Reading About Overcomers!

This quarter, I'm working off district plans that are an accumulation of several standards and they offer me the flexibility to design our own work.  So, as I was looking over all the standards I needed to teach this session, I started getting a vision for a unit where children would read about "Overcomers" ... characters who triumphed, even in the face of great challenges.  I was inspired by Mandisa's song about overcomers and then set out to find titles with really strong characters... characters whose stories were complex, but personal and relevant... characters the kids could really get into and study deeply for days at a time.  I actually planned our reading workshop lessons around one title per week.  Focusing on just that one title during the week has allowed us to read closely and for different purposes, discovering new information and building on important ideas each time we read the text.  There are so many great "overcomer stories" for children, but I finally settled on these five:

These titles would be great for this unit also... I almost chose them:

These are amazing books (fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction) that cover big issues in really kid-friendly ways... issues like illiteracy, poverty, homelessness, slavery, discrimination, tragedy, and loss.  Many of these titles are also available on Reading Rainbow which is great because it offers the children another way to experience the text during the week.

I'm working on writing up the lessons and graphic organizers for this reading unit of study, but we're not quite finished with our last title.  I'll make it available when it's all done, but here's a peek at some of the things we've been doing so far.  

We started with Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest.  If you don't already know the story, it's about a 100-year-old man who never learned to read.  He and his young neighbor Harry are friends who go to the same school to learn how to read.  During the week we read Mr. Baker's story, we studied, discussed, and practiced points such as:

• predicting events and outcomes
• character traits (supported with text evidence on character maps)
• vocabulary (new words as well as strategies)
• problem / solution
• cause / effect
• big ideas / life lessons (synthesizing)
• retelling vs. summarizing
• readers' theater (supporting comprehension and fluency)

Our Character Map of Mr. George Baker
{The students painted the character.  Together, during the workshop minilesson, we brainstormed words that describe his character.  Then, teams of students worked together to infer and use evidence from the text to support the words chosen for the map.  This photo also includes our summary.  We crafted this together after reading the book 3 times.  I structured this class activity in an interactive writing format so we could incorporate word-work into the writing of the summary.  We "share the pen" and each child wrote their own copy while we worked collaboratively on the class copy.}

Vocabulary Work
{We discussed special words from the text and reviewed strategies readers use to figure out what new words mean, primarily using background knowledge, context, illustrations, and synonyms.  Here, the children worked in teams to illustrate the five vocabulary words chosen for this text.  I chose words I could envision us actually using in the classroom.  I posted them with a familiar synonym and the illustrations the children made.  To practice them, we often act them out when possible.}

Synthesizing a BIG Idea or Life Lesson
{It's important to provide a forum for fostering deep thinking and discovering big ideas.  It's also important to create time for children to write about their ideas.  This activity allows the children to do both while thinking critically about the author's purpose... "Why do you think the author wrote this book?  What important thing do you suppose she wants us to learn about life from Mr. George Baker?"}

Here are a few pictures from the following week when we read Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting.  It's a great story about a little boy and his father who are living in an airport because they are homeless.  

Character Map of Andrew
{Including words, definitions, and text evidence.}

Student Writing
{Students wrote questions, their own feelings, their favorite parts, and book reviews.}

{In this story, the reader is never told if Andrew and his dad finally get their own home... we have to infer from clues in the text and by thinking about what we have learned about overcomers.  Once the children made their predictions, I asked them to work together to find evidence from the text to support their predictions.  Some of their samples are below.  The students highlighted evidence from the pages and then wrote to explain how they thought that proved Andrew and his dad would overcome.}

I'm amazed at the depth of conversations I'm having with my first graders around these texts.  It has been such a positive experience that it led seamlessly into our writing unit.  My district timeline requires that I'm working on persuasive writing at this time, so I am creating lessons for a unit I'm calling, When Overcomers Write. It's a persuasive letter-writing unit where the children are gathering problems or needs they notice around school and those observations then become the inspiration for their persuasive letters.  It's a perfect connection to the work we're doing in reading and the students are really seeing themselves as overcomers, and as people who can (and are) making a difference.  Before they started working on their own letters, we kicked off the study by writing a collaborative letter together.  We wrote to our principal about some concerns we had at recess.  After we finished the letter, we talked about how pictures of problems can often be very convincing, so we took pictures of some of the broken equipment and made a quick iMovie trailer to send to the principal along with our class letter.  He was so moved, he visited the classroom and had an open discussion with the kids about the problem.  He asked and answered all their questions, invited them to speak publicly about it on the morning announcements, and offered up a few extra solutions.  The kids felt so empowered... it was awesome!  Here's our trailer that we're pretty sure sealed the deal.  :)

If you're interested in seeing how the whole unit turns out and would like to use it in your classroom, keep watching.  I'll post it as soon as I have it done.  Unfortunately, it might not be ready for you to use until next school year, especially since this year is almost over, but I really think your 1st and 2nd grade students will love the unit.  (If you teach in a place using the Common Core State Standards, this unit fully supports that work.  If you don't, please know the lessons reflect what we know about best practices in reading instruction, regardless of the CCSS.)    If you're watching for it, it will look something like this:

Last, but not least, for all you singers out there...
My students love, love, LOVE this song, even my boys.
It's very touching and inspiring.
We sing it a few times each week.

Click the link below the image to watch the video.

{Tissue Alert!  With permission, we watched this video in my classroom.  I gave the children some background information on the people featured in the video and then we watched it.  I couldn't help crying a little and some of the children did, too, but it was very powerful and has made the whole unit of study even stronger.}

Your Turn:
Can you suggest another children's title that would be great for this unit... a great story about an overcomer?


  1. I am so impressed by your creativity and ability to pass on the knowledge in a way that the little ones understand! You are an AWESOME teacher!!! People don't realize how much work it takes to impart and idea and expand it to include all the requirements.

    1. Thank you. This unit has been a lot of fun... and really meaningful. We're just about to start our 5th and final week of the study, learning about Ruby Bridges. Scholastic published a kid-friendly biography about her integration into a once-segregated Alabama elementary school. Crowds would gather at the school each day and some would throw tomatoes at her as she was walking into the building. U.S. Marshals had to escort her into school just to keep her safe. The kids are finding these stories fascinating. I think they'll really like this one because Ruby is a real person.

  2. LOVE LOVE LOVE this unit! We have been having so much fun learning about overcomes right along with you guys!

  3. Hi! I love this idea! Is your unit ready for sale?

    1. Hi Stephanie,
      It's not ready yet, but my plan is to work on it during the summer when I have time to write it up. It should definitely be ready by the time people head back to school in the fall. Thanks! :)


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