Nelson Mandela & Teaching Invictus

Invictus and Nelson Mandela Lesson Plan

In Updates by Punita Rice

In seventh grade World Studies, during our unit on culture, we talk a lot about Apartheid and modern day South Africa in class. We explore topics like cultural identity, cultural conflict, pluralism, and national identity, and try to apply them to the events that unfolded in South Africa during and following apartheid. So, at the end of the school year, we show students the movie Invictus, which tells (in Hollywood fashion) of how Nelson Mandela united his nation by getting them to ‘cheer for the same team’ (literally). Which means we have to teach about the movie Invictus and Nelson Mandela himself.

Read on for a full discussion of exactly how we teach about the movie Invictus and about Nelson Mandela himself, and about his legacy.

Teaching about Invictus and Nelson Mandela

Below is the overview for the actual lesson plan I use to teach about Nelson Mandela, about Mandela Day, and about the movie Invictus. The lesson plan I’m offering below also includes the actual objective (purpose) of the lesson plan, an agenda for how to actually do it, an explanation of what Invictus actually means and is, and a discussion of context.

Invictus Movie Day Lesson Plan

I have students do some thinking while they watch. As they watch, they’re asked to consider moments in the movie that show them something about the (1) political system of South Africa, (2) the cultural identities and cultural values there, (3) geography and how populations settle in different areas in South Africa, and (4) the economic situation of South Africa. That way, the movie ties back directly to everything they have learned during the year.

This is similar to what I have them do when we learn about the technological singularity — only there, they apply technology’s potential impacts on the four major domains of Social Studies, and here, they simply list examples from the movie that fall under each of those domains.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to find examples of political systemsculturegeography, and economics while enjoying a movie about how South African leader, Nelson Mandela, united a pluralistic nation by uniting them in a common goal.


  1. Reflect on the four lenses for understanding Social Studies (2–5 minutes)
  2. Watch the movie Invictus!
  3. Add one example from the movie to the board* in any of the four categories.

*This sucks, but I completely forgot to take a photo of the board after the last class finished this! 🙁

Overall, the approach is great, because it gets them to do some content-related thinking during the movie, but it’s also a low-demand activity that lets them kick back and enjoy.

Also, this isn’t listed on the agenda, at some point I try to address the most common question:

What does “Invictus” mean?

A lot of people think Nelson Mandela came up with the poem Invictus. This is not the case.

“Invictus” is actually the name of a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) that’s used throughout the movie.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

The Victorian poem “Invictus” by the poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

And the answer to the question of “what does Invictus mean” is this:

The word “invictus” is Latin for “unconquered.”

And of course, the idea of being “unconquered” itself has some amazing significance in the movie.

Context for the Movie

My students don’t need to have a ton of information on Nelson Mandela or the story of South African apartheid recapped right before we watch the movie, because we cover all of this pretty extensively earlier in the year.

BUT, it would be pretty ideal to have the entire thing happen near or on Freedom Day, April 27th (it just doesn’t make sense to do it this way for me) or on Mandela Day, July 18th (which doesn’t make sense because it’s summer… but maybe this would work for summer school!).

Either way, next, I’m offering some valuable background information on the man, Nelson Mandela, and on Mandela Day itself. So, if you’re interested, read on.

Who was Nelson Mandela?

Invictus and Nelson Mandela - Teaching about Nelson Mandela & Invictus
Nelson Mandela & Teaching Invictus

Nelson Mandela grew up in apartheid South Africa, and grew up to fight the institutionalized racism in his nation. He was thrown in prison for decades for fighting apartheid and for his activism. And when he was eventually released, rather than seeking vengeance, he forgave the people who imprisoned him.

Then, he ran for president.

And won.

In spite of apartheid being officially over when President Mandela took office, the nation was still tense and full of conflict — but Mandela worked toward making his homeland a “rainbow nation.”

Nelson Mandela followed these three rules in his life:

  1. Free yourself.
  2. Free others.
  3. Serve every day.

Nelson Mandela does not just represent conviction, dedication, faith, and forgiveness; he also represents the power. of an individual person to affect change in an incredible way. Nelson Mandela was a man who transformed his life, and his world.

About Mandela Day (July 18)

Mandela Day is not a public holiday, but a day to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela. According to the official Mandela Day website, the formal goal of Mandela Day is:

“To inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better and in so doing, to build a global movement for good.”

The “Mandela Day” Website, on the purpose of Mandela Day

Today “belongs to everyone and can take place anywhere, at any time” and urges everyone to “find inspiration for their contribution in the legacy of Nelson Mandela and to serve their fellow humans every day” (via Mandela Day). The Mandela Day campaign aims to unite people around the world in the fight against poverty, and to promote peace and reconciliation.

This day is a global call to action for citizens of the world to take up the challenge of following in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps, and serving others. Today celebrates the idea that each individual has the power to transform the world.

Mandela Day has been celebrated since 2009, and was formally recognized by the United Nations in 2010.

Powerful Nelson Mandela Quotes

On the importance of education:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world.”

Nelson Mandela, on the importance of education

On persistence and perseverance (also great for growth mindset):

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall.”

Nelson Mandela on persistence and perseverence

On standing by your convictions and having strength of character:

“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience… If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man.”

Nelson Mandela, on convictions and strength of character and self

On tolerance and love:

“People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”

Nelson Mandela, on tolerance

On faith and persistence (this one is up in my classroom!):

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Nelson Mandela, on perseverance and having faith in yourself

On making a difference in others’ lives:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Nelson Mandela, on how to make a difference in others’ lives

On the responsibility of having freedom:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Nelson Mandela, on the responsibility of having freedom

The last two quotes seem the most valuable, especially to use in a classroom setting; it’s not just enough to be alive, and healthy, and well (or even grateful for all of those things): freedom comes with a responsibility. To live in such a way that “respects” the freedom of others seems manageable enough for most people who make an effort to live consciously. But to live in a way that “enhances” the freedom of others is a much bigger undertaking, and requires soo much more conscious effort. Very inspiring, very powerful stuff.

Links to Learn More about Nelson Mandela, Mandela Day, and Living Consciously

Because I’ve put together a lot of resources about Nelson Mandela and also about Mandela Day, I’ve rounded a lot of those up and am sharing them below.

Below are some links to learn more about Nelson Mandela:

Some links to read more about Mandela Day:

Some links about living consciously:

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