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A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Theme: Coming of Age
Grades: Grades 10-11

Gene Forrester returns to his alma mater, the Devon School, and recalls events that occurred there 15 years ago. In the summer of 1942, he forms a competitive friendship with his roommate, Phineas (Finny), the school's best athlete. Soon, Gene resents Phineas's efforts to distract him from his studies. One day, as Phineas prepares to jump from a tree into a river, Gene jounces the limb they are standing on, causing Phineas to fall to the ground and shatter his leg. Phineas will never play sports again, and his leg must remain in a cast for a long time. During vacation, Gene visits Phineas and tries to confess that he caused the accident, but Phineas refuses to believe him. When Phineas returns to school during the autumn session, Gene changes his plans to enlist in the army because he feels that Phineas needs his help. Later, some classmates hold a mock trial to determine whether Gene is responsible for Phineas's accident. Phineas becomes terribly upset; upon rushing away from the students, he falls and reinjures his leg. When the school doctor tries to set it, some marrow from the shattered bone enters Phineas's bloodstream, killing him. Although Gene later serves in the army, he believes his real fight was at school, where he killed the enemy within himself.

  1. Graphic Organizer.
    Ask students to work independently or in small groups to create a word web or other graphic organizer that explores one or more of the following words: rivalry, peace, trust, suspicion, or impulse. You might encourage students who have trouble getting started to 1) define the words, perhaps beginning with a dictionary entry, 2) jot down examples to illustrate the definitions and 3) list their personal reactions to and associations with the words. Have these words played a role in their own coming of age? How?
  1. Linking to Today: Group Discussion.
    Tell students that competition plays an important role in A Separate Peace. Then lead a discussion in which students examine instances of competition at their school. Ask them to consider how competition affects students. Does competition foster a healthy social and learning environment? What are the pros and cons of competition? How would you have students define "healthy competition"? Have students record their impressions of the discussion in their notebooks. As they read A Separate Peace, ask them to compare their own experiences with those of the characters in the novel.
  1. Call Your Own Shots.
    Peer pressure is an experience shared by all teenagers, whether they attend exclusive prep schools or inner-city public schools. In this project, students will use dramatic presentations to show how teens can resist peer pressure.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • As a class, discuss the concept of peer pressure. Ask students to describe specific examples from their own experience. Use this discussion to generate a list of situations in which teens can encounter peer pressure both at school and in the community.

  • Have students work in groups of four or five members. Each group should research one of the situations on their list to find out how significant a problem peer pressure is. Students will use the research and their own knowledge to create a script that dramatizes a situation that involves peer pressure and appropriate ways to respond to it.

  • Allow students time to write and rehearse their scripts. You might invite other classes to watch the dramatic presentations. Encourage questions from the audience after each presentation.

  1. Cover Art.
    Have students design book jackets for A Separate Peace. Ask them to choose an interesting scene, image, or character for the cover illustration. Remind them of the other elements of a book jacket, such as typography and background color.
  1. Life at Boarding School.
    have students find out what life is like today on the campus of a prestigious boarding school, such as the Phillips Exeter Academy (the model for Devon School). Ask students to write a comparison between that school and Devon as it is portrayed in A Separate Peace. Students might wish to focus on one of the following topics:

    • academic curriculum
    • clothing styles
    • social activities
    • the role of sports
    • conformity and diversity among students
  1. Coming of Age During Wartime.
    Discuss with students the fact that, during World War II, relatively few students expressed opposition to the United States's participation in the war. Have them research how students in a later period, such as the Vietnam War or the Gulf War, reacted to those conflicts. Students then present their findings in a research paper.