Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Courage “In the Time of the Butterflies”

Created August 28, 2013


The Lesson


Julia Alvarez, better resolution, In the Time of the Butterflies

Julia Alavarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies

Credit: photo by Bill Eichner © from the Julia Alvarez website (http://www.juliaalvarez.com/)

On occasions which bring us together like today, it is a consolation to me that when my mother would hear warnings about how dangerous it was to stand up to Trujillo, she would always reply with the same words. ... “If they kill me I shall reach my arms out of the grave and I shall be stronger ..."

Minou Tavárez Mirabal

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 lesson, students undertake a careful analysis of the main characters to see how each individually 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?

Learning Objectives

  • Generate an extended definition of “courage”
  • Analyze the actions of the Mirabal sisters in terms of this definition
  • Analyze a speech that delivers a factual account of the historical events depicted in the novel

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.

Preparation Instructions

 The following worksheets are included with this lesson plan to be used in conjunction with the student activities. A more in-depth background information extension is also included.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Courage Defined

Have students generate an extended definition of “courage”

  • Write the word COURAGE on the board and explain that many cultures over thousands of years have considered this to be an essential human virtue;
  • Distribute the cards from Worksheet 1: Statements about Courage. Students read the definition, explain the statement in their own words, and tell whether they agree or disagree with it. As an alternative, students may research their own quotations;
  • Discuss different kinds of courage. List different types on the board and ask students to give examples of each one;
  • Ask what term could be an antonym for courage. Remind them of the quotations from Mark Twain and Nelson Mandela and explain that in some situations, a person who is not afraid is foolish or unobservant; courage is not the absence of fear but the act of overcoming it.

A few types of courage are defined, below. Other types of courage such as social and emotional courage may be identified and applied in Activity 2.

  • Physical courage is courage shown in the face of danger, injury, hardship, even death. Students will be able to give many examples from films and books;
  • Moral courage is shown when someone takes a stand against violence or injustice, even at the risk of being embarrassed or shamed. Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example;
  • Intellectual courage is the willingness to examine new ideas, challenge one’s own preconceptions, and risk making mistakes in a search for truth.  For example, considering opposite viewpoints rather than jumping to an easy conclusion would show intellectual courage.

Have each student write an original extended definition of courage. An extended definition may include the following: a direct definition, the etymology of the word, description, examples, analogies, classification of types, synonyms, antonyms, etc. You should make clear to your students how long you wish the extended definition to be and what methods you would like them to use.

Activity 2. Types of Courage Manifested by the Mirabal Sisters

Have students analyze the actions of the Mirabal sisters to evaluate how the main characters respond to situations that demand courage.

  • Divide students into four groups, one for each of the Mirabal sisters. (If the class is very large, assign two groups for each sister);
  • Distribute a copy of Worksheet 2: Finding Evidence in the Text to each student;
  • Tell each group to review the chapters under their assigned sister’s name with special care, but not to rule out information they remember from other chapters;
  • Have students work in groups to complete Worksheet 2, and then synthesize what they have learned into a general statement about each sister’s character in order to answer the two questions at the end of the handout. (See also Worksheet 2.1: Finding Evidence in the Text Suggested Responses for this exercise.)
  • Each group records findings for other students to read.

Have student groups present their findings to the class, citing any textual evidence they have found to support their answers. Encourage students to take notes on other groups’ work and allow time for them to do so.

Activity 3. Violence against Women (Speech by Minou Tavárez Mirabal)

Have students analyze a speech, a nonfiction primary source that delivers a factual account of the historical events depicted in the novel. This speech was given by Minerva Mirabal’s daughter Minou on the subject of violence against women in 2006. It provides a unique first-hand perspective on the experiences of the Mirabal sisters and offers special insight into Minerva’s life and legacy. This informational text will broaden students’ scope and understanding of the aspects of courage they have examined in Alvarez’s historical fiction. Students’ close reading is followed by a discussion on the relevance of the speech to contemporary women in the United States and around the world.

  • Remind students that Minerva’s daughter was named Minou. Ask them to recall what information the reader learns about her in the novel;
  • Bring students up-to-date on Minou’s background. Minou’s father was murdered by another political regime in 1963, when she was seven years old. She was well-educated, graduated from college with a degree in Philology (a branch of linguistics) and a specialization in Spanish literature and linguistics. She has been a college professor and is now a member of the Chamber of Deputies in the Dominican Republic. (She has an open Facebook page if students who read Spanish would like to learn more about her);
  • Distribute copies of Minou’s “violence against women” speech, delivered at Middlebury College in 2006. Tell students that Minou was introduced by the author of the novel, Julia Alvarez, who is a writer-in-residence at the college;
  • Distribute copies of Worksheet 4: Guided Reading Handout. As this was given as a speech, it is meant to be heard. Before beginning their analysis, have students take turns reading it aloud;
  • When students have finished, review their answers to Questions 1–5; then focus the class discussion on Question 6.  Worksheet 4.1: Guided Reading Handout Suggested Answers provide a key for teachers;
  • Lead a class discussion on the legacy of the Mirabel sisters. Consider the following: How relevant is the issue of violence against women to the United States? What can be done to reduce such violence in this country? Are the Mirabals an example for this country as well as the rest of the world? How?

An alternate version of this speech (Worksheet 3.1) is available for for the teacher’s reference. Worksheet 3.1 highlights the following vocabulary terms in bold face type and provides definitions to each  term in the margin alongside the text.


Have the students write a response to the following:

How does Minou’s description of specific events of the Mirabal sisters’ lives related in the violence against women speech differ from or reinforce the experience of courage relayed in the novel? Which version, fact or fiction, is more powerful? Why?


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 Lesson

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 Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

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
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Eileen Mattingly, Director of Education for Journeys in Film, former chair of the Humanities Department at Indian Creek Upper School (Annapolis, MD)