Summer Conversational Series: Using the Masterpiece Little Women series in the classroom

Cyrisse Jaffee, Editorial Manager for the Educational Department for WGBH–TV presented on the materials developed for teachers for the recent Little Women series for Masterpiece. Jaffee, who had always had a passion for reading and history, loved Little Women as a child and has visited Orchard House with her family many times. She studied literature and history in college and has worked for WGBH for several years.

The Masterpiece Collection

The Masterpiece Collection, found at presents video clips from Masterpiece productions along with resources for teachers including essays and teaching tips. In this way teachers can guide their students in the analysis and comprehension classic literature adapted for the screen. The clips help students to appreciate the power of film dramatization—and the importance of becoming a critical media consumer.

The online portal is free; there is one dedicated to the Masterpiece series on Little Women:


The goal is to engage students through media, introducing them to challenging authors and text. three video clips from the series are provided. In theses key scenes students are asked to examine what is gained and what is lost when translating a classic work of literature to the screen.

Why another adaptation of Little Women?

With so many adaptations of Little Women in the form of films, plays, a musical and an opera, why was a new series created? Cyrisse mentioned from Anne Boyd Rioux’s book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters that Little Women is a “living story,” one where the reader feels like he or she is coming home. The scholarship that has come out about Alcott as a writer of pulp fiction along with stories for young adults adds additional layers to Little Women. In short, the story is still very much relevant, especially for today’s girls.

The themes are outlined on this slide:

Sample video clips

1. Jo cuts her hair
The first clip shown is when Jo cuts off her hair in order to provide Marmee with money for passage to Washington and the critically ill Mr. March. Students are asked to compare the clip to the passage in the book with the understanding that the book will always provide more detail (for example, the fact that that the part where she is crying over her hair was left out and how that influences one’s impressions of Jo). Among the resources is an article about the significance of short hair vs. long hair in femininity, bringing it all into the modern day.

2. Writing for money
The second clip is the conversation between Father and Jo over writing and money. While he considers writing as sacred, to be nurtured slowly, Jo sees it as a means to earn money for the family and dismisses the sacredness of her writing. Themes to discuss include art versus commerce, the reversal of roles (Jo acting as breadwinner rather than her father), the actual poverty of the Alcotts, and women and work — how their role in society made it nearly impossible for them to earn their keep.

3. Jo goes to NY
The third clip involves Laurie and Jo, her recognition that he has grown “quite fond” of her and her flight to New York, thus defying convention. Students will expect Jo to accept Laurie’s intentions and to seal it with a kiss but Marmee interrupts the moment; Jo looks half relieved and half annoyed. Ultimately she rejects the idea of romance and possible marriage with Laurie, asking Marmee if she can go away from him to New York. Teachers can discuss with students about her reaction to his advances, ultimately feeling the need to physically leave him.

Marmee discusses with Jo about marriage and how it requires much patience and forbearance and that she and Laurie are too much alike with regards to temperament. Teachers can provide background by discussing the marriage of Bronson and Abba which at times was tumultuous, ultimately scaring Louisa away from the idea for herself. Marmee’s marriage to Mr. March is portrayed as idyllic whereas in real life it was troubled. Jo’s rejection of the idea of marriage was shocking for the day which can invite discussion as to why and where the story of Jo and Laurie is headed.

Contemporary applications

One of the teaching tips includes the kids creating social media accounts for their favorite characters or for Louisa herself, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or a blog; the idea being based upon the thought of what a blog written by Louisa would have been like. She was very outspoken about many issues, including that of being an “old maid”; this group of women was marginalized in her time — how could this apply to marginalized groups of people today?

It gives students an opportunity to learn about Louisa’s role as a reformer and her passion for issues such as abolition and women’s rights.


Access teaching materials and clips for the Masterpiece series on Little Women at

The entire Masterpiece Collection can be found at


Cyrisse Jaffee is Editorial Project Manager of the Masterpiece Collection on PBS Learning Media. Materials are available on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle and several others.

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