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Boris Pasternak, Russian author of Doctor Zhivago, born

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Chinese New Year: Year of the Horse

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Shakespeare: From the Globe to the Global

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    Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
    Curriculum Unit

    Courage “In the Time of the Butterflies”: an updated CCSS unit template (2 Lessons)

    Created May 14, 2014



    The Unit


    Julia Alvarez In the Time of the Butterflies

    Julia Alavarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

    Credit: photo by Bill Eichner ©

    Set in the Dominican Republic during the rule of Rafael Trujillo, In the Time of the Butterflies fictionalizes historical figures (four Mirabal sisters, their parents, Trujillo himself, and his subordinates) in order to dramatize the Dominican people’s heroic efforts to overthrow this dictator’s brutal regime. The sisters are distinctive personalities, each engaged in the struggle for independence. With unique structure of time frames and alternating voices, Julia Alvarez has written a complex coming-of-age novel that provides a context for students to look at the struggles of women to secure their human, civil, and economic rights in countries around the world today.

    In this unit, students undertake a careful analysis to see how each individual demonstrates courage in the course of her family’s turbulent life events. Students additionally analyze a speech delivered in 2006 by a daughter of one of the sisters to understand better the historical legacy of these extraordinary women.

    Guiding Questions

    • How did the Mirabal sisters exhibit courage in their words and actions?

    College and Career Readiness Standards

    Anchor standard

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

    Grade level standards

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.


    Las Mariposas—“The Butterflies”—was the name used by Dominicans to describe the Mirabal sisters, who were assassinated by the dictator Rafael Trujillo for trying to lead a democratic revolution. In 1960, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa were beaten to death on a lonely mountain road by Trujillo’s henchmen, who placed their bodies in their Jeep and threw it over a cliff to make their deaths appear accidental. Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) is their story. Based on Alvarez’s personal knowledge of the political situation in the Dominican Republic and her family’s own participation in the resistance movement, the novel conveys authenticity. It is also grounded in extensive research. Alvarez interviewed the surviving sister Dedé and other family members to create unforgettable characters and bridge the gap between biography and fiction.

    The story takes place on the tropical island of Hispaniola, shared between Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east. The island is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea on the south. Three decades of Trujillo’s iron rule had turned this country into a place of terror where political enemies were jailed or “disappeared.” Torture was a routine tactic of the government, and the secret police were everywhere, always listening. Children were coached to idolize El Jefe lest their parents win disapproval and be punished severely.

    The four Mirabal girls were raised comfortably and educated well by their doting parents. Three of the sisters were drawn into danger, risking their lives, families, and homes by planning for a revolution. The lives of the Mirabal sisters, and more particularly their murders, galvanized the opposition to the regime. Trujillo was assassinated in the year following their deaths. 

    Structurally, the novel presents a challenge to the student. First, the book is divided into three chronological sections dealing with events in the 1940s, the 1950s, and finally 1960, the year of their deaths. Within these main sections, each chapter focuses on one sister. Maria Teresa’s story is told through her diary entries in the first person; Patria’s story is a first-person narrative, as is Minerva’s; Dedé’s chapters are written in third person. A frame story interwoven into Dedé’s chapters introduces an unnamed woman writer, presumably Alvarez herself, interviewing Dedé in 1994 at the family home and museum, which now preserves the story of the Butterflies; this is also a limited third-person narrative. Finally, at the very end, Dedé speaks in first person in the Epilogue. Once students understand this complex narrative structure, they will be able to fit the events of the story into a coherent whole. Through Alvarez’s masterful storytelling the reader experiences growing tension as the story winds toward its inevitable conclusion.  

    The courage shown by the Mirabal women has been recognized not only in the Dominican Republic, but throughout Latin America. In 1993, recognition by the world community came in the form of The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, adopted as a resolution by the United Nations General Assembly. In 1999, the UN designated November 25, the anniversary of the Mirabals’ deaths, as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

    Additional information may be found in the PDF extension to these Background Notes.


    This summative assessment requires students to write a character analysis using materials already generated in the lesson. Students will synthesize information from their reading of the novel, their class discussions, and written work to write a cohesive study of one character using courage as an organizing theme and providing textual documentation for their contentions. Students should use whatever citation requirements and formatting you normally require for essays.

    • Remind students that they should develop the essay through the following steps. Worksheet 5: Rubric for Assessment provides suggested criteria for the essay.
      • Brainstorm about one of the main characters;
      • Organize ideas;
      • Write a discovery draft;
      • Participate in a peer-editing session;
      • Revise the essay as a final assessment.
    • Remind them that an explanatory essay will have several parts:
      • An introduction;
      • A thesis statement which summarizes the essay and predicts the body paragraphs;
      • Multiple body paragraphs which use evidence to support the thesis;
      • A conclusion.
    • Offer students the writing prompt:
      Courage has been seen as an essential human virtue for centuries. Think about one of the Mirabal sisters as she is portrayed in the novel In the Time of the Butterflies. What kind of courage did she show? What was the source of this courage? How was it expressed? Did she ever fail to show courage at a critical moment? Use evidence (quotations or paraphrases) from the text to support your conclusions.
    • Provide sample thesis statements if necessary. (See samples, below.)
      • Maria Teresa was a woman who had always been a little timid. She overcame her timidity because of her love for her activist husband Leandro, demonstrating physical courage in the face of arrest, imprisonment, torture, and even the imminent possibility of death.
      • Although Dedé did not show much physical courage during the years her sisters were alive, she showed moral courage by raising their children, preserving their memories in a museum, and dedicating her life to informing the world about their sacrifice.
      • Use your preferred form for peer editing to review and correct essays, being careful to stress the importance of good evidence, logical transitions, sufficiently formal diction, and mechanical correctness.

    Extending the Unit

    1. Each year on November 25, the anniversary of their deaths, the courage of the Mirabal sisters Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa is commemorated in Latin America. The United Nations named that date for the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

    • Have students research other women who have shown great courage in bringing about change in the world: for example, Aung San Suu Kyi, who served fifteen years of house arrest in Burma; Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old shot by the Taliban for advocating education for girls; Fannie Lou Hamer, an early leader of the U.S. civil rights movement; the women nominated for the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award since 2009. Students may easily locate newspaper articles about the recent liberation of Aung San Suu Ky and the attempted assassination of Malala Yousufzai. Biography websites like www.Biography.com can provide information about Fannie Lou Hamer. The State Department offers biographical information each year about each of their nominees.
    • After they complete their research, have students prepare oral presentations about the women they have researched and present them to the class. Alternatively, you could have them prepare PowerPoint presentations to show in class or make available online. A third possibility would be to have a simulated “Meet the Press” presentation in which students would play the roles of the women whom they have researched.

    2. In 1979, The United Nations adopted The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 1993, the UN added the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which spells out the role of the state in preventing violence against women and specifically cites the Mirabal sisters.

    • Have students read one or both of these documents carefully. Have them list the main obligations of the state (that is, the country ratifying the document) in ensuring the safety and human rights of women;
    • Have students research the most recent issues of concern to the United Nations regarding the status and legal rights of women.
    • After students have completed their research, host a round-table discussion in class on the question: What can be done to address the three most significant problems facing women in the world today?
    Additional Resources

    The Lessons

    • In the Time of the Butterflies: Courage Defined, New CCSS Model

      Created May 5, 2014
      Julia Alvarez, better resolution, In the Time of the Butterflies

      This new EDSITEment Lesson provides a Common Core Application for high school students. Julia Alverez’s novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, fictionalizes the life events of historical figures, four Mirabal sisters and their families, to dramatize the efforts of people in the Dominican Republic late 1950s to overthrow a dictator’s brutal regime. The lesson analyzes the main characters to see how each individually demonstrates courage. A speech delivered in 2006 by a daughter of one of the sisters is used to understand the historical legacy of these extraordinary women.

    • In the Time of Butterflies: Violence against Women, New CCSS Model

      Created May 12, 2014
      Julia Alvarez In the Time of the Butterflies

      Have students analyze a speech, a nonfiction primary source that delivers a factual account of the historical events depicted in the novel.

    The Basics

    Grade Level


    Subject Areas
    • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
    • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
    • Literature and Language Arts
    • Critical analysis
    • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
    • Historical analysis
    • Literary analysis
    • Using primary sources
    • Using secondary sources