Seize the day

The “carpe diem” scene from Dead Poets Society as an anticipatory set for beginning a teaching unit on poetry

Seminar Paper, 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 12


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Framework

3. Analysis of the Material and Didactic Considerations
3.1. Dead Poets Society: The Frame Story
3.2. The Carpe Diem Scene

4. Teaching Unit
4.1. Getting warmed up
4.2. Completing the script
4.3. The emotional roadmap
4.4. Post-viewing activity: dubbing the script

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix
7.1 Gap text with emotional roadmap
7.2 Thesaurus
7.3 Scene script
7.4 To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time

Targeted learning group: 10th /11th grade

General idea: to evoke an awareness for the purpose of poetry in general and the significance of it for the individual in particular

Method: analysis of a key scene, scriptwriting

Material: 1 scene script

2 gap text with emotional roadmap

3 text “To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time”

4 thesaurus

DVD: Dead Poets Society: “carpe diem” scene

1. Introduction

Students often groan at the thought of facing another poetry unit. “This is stupid.”, “It doesn’t make sense.”, “Why do I have to deal with this?”. These are common remarks often spilling out of the students at the thought of dealing with poetry. In an attempt to get them to grasp some of the poetry that they will face throughout their education, this teaching unit attempts to use a movie scene as a way of hooking the students. The unit hopes to make enough thematic connections to allow the students the opportunity to more closely examine and explicate a poem by exposing the conduit between it and an individual's biography. In addition to the thematic connections, this unit will also reveal common elements of poetry in a non-threatening environment. Students will learn about concepts like metaphors, allusions and other elements of poetry by first discovering them in the film. At the same time they upgrade and extend their vocabulary with words, terms, idioms and the vernacular that is used within the dialogs around the poem. Their newly acquired knowledge enables them to articulate both personal discernments and popular apprehensions on the vicissitudes of life (and may even trigger the desire in one or the other to start writing his or her own poem in English, whether it be in a more traditional form or in a rap or a song) and thus serves the primary target of foreign language education: intercultural communicative competence (cf. Council of Europe 2001: 43). Cinema is a vital and powerful medium, and the hope is that it can be used in an effort to hook the students and bring them closer to the enjoyment of poetry.

2. Theoretical Framework

The presentation of poetry in a form that combines four aspects, namely the visual (or optic), phonetic (or sound), kinetic (moving in a visual succession) and emotional aspect is of great significance to the analysis of what is perceived. Watching a movie is probably the easiest and most comfortable way of knowledge transfer that the students are familiar with. The visualization of a plot in a film offers more challenging potential for what contemporary literature educationalists call the personal response approach (cf. Nünning/Surkamp 2006: 64) than a book (ibid. 247). The learner gets emotionally involved almost immediately and throughout the scene.

In my opinion, the movie Dead Poets Society is an invaluable asset to any teacher of short literary forms because it contains many scenes that are applicable to teaching units when extracted from the storyboard. I selected the Carpe Diem scene as an anticipatory set (material that initially focuses the learner's attention on a matter in a way that captures his/her interest) because it is rich in plot, symbolism and imagery, and for this very reason challenging for discussion, open to several interpretations and a genuine alternative to teaching print when it comes to introducing poetry. There are five important aspects that make the scene well suitable for 10th or 11th graders.

1. The vocabulary used is adequate
2. The English spoken in this specific scene is clear and distinct
3. There is no explicit language used
4. It is free from heavy accents, dialects, drawl and background noise
5. The sophomores in the film are of the same age

In the film, students gain an appreciation of poetry as a result of receiving encouragement to think for themselves, to live life to the fullest, seize the days and cherish them dearly. While Robert Herrick's poem “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time” is central to the selected scene, excerpts from the works of some of the most outstanding poets of the English language like Robert Frost, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman (who is, so to speak, omnipotent in the film), and William Shakespeare play a vital role in many of the film dialogs. Throughout the movie, these excerpts are used almost like biblical scriptures to encourage, to motivate, to comfort, to teach and to give directions on coming to terms with oneself and others.

3. Analysis of the Material and Didactic Considerations

The film Dead Poets Society was shot in 1989 by Australian director Peter Weir. It became a classic among the so-called coming-of-age films and an immediate box-office hit to boot. The setting takes place in 1959 at a conservative and autocratic private all-male college-preparatory boarding school. It tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students to change their lives of conformity through his teaching of poetry and literature.

The story is set at the fictional Welton Academy in Vermont, U.S.A. and was filmed at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. The script was written based on the author's life at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys preparatory school in Nashville, Tennessee.

3.1. Dead Poets Society: The Frame Story

At the welcoming ceremony for the new students the director, Mr. Nolan, explains the principles of the Academy: tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. The new English teacher, John Keating, has his own values: passion, imagination, beauty, language and love which he tries to implement in his class. Inspired by these values he teaches the students to think for themselves and to make their lives extraordinary. Some of the boys reanimate the Dead Poets Society – a secret club where they can express their emotions free from curricular regulations and parental expectations. Mr. Keating himself was a co-founder of the club when he attended Welton. Their conventicle is a cave in the woods where they read poems to each other. With passion and ambition they each make different attempts to live what they read. These meetings change the boys. Charlie Dalton is the first to express his new lifestyle by giving himself a new name (Nwanda) and by playing pranks at school. Todd Anderson overcomes his shyness. Knox Overstreet wins the girl he loves by being persistent and writing poems for her. Neil Perry finds his profession in stage acting without the knowledge of his father who is totally against this. The consequences for Neil are dire. When his father finds out he takes Neil off the school after his first, very successful performance to enroll him at a military school. Neil commits suicide. For this Mr. Keating is held responsible by the school administration and by Neil's father. They make most of his classmates sign a paper that puts all the blame on Mr. Keating who gets dismissed. Shortly before he leaves he visits the class, that is now taught by headmaster Nolan, to get his last personal items. Despite the director's orders to sit down the boys step on their desks shouting "O captain! My captain!" thus paying their final tribute to Mr. Keating.

The main character, John Keating (played by the renowned actor Robin Williams), is a passionate and lively teacher whose enthusiasm for poetry emanates from the screen to the viewer. Since the plot deals directly and virtually all the time with the growing pains and problems of adolescents, students can't hardly help but leave the film with at least a bit of curiosity about the power of poetry.

Showing only a specific assessable scene that cumulates the message of the plot allows for ample discussion at the end of it.

3.2. The Carpe Diem Scene

This scene is probably the most popular scene of the whole movie. The new English teacher of the school, Mr. Keating, enters the classroom, walks around whistling and exits again leaving behind a puzzled class. He peeks back into the room, tells them to “come on” and takes the students down to the hallway to give them their first lesson. He introduces himself with an excerpt from the Walt Whitman poem Oh captain, my captain. Walt Whitman admired Abraham Lincoln and was saddened by his death when he wrote the poem after Lincoln's assassination. It is an allusion to the Dead Poets Society where Keating was a member of when he attended Welton which is not revealed until later later in the film. He offers the boys to call him Mr. Keating or, “if you're slightly more daring” (DPS 1989), Oh captain, my captain. The focus of and key to the scene however is Robert Herrick's poem “To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time” and its first stanza respectively. The first line “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” and the Latin term for that sentiment, carpe diem, is used to explain the need of seizing the day. The whole meeting takes place in front of the school's trophy cabinets and Keating turns towards one of the trophy cases, filled with trophies, footballs and a team picture. He asks them to step forward and peruse some of the faces of their predecessors. The students slowly gather round the cases and Keating moves behind them from where he emphasizes the striking similarities:

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in (DPS 1989).

They lean in and Keating hovers over one of the boys's shoulder whispering in a gruff voice:

Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary (ibid.).

The scene ends with the students staring at the faces in the cabinet in silence.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Seize the day
The “carpe diem” scene from Dead Poets Society as an anticipatory set for beginning a teaching unit on poetry
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
Teaching Short Literary Forms
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
515 KB
Dead Poets Society, TEFL, Teaching Unit
Quote paper
Richard Grünert (Author), 2008, Seize the day, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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