legacy of past greatness: Eleanor Rogers Cox “Dreaming of Cities Dead,” “Death of Cuchulain,” & “Gods and Heroes of the Gael;” Edmund Leamy Sr. “Ireland;” Shane Leslie “Ireland, Mother of Priests”)
  • Italian Immigration/Heritage (Thomas Augustine Daly “Leetla Giorgio Washeenton;” Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus”)
  • Suicide (Edwin Arlington Robinson “Richard Cory;” GK Chesterton “Ballade of Suicide;” Hamlet’s “To Be, or Not To Be” soliloquy)
  • Dead/ Non-existent People talking to the Living (everyone in Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology; John McCrae “In Flanders’ Fields;” Christina Rossetti “After Death” & “Sleeping at Last”)

1.9) During the time George has never been born, he finds his familiar hometown transformed into the nightmare world of Pottersville– a kind of dystopian vision.  The restored Bedford Falls appears as a kind of Utopia, or perfect/ desirable place– a loving Bailey family at its core, surrounded by a network of friendly neighbors quick to offer help and support, and financial security restored, and a renewed sense of purpose/ value in George’s work.

Read & discuss other examples of Utopias & Dystopias in literature (What makes them desirable or undesirable places to live?): Plato’s Republic; Thomas More’s Utopia; Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” & “Rappacini’s Daughter;” William Morris’ News From Nowhere; Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; George Orwell’s 1984; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Gathering Blue, & Messenger; Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Among the Hidden series, as well as Running Out of Time (compare to M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Village); Jeanne du Prau’s City of Ember; Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, & Mockingjay;  stories of King Arthur’s Camelot; and some interpret Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford as female utopias.

A Utopia could also be a travel account of an unspoiled native or natural place (perhaps Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods), or a recollection of a childhood place (like a secret garden… a perfect summer… perhaps like Garnet’s Thimble Summer, or the fictional Green Knowe by L.M. Boston).  It could be a Commune or Experimental Community, whether political, social or religious– America’s early Puritan colonies; Brook Farm (in which Nathaniel Hawthorne spent some unhappy time); a monastery or convent of a religious order (“The Rule of St. Benedict;” As Great A Right to be Merry; DVD Into Great Silence, etc.); or 1960s/1970s hippie communes.  It could be a Planned City or an Ideal/Planned Community, such as the plans for Washington, D.C.; one time “worker’s paradise” Vandergrift, PA (see Anne Mosher’s Capital’s Utopia); New Deal homestead community Norvelt, PA, providing a fresh start to displaced mineworkers (locally chronicled by Sondra Wolk Shimizzi); or the Seaside community that provided the setting for The Truman Show movie.  Dystopias could also include prison literature, failed experiments (see Marx’s “Communist Manifest” and the culture it spawned in Soltzenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich & The Gulag Archipelago); or deliberate “Anti-” literature, writing fictional places/situations to criticize an idea or group (such as anti-technology films like The Net, or anti-genetic experimentation/discrimination films like Gattaca or V for Vendetta; or deliberately anti-Catholic literature like The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk or Lewis’ The Monk).

2) ENGLISH/ WRITING Activities:

2.1) George Bailey never realized the impact his life had on the lives around him. Write a description of (or tribute to) a person who has made a positive difference in your life.
Or, recalling the disasters and eventual triumph of George’s Christmas Eve, describe a turning point in your life, a day full of unexpected developments, or an event that could have had a very different outcome—and reflect on how that has changed you.

2.2) George Bailey’s work helps many citizens to realize their dream of home ownership. Research and write report on someone who made a significant difference by helping with a social problem (such as a saint, inventor, social activist, writer, politician).
Or, conduct an interview with someone you feel is bettering our community today.

2.3) Like Pete Bailey, try your hand at writing a Christmas Play for your class/family to perform. It could be a Nativity story, or the story of a Miracle that takes place on Christmas Eve (like It’s a Wonderful Life, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Rumer Godden’s Holly and Ivy, Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey, Ethel Pochoki’s A Penny for a Hundred [an American child's gift to a German POW]; or even Miracle on 34th Street).

2.4) The Bedford Falls Sentinel proudly announces that local boy, Harry Bailey, is returning home with a Congressional Medal of Honor—and it’s in that newspaper issue that Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000!
Learn more about the events and/or heroes important to your community during WWII. Visit your local library or historical society to view newspapers dated between 1941 and 1946. Do you find many articles about local homecomings? national/international events? Or purely local happenings?
Generate a family or classroom newspaper, focused on your own events and interests, and try to include News, Features, Arts/ Reviews, Food, Sports, and possibly Ads and Announcements (Births, Engagements/Weddings, Obituaries).

2.5) For older students:  View another film or stage-play involving EITHER  Angels, or Time-Distortion/ Time Travel/ Alternate Timelines, then write an essay to compare/contrast, and reflect upon  how & why, Angels or Time are handled in It’s A Wonderful Life and the other film/play.

For Angels, consider The Nativity Story (2006/7, Keisha Castle-Hughes); Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1988) and Faraway, So Close! (1993); Heaven Only Knows (1947 angel-western); Angels in the Outfield (1951, when they help the Pittsburgh Pirates) or the Disney remake (1994, no Pirates); or action flicks Constantine (Keanu Reeves) or Legion (Paul Bettany).  Though it lacks angels, the original Heaven Can Wait (1943) focuses on a man reviewing the merits of his earthly life from the afterlife.

For Timeplay, consider Washington Irving’s story “Rip van Winkle” or Ray Bradbury’s story “The Fox and The Forest;” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (book, multiple films); Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (play or film); Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound (play or film, re: suicide); The Portrait of Jenny (Joseph Cotten; Jennifer Jones); Groundhog Day (Bill Murray); Frequency (Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel); The Lake House (Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bulllock); Sliding Doors (Gwenyth Paltrow); possibly Back to the Future or The Terminator movies; Stargate: Continuum or other sci fi (like Original Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” & “The City on the Edge of Forever” episodes); and possible musicals A Christmas Carol or Scrooge; Carousel; or Brigadoon.

3) MATH Activities:

3.1) If Zuzu holds a flower with 12 petals on it, while George Bailey hides 3 petals in his pocket, how many petals did Zuzu’s flower have to begin with?
Express as a fraction the amount of petals Zuzu’s flower has lost.
What percentage of petals has Zuzu’s flower lost?

If Zuzu’s flower began with 24 petals, and still lost 3, how many petals would it have now?
What fraction of petals still remains?
What percentage of petals still remains?

3.2) If the year is 1946, and Clarence is 293 years old, in what year was Clarence born?
If George Bailey was 12 years old in 1919, how old is George when he meets Clarence in 1946?

3.3) George Bailey desperately needs $8,000. If Mary collects $2,350 around Bedford Falls, and Sam Wainright advances George $25,000 more, by how much does the generosity of George’s friends and neighbors exceed his debt?

3.4) According to Mr. Potter, George Bailey earns $45 per week, and saves perhaps $10 per week. How much money, then, does George earn in a year? What are the Baileys’ expenses for one year? And how much does George save in a year? What percentage of his income does George save each week?
Mr. Potter offers to pay George $20,000 per year to be his employee. How much more would George earn in one year if he worked for Potter? Assuming the same expenses as before, how much money would George save in a year of working for Potter?
Assuming pay & expenses stay the same, how long (years, weeks?) would it take George to save that same amount of money—total money saved in one year under Potter—at his current job?

3.5) If Zuzu dreams of a flower garden with 15 rows of 15 pink flowers, 10 rows of 12 yellow flowers, and 13 rows of 13 purple flowers, how many flowers total appear in Zuzu’s dream?

3.6) If the high school swimming pool is 60 feet long and 40 feet wide, what area of flooring is needed to cover it during a dance? If one third of the pool is 5 feet deep, one third is 10 feet deep, and on third of the pool is 15 feet deep, what volume of water does the pool hold?

3.7) Ernie’s home in Bailey Park is worth $5,000. If the home increases in value by 8% in one year, what will the home be worth then? If it increases in value by 8% every year, what will the home be worth in another 5 years?

3.8) Besides Clarence, another 50 angels are hoping to get their wings. Bedford Falls has one church bell tower; it rings once at one o’clock, twice at two o’clock, thrice at three o’clock, and so on. How many bells will ring out in a twelve-hour period—and will that be enough for Clarence and his friends to get their wings?

3.9) One summer day, Mr. Gower buys frozen ice cream treats on a stick at 3 for $.25, and young George sells them all at 2 for $.25. If Gower’s made a profit of $1.00 that day, how many ice cream treats were sold.

3.10) Play with Time: A fast clock gains one minute per hour, and a slow clock loses two minutes per hour. Initially, both clocks are set to the correct time. Less than 24 hours later, the fast clock registers 9 o’clock at the same moment the slow clock registers 8 o’clock. What is the correct time at that moment?

4) SOCIAL STUDIES/GEOGRAPHY Activities:

4.1) Make a map of New York State (in which Van Doren’s Bedford Falls is located), including the cities of Rochester, Buffalo, and New York City (all mentioned in the film).  Add the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, and Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain. Add the state capital, and (any) four other cities to your map. Finally, indicate the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. (Which of these mountain ranges is older? How could you tell?)

4.2) Using an atlas or globe, locate the following places George Bailey hoped to visit: New York, NY; Tahiti, the Fiji Islands (Mary picks island music for their homemade honeymoon); Italy, Greece; and the Yukon. What could George have seen/experienced in each place?

The musical features the hope of travel to Europe.  Map present-day Europe in its entirety.  Make a point of locating & marking the three cities George & Mary picked for their honeymoon: Paris, Budapest, and Rome.  In terms of area, which are Europe’s five largest countries? Which are its five smallest? (Did you remember to map Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, and the Holy See/ Vatican state?)   See also Social Studies/Economics 6.3, and answer the questions for five European countries.

4.3) Create a map of Europe as it was in 1650; create another of the “New World” /Western Hemisphere—countries, colonies, territories, or settlements- in 1650. (Presumably Clarence was born into 1650s Europe or America; which would you guess?) If you wish, map the other continents as they were in 1650 for a complete world view.

4.4) Create 3 maps of Europe, showing the continent before, during, and after World War II (for example, in 1938, 1943, and 1947).
(Any quality European History textbook should include this info, but for those who love to learn through maps, Ronald Storey’s Concise Historical Atlas of World War Two [Oxford UP, 2006] provides an overview of the entire conflict through a series of 50 maps, each with a companion page of historical discussion.)

4.5) Make a map of present-day Afghanistan, and make a special effort to identify places where American marines and soldiers are serving today. Visit anysoldier.com for locations and requested items so you can prepare letters and/or a care package; or send a care package through the USO—still going strong since ‘Mary Bailey’ volunteered with it in the 1940s.

5) SOCIAL STUDIES/ HISTORY Activities:

5.1) Research the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, especially their service during World War II.

5.2) Research World War II, as referenced by this film/musical:

On the Homefront: Mary helped with the USO; Ma Bailey and Mrs. Hatch with the Red Cross; Mr. Gower sold war bonds; George dealt with tire drives; shortages/rationing; and served as an air raid warden;  Mr. Potter ran the draft board. (An interesting fact:  About 2/3 of  U.S. WWII veterans were drafted, versus only 1/4 of Vietnam vets.)  Other residents planted Victory Gardens, attended church & prayed.

WWII  Overseas: According to the film, Bedford Falls residents fought in the campaigns in North Africa;
parachuted into France; and helped take the Remagen Bridge.  Where & when would these be?
Harry Bailey became a decorated (Navy) flier, saving men on a  transport– would you guess this to have happened in the Pacific?  What were some of the major events of the War in the Pacific?

Some sources we’ve used, Gr 4/5- up:  Penny Colman, Rosie the Riveter: Woman Working on the Home Front in World War II; Scholastic Encyclopedia of the United States at War; DK Eyewitness World War II; Usborne World War Stories & True Stories of D-Day; Ronald Storey, A Concise Historical Atlas of World War II; Michael Lyons, World War II: A Short History; the classic Victory at Sea and History Channel’s Battle 360 Pacific DVD sets; World War II and Military History magazines; Time-Life Commemorative magazines on D-Day & America’s Victory; Gordon L. Rottman, FUBAR: Soldier Slang of World War II; Sledge (Marine memoir), With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa; R.G. Grant, New Perspectives: Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and books & media for all age groups from the NCCHE (National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education) Resource Room in Seton Hill University’s Reeves Library.

Some books from a younger child’s perspective:  Michael Foreman, A Country Childhood: War Boy (a memoir of Pakefield, Suffolk, England); Kushner/ Sendak, Brundibar (allegory of Jewish oppression);  Japanese atomic survivor memories:  Junko Marimoto’s My Hiroshima, Toshi Maruki’s Hiroshima No Pika, and Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako (a picture book version of  her longer work, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes).  Other youth novels by Hilda van Stockum, The Mitchells: Five for Victory and The Winged Watchmen, depict wartime childhoods in the USA and Holland, respectively.  From the English side, try Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, or Roald Dahl’s autobiographical Going Solo & his first published story “A Piece of Cake.”

Some websites to check:   The National Archives: 1937-1945;   BBC Primary History: Children of World War 2;   neoK12: World War II;   and some HD videos available at History.com

Historical Cookbooks: Joanne Lamb Hayes’ Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen (with Jean Anderson) & Grandma’s Wartime Baking Book; Jill Norman’s Eating for Victory; Marguerite Patten’s Victory Cookbook (UK)

5.3) Mr. Potter calls George Bailey a “nursemaid to a bunch of garlic-eaters.”  Research Irish Immigration to America as background for the Baileys.
Then research Italian Immigration– the probable story of the Martinis.  Besides “garlic-eaters,” what other derogatory terms were applied to Italian-Americans?
Consider a visit to the Immigrant Museum in Johnstown, PA; also the Johnstown Flood Museum & Incline.

5.4) We see George dressed in a football jersey, and know that Harry played.  Research the history of Football –especially the local Latrobe, PA connection.

5.5) Building Big:  Modern Cities.  Pick a major metropolis (such as New York, Paris, Budapest, or Rome), and research what it was like in four different decades, or if possible, four different centuries.

6) SOCIAL STUDIES/ ECONOMICS Activities:

6.1) Explore the American Dream of home-ownership– long a symbol of American financial & familial success and stability. Research & compare statistics on this in 1946 (post-war) and the present-day; also explore changing floorplans & home prices over the past century.
Finally, consider the pros & cons of owning vs. renting today. (Financial guru Suzie Orman, for example, may be questioning the value of home-ownership for the current generation of Americans.)

6.2) Learn about types of depository institutions: what’s the difference between a bank, a credit union, and a savings & loan (or building & loan)?  What types of accounts, or savings options, are available?  In general, what are the types of loans people take on– what are the usual reasons for borrowing? Which loans tend to carry the highest interest rates (and what do fixed & variable rates mean) ? (Could there be other costs, besides interest, associated with borrowing?)

6.3) Potter to George Bailey: “Why, you’re worth more dead than alive.”  Research the Avg. Net Worth/ Buying Power of a citizen in 10 different countries countries, including the USA– info often included in an atlas.  Note also the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)s of these countries.  Note also their population density.  Do you notice any relationship or pattern between these figures; why or why not?

6.4) George has a $15,000 life insurance policy, with $500 equity.  Learn some Life insurance basics: what are the differences between term life policies, and whole life?  How do people determine how much coverage they need? What would be your best guess regarding what George’s policy was meant to do (for example, pay off George & Mary’s home mortgage; provide Mary & the kids with living expenses for X amount of time; cover funeral expenses; etc.)?

6.5) Inflation.  (If $5000 gets Ernie a decent house in the 1940s, why not today?  Explain how prices can be so different today!)

6.6) The Baileys find it disturbing that Henry Potter owns many (all?) rental properties in Bedford Falls– and also takes control of the bank from which people would need to borrow money in order to purchase a home. Find the definition of a “monopoly.”  Does this fit Potter’s operation? Are there other terms that would better describe Potter’s business practices?

6.7) Research Bank disasters/failures, esp. in 1929 (beginning the Great Depression)– as featured in the musical– and on contemporary Wall Street.

7) SCIENCE Activities:

Possible Research topics:

7.1) Safety on Ice. Safety during Winter play (frostbite, hypothermia).
7.2) Experiment to determine the best melting agents for ice.
7.3) Bells. Sound.

7.4) Young George loses hearing in one ear.  Learn more about the structure & function of the ear. What causes Hearing Loss or Deafness? What treatments are available– or how do people adapt to living without hearing? (Learn how to sign a few words, from American Sign Language.)

7.5) George’s father suffers a stroke.  Research Strokes– what is a stroke; what are the risk factors/ suggestions for prevention?
7.6)  Research Diphtheria– cause, symptoms/risks, treatment.  What sort of treatment was Mr. Gower likely preparing when he made his mistake with the baby’s prescription?

7.7) Review ways to keep people and/or the environment safe from Poisoning— ex. Pest Control; Household Cleaning Products; Makeup, Food, OTC & Rx Medicines; Paint; Waste or Chemical Disposal; Forensic science/ Criminal use of poisons.
7.8) Learn more about the Development of Medicines– and the development of Poisons, since the two are often related (or have been mistaken for each other, in history).  Toxic! Killer Cures and Other Poisonings by Susie Hodge makes this point; Hodge also recommends John Elmsley’s The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, Peter Macinnis’ Poisons, R.M. Youngson’s Scientific Blunders, and Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.  For a stronger medical focus, consider Fran Balkwill and Mic Rolph’s Microbes, Bugs, and Wonder-Drugs: Potions to Penicillin, Aspirin to Addiction.  Perhaps pick a specific pharmacy school or  pharmaceutical company to research.

7.9) Since Clarence was once a clockmaker, research Clocks/ History of Timekeeping.

Here are some topic ideas (courtesy of Ken Sobol’s The Clock Museum, 1967):  Ancient times– obelisks, sun dials, water clocks,  King Alfred’s candle clock, Chinese fire clocks, Tibetan sun-sticks, stone calendars (ex. Stonehenge); Medieval times– waterwheel clocks with escapement, mechanical clocks with spindle, tower clocks (some with moving figures), sandglasses; 1500s– pocket sundials, jewelled pocket-watches, Peter Heinlein, “Nuremburg eggs,” birdcage or lantern clocks, first clockmakers’ guild; “Great Age of Clock-Making: 1500-1800″– spring clocks, pendulum clocks, automata, James Cox (b. England, c.1715), Prince Potemkin of Russia’s “Peacock clock;” Sailors’ timepieces, 1700s– chronometers, gimbals; American clocks, 1700s– grandfather clocks, mass production, “pillar-and-scroll” clocks, also “banjo,” “acorn,” “minstrel,” “wag-on-the-wall;”  World War I– wristwatches; Scientific clocks– quartz-crystal, atomic clocks.

Is there a future for clock-making– alarm clocks, wristwatches, anything– in the age of cell phones, i-pods, etc.?

7.10) Snow/Snowflakes:  The snow stops falling when George ceases to exist, and returns when he gets his life back– so learn more about them. Young readers will enjoy Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s informational picture book Snowflake Bentley, about a pioneer in the study of snowflakes; older students might enjoy Wilson A. Bentley’s Snow Crystals itself.  Where and why might people study snow today?  Consider meteorology/ weather prediction.  What else can be studied in snowbound or arctic climates?  Research explorers of/ expeditions to the North and South Poles. (At least one IMAX film exists on Shackleton’s amazing survival story.)  What projects are undertaken in Antarctica today?  What goes on in the Arctic circle (ex. William F. Althoff, Drift Stations: Arctic Outposts of Superpower Science)?

7.11) Since George offers to lasso the moon, research the Moon– its size & features, its exploration.

7.12) Since George recommends coconut to Mary, research the Coconut.  Is it a fruit, vegetable, or nut?  Was it really used in/as an IV  by WWII medics in the Pacific?

7.13) Glass– what it is, how it’s made (from the past to the present). Consider field-tripping to one of Pittsburgh’s glass-related sites.
7.14) Research Plastics, since they provide Sam Wainwright with a fortune (while George misses out on the opportunity).

7.15) Mr. Potter is compared to one, so research Spiders.  How do arachnids differ from insects? All spiders have spinnerets, but not all of them are orb-spinners who wait on their webs for prey (like Potter).  How do the other spiders behave?  How do these spiders differ physically from orb-spinners?  Finally, Read a spider-related tale from Folklore:  Arachne from Greek Mythology; the Spider-Woman from Native-American lore; or Anansi from Ashanti tales, Ghana.

7.16) In honor or Zuzu’s flower, learn about the Anatomy of a Flower.  (Consider a bulb dissection kit for a hands-on approach.)  Experiment to see if Fragrance or Color is more attractive to bees and/or butterflies.

7.17) Study the Anatomy of a Tree.  In the film, a distraught George damages a neighbor’s tree with his car– but later ends up happily beside his own family Christmas tree.

7.18) George dreams of Building Big:  Research Bridges and Skyscrapers.
7.19) Airplanes/ Forces of Flight.

7.20) Physics of “the Impossible”: Time Travel, & Alternate Realities/ Timelines.  Surprisingly, physicist Michio Kaku, author of Physics of the Impossible, tells us that there are few  ‘impossibilities’ which truly violate the laws of physics– so most are considered impossible  because we don’t yet have the technology figured out.

7.21) Learn about the effects of Alcohol Consumption on the human body (such as Uncle Billy!).  What constitutes drunkenness, and alcoholism?

8) ART/ ARCHITECTURE Activities:

George Bailey rescuing his brother from the ice, in this coloring page depicting a scene from It's a Wonderful Life.

8.1) Little ones will enjoy coloring this picture of George Bailey rescuing his brother from the ice.

8.2) Cut out paper snowflakes.  Some editions of Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s informational picture book Snowflake Bentley (recounting Wilson A. Bentley’s lifelong effort to photograph and study snowflakes) come with a booklet of snowflake patterns; but other such pattern books exist (ex. Peggy Edwards Make Your Own Snowflakes, or Dover Coloring Books Snowflakes). (Creativity for Kids also produces a kit for assembling snowflakes out of pearl-like beads.)

Learn more about other paper-cut art, perhaps from the Amish/Pennsylvania Deutch, or Polish falk art traditions, or the amazing book illustrations of David Wisniewski (Elfwyn’s Saga; Golem; and many others).

8.3) Make a snowglobe.  Again, a pre-packaged kit is available with plastic globe base & top, clay for making a figure(s) for inside, water and glitter.  We’ve made our own using a carefully-cleaned large-sized glass baby food jar (though mustard, olive, cherry, any jar would do) with baked clay figures (like a snowman) or plastic trinkets (from gumball machines, dollar stores, Michaels) superglued inside the lid –and, yes, filled with silver glitter and water.

8.4) In honor of Zuzu’s beloved posy, practice drawing flowers– individually, or grouped as a Still Life. Visit the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg for ideas and suggestions, or use one of the many How-to-Draw books (ex. Draw 100 Flowers) at your local bookstore.

8.5) Because Bedford Falls is so important to this story, create your own Street Scene/ Town Storefronts (paper).  For young children, take a legal-sized sheet of paper and fold it accordian-style to create five rectangular sections. Lay the paper flat and help the children use the folds as guidelines for the sides of their buildings. Let the children draw five storefronts– or, four buildings, making one of the buildings two folds wide (this works well for adding a church or school to the scene).

Another Project Idea:  Make a Collage of a Town.  Cut the shapes of different town buildings– houses, stores, church with steeple– with different heights & roof lines– out of different colored construction paper. (Parents/ teachers can help by cutting out template buildings on cardstock, in advance, if necessary.)  Then help the child try out different arrangements of  the cutout building silhouettes on legal or oversized paper.  When satisfied, glue the buildings down.

8.6) For a more advanced project, make 3-D/ Mixed Media House-front or Storefront.

Budding architects who (like George Bailey) want to build great things will enjoy crafting a 3D paint-by-numbers castle. Amazon sells this kit for about $8.

You may have encountered wooden 3-D paint by numbers kits, which come with two or three pre-cut scenery pieces to fit into a shallow (1-1/2” deep) box– allowing for foreground and background(s). (Try Amazon or Rainbow Resource Co.)

If you are in southwestern Pennsylvania, check out the Westmoreland Museum in Greensburg, which currently has two Box Constructions on display, in “The Tides of Provincetown” [Dec. 2011]– Elspeth Halvorsen’s “The World is Watching, 2001″ (inspired by the Twin Towers on 9/11), and Varujan Boghosian’s “Untitled, 1973″ (a WWII Navy vet-turned-artist, whose reuse of discarded material indicates the persistence of past experiences).

You can create a ‘house’ or ‘store’ in a box frame yourself– by arranging and gluing wood blocks/rectangles/cylinders/dowels, or wooden craft figures (from a store like Michaels), inside a shallow wooden box (such as an unstained wood box from Michaels; a drawer from a jewelry/trinket box; or one of those wooden display boxes meant to hang on a wall and display glass figure, thimbles, etc– but with the shelves or  compartments removed); then paint details onto your house or store.

Or, try cardboard as an inexpensive alternative: Cut a rectangle out of one side of a cereal box to make a box frame; tape or glue toilet paper rolls, and small boxes from soap, toothpaste, candy, etc., inside in the shape of a building.  Cover the boxes with construction paper and poster paint to finish your house or store.

In an online biography, mixed media artist George R. Wazenegger writes "I create wood collage of charming and quaint architectural structures. I do this because of the nostalgia and love of these places which are slow(ly) disappearing" http://www.yessy.com/waz/bio.html

It’s also possible to build up a house-front or storefront without the wooden box frame.  The Southern Alleghenies Museum in Ligonier, PA  just displayed multiple examples by artist George R. Wazenegger.  Using a thin board (such as balsa) as a base (most were 10-15 inches long, 8-12 inches high– many irregular), glue small roughly rectangular or square pieces/scraps/ sticks of wood onto the wood-base, and onto each other, to build up the shape of a cottage or storefront.  Other small wood scraps, or strips of cork or hard sponge, can be glued to form a bit of ground beneath the cottage.  Cork cut in the shape of foliage (sort of a flattened cloud shape) can be glued beside cottage or store to form a bush or a treetop (with a twig for the trunk); the trunk could also be painted on, & the cork foliage painted to represent leaves in any season.  After gluing the basic shapes, paint the housefront or storefront, as well as its background, to add in any details you wish.

8.7) Learn more about Norman Rockwell, the illustrator who became famous for his iconic scenes of American life (first with Boy’s Life magazine, then the Saturday Evening Post).  See especially his Christmas scenes, and those related to WWII:  his depictions of the Four Freedoms from FDR’s speech—Freedom of Speech; of Religion; from Want; from Fear/Tyranny– and to see how he “Welcome[d] the Hero”, ‘”The Homecoming” (May 1945) and “Homecoming Marine” (Oct. 1945).

In Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists: Norman Rockwell, Mike Venezia emphasizes how Rockwell knew how to tell a story without words.  Draw/color a memorable scene from your own family or community life.  Or, recreate one of Rockwell’s famous scenes using contemporary characters, fashions, objects.  How might you depict the Four Freedoms for today’s (also war-time) generation?

8.8) In affectionate remembrance of the Old Granville place (which Mary lovingly restores), research Victorian home architecture.  Consider how  it differs from at least one other home/building style– neo-Classical, Colonial, Prairie-style or Craftsman, Southwestern, or Contemporary designs.  What are some hallmarks that help you identify a Victorian home, inside or out?

8.9) Research an artist who works/ed with glass, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany or Dale Chihuly.  Perhaps also research Pittsburgh’s glass history– glass as factory product, and as art; or learn more about glass artists in your local community (ex. monks at St. Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, PA).

8.10) Research the way Angels have been depicted in famous paintings/works of art over the centuries: Did you find Mighty Warriors or Cherubs?  Add your own interpretation: draw, paint, or sculpt an Angel.

9) MUSIC Activities:

9.1) Research, listen to and learn more about one of the songs in the movie: “Buffalo Gals,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “O Sole Mio,” “I Love You Truly,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Auld Lang Syne,” or music associated with the Charleston (such as “Runnin Wild” and “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”)– and just where DID this Charleston dance originate (?!).

9.2) Research, listen to and learn more about one of the categories of music below:
Irish folk music and/or ballads (in honor of the Baileys)
Italian folk music and/or ballads (in honor of the Martinis); besides “O Sole Mio,” which have become familiar to the general public, or associated with Italian-Americans? (“Volare,” “Santa Lucia,” “Non Dimenticar,” “That’s Amore” ?)
Island music, from Hawaii or Polynesia (in honor of George and Mary’s manufactured honeymoon)
Christmas carols (especially with angels?)
World War II-era music, including big bands and/or songbirds Vera Lynne, Dinah Shore, the Andrews Sisters (We love the CD-collection Songs That Won the War.)  You can also read analyses of the music, like John Bush Jones’ Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945.
Bell music (in honor of angels getting their wings!). Many colleges and churches have a handbell choir; also, check out the handbell group at the Ligonier Highland Games (in September), and “Cast In Bronze” plays the Carillon (a massive Medieval bell instrument) at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Faire and on CD & DVD.

9.3) RELATED MUSICALS:

  • Christmas-related: A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge (1970); Irving Berlin’s White Christmas; Babes in Toyland (two versions exist: Laurel & Hardy’s 1934, & Disney’s 1961); Madeline’s Christmas; Narnia (musical of The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe); Meet Me in St. Louis
  • WWII-related: South Pacific; The Sound of Music; Cabaret; Irving Berlin’s This is the Army and White Christmas; Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks ; On The Town; also mentioned in Yankee Doodle Dandy (starring James Cagney); and Narnia (musical of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe).  Stage Door Canteen is a war-time romance featuring cameo appearances & songs by many stars of the era (demonstrating their patriotism & support for the troops).
  • James “Jimmy” Stewart-related: Rose Marie (1936, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, in which Stewart plays MacDonald’s [non-singing] brother); High Society (1956, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Louis Armstrong) is a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story (with Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant)
  • Beulah Bondi (Ma Bailey)-related: Disney’s So Dear to My Heart
  • Time-distortion musicals: A Christmas Carol, or Scrooge (1970); Carousel; Brigadoon
  • Small-town life: Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man; maybe Disney’s Pete’s Dragon; or village life in Brigadoon, and Fiddler on the Roof (also the work of Sheldon Harnick, lyricist for It’s A Wonderful Life)
  • Mary Poppins includes another “run-on-the-bank” scene.
  • Going My Way (1944, starring Bing Crosby) is playing in Bedford Falls when George gets his life back again; try viewing this classic, as well as its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945, with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman).

9.4) Prepare and record your own radio play of It’s a Wonderful Life (script, sound, effects, background music …) !

9.5) Learn more about the award-winning duo behind the stage musical, Joe Raposo and Sheldon Harnick.

10) CATHOLIC CONNECTION Activities:

Possible topics for Research/ Discussion:

10.1) Donate to the U.S. Marines Toys for Tots program (since they are StageRight’s nonprofit partners for this production).
10.2) Research the impact of WWII on Catholics individually or collectively.  (Consider picking a specific country to examine, in terms of civilians & clergy, or Catholics in the military & military chaplains.)  Learn more about Just War Theory and pacifism.
10.3) St. Joseph. St. Matthew. (Why might they be chosen as Clarence’s “supervisors” in the film & musical, respectively.)
10.4) Gifts of the Magi– What are frankincense & myrrh anyway?  (Kevin Orlin Johnson’s Why Do Catholics Do That? gives a wonderful explanation of this– and many other topics.)
10.5) Prayer—its 4 types; its efficacy, according to the Bible, in the lives of specific saints or Church leaders/ teachers, in studies by scientists or sociologists. (Note that Frank Capra’s film opens with a chorus of voices raised in prayer for George, prompting Heaven’s intervention.)
10.6) Angels– what they are, what they do. Biblical appearances/ references. (Clarify that angels are created angels; and how people become saints, but not angels– that this differs from how Clarence is depicted.)
10.7) Respect for the innate value of every Human Life.  Discussion could center on George’s contemplation of suicide, or on the effects of one child never having been born.
10.8)  English activities 1.7 and 1.8 promote a deeper understanding of poetry, and many of the poems mentioned have a Catholic connection (ex. angels, Christmas, Irish stuff).  Track some of these poems back to their source anthologies, and read more:  Is there anything different, or definitively Catholic, about a Catholic poet’s approach to these subjects?  [Anthologies:  Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse, ed. Joseph Pearce; Joyce Kilmer's Anthology of Catholic Poets (updated 1937, 1939, 1955), eds. Joyce Kilmer & James Edward Tobin; The Harp and the Laurel Wreath, ed. Laura Bercquist]

16 Nov 2011 — written by Leigh Jerz; posted by Dennis Jerz
15 Dec 2011 — updated by L. Jerz

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7 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Life Lesson Plans: Activities Related to Film and Stage Musical

  1. Pingback: Lessons from “It’s a Wonderful Life” — Jerz's Literacy Weblog

  2. Pingback: Christmas « Reading, Writing, Living

  3. This is the most comprehensive Holiday unit I have ever seen. It’s amazing how you bring in all of the school subject areas. It is exciting as well as informative. It will take about six months to a year to get all of the activities etc. I loved it . Thank you!

  4. This was a wonderfully done lesson plan. It helped me organize my thoughts. I appreciate the opportunity to use it.

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