Lesson Plans

1950 to Present

Setting the stage for reading The Catcher in the Rye: An examination of social expectations for teenagers in the 1950s
Author: Margery Scanlan
School: Montgomery Blair High
Grade Level: 10th
Time Estimated: 1 Day (70 minutes)

Enduring Understanding

Many of the films found on the website http://www.archive.org/index.php come from an independent producer named Sid Davis. Further research on Davis reveals that he made about 150 such films, on every subject from the threat of contagious homosexuality to the dangers of running with scissors. Researching and presenting information of Sid Davis would be a fun and informational follow-up activity to the above lesson for those students with particular interest in film-making, or the history of film use for instructional purposes. The theme in most of the films made by Davis is heavy-handed, and encourages teens to feel guilt and shame for their ignorance.

What sets Davis's films apart from those of the larger corporations is that his scenarios frequently do not end happily. We never see a child's mangled body, but the music, narration, and horrified reactions of the characters discovering the remains of hapless youths makes it clear. These films are pretty melodramatic by today's standards, so they're a lot of fun to watch.


Students will be able to:

  • Identify and reflect on how the message of the films expresses the values of the society. Question: Do we still value this message today? Explain.
  • Analyze the film-maker's use of dramatic elements the films, for example, the use of music, staging, narration, characters' emotions.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the presentation. Question: Do you think people responded differently to these films in the 1950s than we do today? Explain.


Social Studies Unit 9.6: "The Struggle for Power in Postwar America"
Lesson 1.3: "Popular Culture"

English Unit Apply comprehension and literary analysis strategies and skills for a variety of listening purposes and settings.



  • Brainstorm as a silent activity for students to make a list of things they already know about America in the 1950s. Then, the class could share information and items could be written on the board. The result should be a list of items including the cold war, tract housing, suburban development, new black and white televisions in the home, national economic prosperity, patriotism, and good public manners.
  • View one film
  • Identify, Analyze
  • View another film
  • Identify, Analyze
  • Conclusion: evaluation, exit card question: How do these films express the values of society in the 1950s? Which values do we still hold today?
Questions to guide discussion and analysis:
  • What were the social expectations for teenagers in the 1950s?
  • Who is the voice of authority – men or women? Educated people, or uneducated? Upper class or lower class?
  • Do we recognize the same voice of authority today? Why or why not?
  • In Catcher In the Rye, Holden Caufield abhors hypocrisy. Is there any hypocrisy in these films?


BCR (short essay) on the topic: What would be an appropriate topic for a mental hygiene film made today? Describe what your film would be like if you were the filmmaker.


Exit card is a brief Cloze Passages handout, with a word bank.


Access background information: This could be Brief or Extended Constructed Response (short answer or multi-paragraph essay).

  • What do you know about America in the 1950s? Were social expectations different then? Have American values changed since the 1950's and if so, how?

References: Web

The website: http://www.archive.org/index.php, offers primary source materials of American life in the 1950s, frame Holden's world. A section called The Prelinger Archives is a series of short instructional films made for teenagers during the 1950s, with titles like "Duck and Cover," "The Last Prom," "Dating Do's and Don'ts," "Lunchroom Manners," "Highways of Agony," and "Girls Beware." It is difficult to pick one; there are so many prime choices. These films can be found under "Art & Music," search for "Teenage instructional films in the 1950s." They are made by different directors and large producers such as the Centron Corporation, Coronet Films and Encyclopedia Britannica.
Independent filmmaker, Sid Davis, is one who stands out for further research, should students find interest. Two of his films that are the appropriate for Holden's world are "The Dinner Party," where oafish teens are exposed in the light of their mannerly counterparts at a sit-down dinner, and "Habits for Life," wherein the unpolished Barbara realizes she has only herself to blame for the fact that she is a social outcast who will never measure up to Helen, her thick-eyebrowed yet socially flawless neighbor.
As students will learn through their reading, Holden Caulfield spends a lot of time comparing himself other people, and to his dead brother, Allie. Of course, the one on homosexuality, "Boys Beware" would put into context Holden's absolute horror as he thinks his teacher may be putting the moves on him. Some of the films have a strong message to "fit in" and not be too different from the others, and some have themes that are still important to us today, like gang involvement and drug and alcohol abuse. Author Ken Smith calls the message of the mental hygiene films "sledgehammer morality" (http://www.blastbooks.com/mental_hygiene.htm).