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Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey: A Woman of Uncommon Mind lesson plan


The life of Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey affords a glimpse into Southern ways of life for women of independent means in the 19th century.  Mrs. Dorsey, an intellectually gifted woman in a time when education was not a high priority for women, was often in conflict between her intellectual quests and the traditional domestic life.  Despite the conflicts, Mrs. Dorsey made significant contributions to the literary field of the time. Her friendship with the Jefferson Davis family compelled her to provide haven at Beauvoir for Jefferson Davis to write his memoirs. 


Mississippi Studies Framework: Competencies 3, 6


Grades 4 (with modifications) through 12


Mississippi History Now article on Sarah Anne Dorsey
• Butcher paper (optional)


Students will:

  • Examine events and people of significance in Sarah Dorsey’s life;
  • Realize ways that Mrs. Dorsey’s life both reflected and rejected the traditions of the period;
  • Recognize her literary contributions to the state.


Lead students to discuss the terms “conformity” and “non-conformity” to ensure that they understand the meanings. Ask them to reflect on areas of conformity and non-conformity in their own lives. Have them discuss, in small groups, the positives and negatives of both states (conformity and non-conformity) and add these observations to their notes.


Students will carefully read the Mississippi History Now article on Sarah Dorsey. As they read, they will list adjectives that describe her life. Students should add 10 to 15 descriptors to their notes.

In small groups, students will share their lists and add other descriptors that are accurate. They will then compare their lists with their earlier observations on conformity and non-conformity.

Ask students to write a brief paragraph describing their initial picture of Mrs. Dorsey based on their lists and observations. How did she live within the society? Was she a conformist? A non-conformist? The paragraphs will be turned in for a grade.

Tell students that they will develop a four-tier bio-pyramid of Mrs. Dorsey, working with a partner. The lowest tier will contain the following information: birth date and birthplace; parents; early influences; education; death date; and place of death. The next tier will list her major accomplishments with dates if available. Tier three will list her contemporaries, and tier four, the highest, will show significance—why is Mrs. Dorsey worthy of historical study. Teacher may wish to provide butcher paper for the exercise and encourage students to be neat and creative in developing the pyramid.


As a final project, ask students to use their work to write a thoughtful essay that answers the following questions:

1. What can be learned about the time period in which Mrs. Dorsey lived by studying her biography?

2. How were “non-conformists” treated in Mrs. Dorsey’s lifetime and how are they treated today?


  • Participation in large-group discussion and small group activities
  • Short descriptive paragraph
  • Completion of bio-pyramid
  • Essay


• Research the “Lost Cause” legend associated with the American Civil War.

• Collect pictures of the Beauvoir estate on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

• Find out why Mrs. Dorsey named her coast estate, Beauvoir.

• How is the Beauvoir home and site used today?

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