Gettin' Frank with Franklin's Autobiography

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SWBAT compare and contrast Ben Franklin's idea of moral perfection with Puritan values by evaluating textual evidence contained in an excerpt of his autobiography.

Big Idea

With 14 hours of self-improvement slated each day, I'd probably be as productive and amazing as Ben Franklin too...

Lesson Overview

Today we are wrapping up our look at Benjamin Franklin's works by investigating an excerpt from The Autobiography.  To prepare for this lesson, students completed their own daily schedule which will be compared to Benjamin Franklin's schedule.  This will be the final lesson on new content material within the unit on early Americans, which encompasses Native Americans, explorers, slaves, colonists, and revolutionists through the Revolutionary War.  This unit has been integral to later parts of the year, as students have determined learning preferences, built reading strategies for complex text, focused on critical thinking while reading, and taken several pre-assessments to determine individual and group needs for group instruction.


15 minutes

Since the last class period, students will have documented one whole day of their lives, which we will use to compare to Ben Franklin's own schedule documented in an excerpt in Chapter 6 from The Autobiography.  To begin the hour, students will pull up their own schedules and compare them to the picture of Ben Franklin's schedule I created in the resources section.  Some features they will be specifically directed to verbally compare and contrast (if they have not already done so) will include:

  • How much time is spent on planning & preparation
  • Limited sleeping time
  • Questions he opens & closes his day with
  • Built-in time for "diversions" (Since he was such an industrious guy, it seems odd to students at first that he scheduled time to have fun.  It will also be a great time to guide students into setting up their own future schedules, building in time for relaxation and renewal in order to sustain ambitious schedules.)
  • Benefits of reflection
  • Relatively little time spent on work (which is again odd for such an industrious man)

Once students have compared and contrasted their own schedules with Franklin's schedule, I will ask students who enjoy reading autobiographies to share a few reasons why autobiographies (which can get a bad reputation as boring) are actually pretty interesting to read.  I call this their "LeVar Burton" time to sell us the genre, since he was so amazing at selling books to hesitant readers through Reading Rainbow so many years ago!  In every class I have ever done this in, at least a few students will be autobiography readers and will happily share.  Some of the benefits of reading autobiographies they will likely list are:

  • gaining an "inside perspective" on that particular person which no outside writer could capture
  • sharing a deeper sense of connection with the author (especially if the student looks up to or sees similarities between the author and themselves)
  • hearing the author's own unique voice with emotions, dialect, and phrases that help the reader better get to know the author
  • getting an "unbiased" look (or at least a genuine look from the author's point of view) at controversial people in history and today

We will then list a few autobiographies that might be really cool to read, and I will share my own interests here to add to student thoughts.  I always throw out crazy examples to help students come around to reading autobiographies more quickly.  Some of the people I enjoy listing as people I would love to read about include Dennis Rodman (a later autobiography though, not his one from long ago, Bad as I Wanna Be), Donald Trump, Al Capone, Marilyn Monroe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  

Building Knowledge

30 minutes

Once sufficient interest in the topic has been generated, I will ask students to get to the section of The Autobiography which begins, "It was about this time that I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of achieving moral perfection," just over halfway down the page.  I like this section of the text because Franklin does an exceptional job of setting SMART Goals (like we did earlier in the year) and defining the goals precisely that he will strive to achieve.  Later in the year, we will write research papers, and in the beginning of this section, Franklin follows a process that will be similar to our process of completing research and determining the scope for our arguments.  I will refer back to this particular excerpt to help students see the value in properly defining terms to aid them in properly defining their arguments.  Another strength of this passage is that many of the virtues he lists here are virtues common to the Puritans, which will be a nice review and explicit connection to these virtues shaping later life in the United States.

After students arrive to the section, we will read the first two paragraphs together and determine Franklin's goal, plan, and likelihood for success.  Then, we will move through each of the virtues, adding the virtue name to our notes and redefining it in more modern language to ensure that all students know exactly how Franklin means it.  There will be a few questions that I ask along the way in order to get students to consider how his careful planning impacts his chances for success.  

  • Which of these virtues are virtues that the Puritans would share?
  • Why does he go through the trouble of defining these words when we all have dictionaries and could just look them up?
  • How are temperance and moderation different?  I've always heard moderation used in the same way as he's using temperance here, like "Eat chocolate in moderation."  What's different?  (Temperance is pertaining to food and drink exclusively in his definition, while moderation is about behaviors.)
  • Franklin puts both material things and time in the category of things that need to be ordered.  Do you think you can consider yourself as having the virtue of order if you don't have both time and stuff ordered?  Explain and use examples.
  • If you saw an iPhone 5 on sale for $20, would Franklin say you were being frugal if you bought it?  It's an amazing deal...what do you think?  Use evidence.
  • Franklin builds in time for diversions, music, and conversation, but he also says here that we should "cut off all unnecessary actions."  Is he being a hypocrite?
  • Can Franklin still lie to people?
  • What does it mean to "think innocently and justly"?  (I will help students to see that this means that one should think the best of people, even when they wrong you.  So, for example, in the express checkout of Walmart, someone may have 30 items in front of you.  Instead of thinking all kinds of horrible things and calling them out for it, Franklin would advise you to either assume that they did not know there was an item limit or consider what might be going on with them before coming to any judgement.)
  • What does he mean about accidents that are unavoidable?  What might be some examples of accidents that are unavoidable or common?
  • Could any of these virtues be combined?  Why did he choose not to combine them?


After we have detailed each of these virtues in our notes, students will watch a brief video segment, Do Americans Work Too Much?, to put Franklin's work schedule in better perspective.  We will briefly discuss the logic behind Franklin's workday and the current state of work in the United States.  Then, they will move on to an independent reading activity of this selection.


30 minutes

Students will read the remainder of The Autobiography, through the paragraph that begins, "It may be well my posterity should be informed that to this little artifice, with the blessing of God, their ancestor ow'd the constant felicity of his life, down to his 79th year, in which this is written."  After reading, I will lead a brief question and answer session to review the material before distributing a review guide for the upcoming test to students.  The questions I will ask are:

  • Were any sections of this text difficult to understand?  Why?  What did you do to overcome them?
  • How did he determine the order of focusing on the virtues?  Use the text to help you here. 
  • Do you think you could have done better organizing these morals?
  • How does the tracking book aid his quest for moral perfection?
  • What virtues from his list is he demonstrating by creating and using this book?
  • How do the mottos written in the book relate to his own quest for moral perfection?
  • How effective do you think these mottos would be to motivating him?
  • What do you think "foppery" means?  It's such a fun sounding word.
  • What does he discover is the danger if he would actually succeed in achieving perfect morals? How does his story with the smith illustrate that?
  • Was his "arduous project" successful?  By what does he measure success in his old age?
  • What meaning does The Autobiography have for later generations of Americans?




15 minutes

In the remaining class period, I will distribute study guides to students and allow them time to begin working on them.  The exam will require knowledge primarily on skills that have been taught and practiced in this unit, but those skills will be applied to texts like those from this unit and using vocabulary applications from this unit as well.  

Next Steps

For homework, students will complete the Unit 1 Study Guide and study for their exams.  Next time, we will play a review game (in the form of Battleship!) to further review for the test.  We will also go over completed study guides to ensure all students are studying correct material.