Pay It Forward (Grade 9)

9, 10, 11, 12

In this lesson, students define "pay it forward" and watch a movie (or movie clips) from the movie Pay it Forward. They compare the concept of paying it forward (serial reciprocity) with the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Then they brainstorm issues and campaigns they can address to make an impact that ripples forward as a result of their influence. Students design a Pledge Banner with a slogan and individual pledges of service that raisees the awareness of an issue they care about. They display the Pledge Banner in an appropriate place of their choice.

Lesson Rating 
PrintOne 45-minute class period, plus time to view a film and carry out a service project

The learners will:

  • define serial reciprocity (paying it forward).
  • view a movie or movie clips and discuss characters and concepts related to the impact of paying it forward.
  • brainstorm and investigate social issues that they can address in their communities and world.
  • take action through service and social activism.
  • design and implement a campaign to raise awareness of a chosen issue of importance.
  • DVD copy of Pay it Forward
  • 5' x 8' piece of canvas or other sturdy material
  • fabric markers
Teacher Preparation 

This lesson includes watching a full-length (123 minute) movie called Pay it Forward. If this is not possible or available, the teacher may choose to show significant clips or summarize the plot and characters. As always, preview the entire film before showing it to the class. This film is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence.

YouTube clip from the film of the assignment: (If you are watching the DVD, the assignment is given between 8-12 minutes on the DVD clock.)

Trevor's idea clip from the film: (On the DVD, Trevor's idea is explained at 33:00.)

Summary can be found on Amazon and IMDB (Internet Movie Database).



service: to provide a community or organization with something that it needs

donate: to give or present something, especially to a charitable organization or other good cause

paying it forward: the concept of asking that a good turn be repaid by having it done to others

social activism: an intentional action to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change. It can take a wide range of forms from writing letters to newspapers or politicians, political campaigning, economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins and hunger strikes.


Pay it Forward (123 minutes) with Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, and Helen Hunt. DVD (PG-13) Warner Home Video, 2001. AISN: B00005B4BI


  1. Anticipatory Set:

    Ask the students to describe some slogans on banners or posters they have seen that raise awareness about an issue or challenge others to do something good (related to education, the environment, health, poverty and hunger, or world peace, or civil rights). Examples: "All People Are Created Equal" or "Recycle" or "Good Planets are Hard to Find" or "Read a Good Book." Talk about whether clever sayings or simple statements get their attention more. Ask whether a banner or poster is an effective way to teach others about issues. Why or why not?

  2. Introduce the theme of the day: Paying It Forward.Paying it forward, also known as serial reciprocity, refers to when people repay the service they receive bypassing it on to someone else. It is repaying good deeds done to us by doing good deeds for others--paying it forward rather than paying it back.

  3. Ask the students to share what they think might result from people paying forward kind deeds and service.

  4. Watch the movie Pay it Forward. Afterward, facilitate a discussion about the themes of the movie. Discuss the importance of helping others and the effects of encouraging others to serve.

  5. Ask or discuss:

    • Who are the main characters in the movie? Discuss their traits.
    • Conduct a character analysis of Trevor McKinney, discussing the external influences that motivate his decision-making.
    • Sequence the events of Pay it Forward.
    • What was the assignment Mr. Simonet gave to the class? Discuss his main purpose for giving it.
    • What was Trevor’s project idea? How did he expect it to work on a grand scale? What was his expected impact?
    • Can one person make a difference in the world? How was Trevor trying to prove that concept?
  6. Review Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy of service and social activism (from Lesson One) and relate it to the concept of paying it forward.

  7. Ask:

    • How are "pay it forward" and Dr. King's legacy alike, and how do they encourage others to serve?
    • What message do you think Dr.King would convey to youth today to encourage them to practice service and social activism?
    • What will you do to continue his message of service and social activism?
  8. Explain that students will decide together on an issue to address in the community and then promote action on this issue for positive change in the community. To begin the project, have students identify a list of social issues that they feel passionate about and wish to address in their community. Such examples may include smoking, drinking, drugs, violence, bullying, racism, discrimination, injustice, dropouts, global issues, illiteracy, and animal extinction.

  9. Once the list has been generated, ask students to brainstorm various actions or projects that could be conducted to address these issues. Such examples may include the following:

    • Smoking — Write a letter to policy makers, requesting a ban on smoking in various venues.
    • Violence— Generate a survey to students about violence awareness or hold an anti-violence rally.
    • Racism — Design a forum for the student body that addresses issues of racism.
  10. Ask students to use team problem-solving to select one issue and project that they would like to address together. Once the issue has been selected, invite students to investigate the issue further to learn more about its origins, causes, and impact on the community. Students may be able to research these topics.

  11. Ask students to think of a slogan or motto that they can give their campaign that will engage interests and deliver the message that they are trying to convey to their peers and the community. Once the slogan is chosen, give each student a piece of paper and ask them to write a simple individual pledge of service related to the chosen issue/slogan.

  12. Give the students the canvas "banner."Ask them to write the chosen slogan in large letters in the center of the banner, and then each student can transfer their individual pledge statement to the banner, using the fabric markers.

  13. After students have completed their pledge banner, decide as a group on an appropriate place in which to display it. Be sure to take pictures (if appropriate) for lasting memories.

  14. Reflection is a key component of service-learning that adds meaning to the experience. Ask students how they felt about their advocacy campaign and promoting the messages of their campaign. Ask them how they think others will feel about their act of service. Discuss with students why doing this project was important.

  15. Have students complete the following statement. I expected community members to be______.

Cross Curriculum 

This lesson has two service components. Students identify an issue they care about and design and implement acampaign to take action as advocates for change. They also design and create a Pledge Banner that raises awareness of the issue. They choose an appropriateplace in which to display the Pledge Banner.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.4 Define and give an example of serial reciprocity.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
  3. Strand PHIL.III Philanthropy and the Individual
    1. Standard PI 01. Reasons for Individual Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Define and give examples of motivations for giving and serving.
  4. Strand PHIL.IV Volunteering and Service
    1. Standard VS 01. Needs Assessment
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Identify a need in the school, local community, state, nation, or world.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Research the need in the school, neighborhood, local community, state, nation, or world.
    2. Standard VS 02. Service and Learning
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Select a service project based on interests, abilities, and research.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Identify specific learning objectives from the academic core curriculum that are being applied in the service-learning project.
    3. Standard VS 03. Providing Service
      1. Benchmark HS.1 Provide a needed service.
      2. Benchmark HS.2 Describe the goals of the project and their impact.
    4. Standard VS 05. Integrating the Service Experience into Learning
      1. Benchmark HS.2 Evaluate progress on the service-learning project before, during, and after the project.
      2. Benchmark HS.3 Identify outcomes from the service.