A Mini-unit Outline for The King of Mazy May and The Ransom of Red Chief

Here is the beginning of a unit I worked on a few years ago for a small group of middle school students.  I titled the unit “Human Nature” because I feel these two stories have some great characters, and students enjoy these stories.

Essential Questions:      

What can I learn about myself through reading?

What can I learn about human nature through reading?

Why do writers use literary elements?

Key outcomes:   

students will gain insight about themselves and human nature

students will understand that literary elements are used to help enhance author’s message and meaning


Readings:  “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The King of Mazy May”

Writing pieces:  Character analysis:  Red Chief, Sam, Bill, Walt; Dialogue from a given scenario;

Daily or post-reading fact-checks or retells (to build comprehension)

Character study sheets

Literary elements to focus on:  Irony, Idiom, Protagonist, Antagonist

Vocabulary study:  peer, liable, summit, antic, flounder, collaborate, commend, comply, palatable, proposition, surreptitiously (some words might change depending on the version of the story that we read)


  1. “The Ransom of Red Chief” by O. Henry
    1. Pre-reading questions: What is a ransom (discuss) and If you had to baby-sit a “terror-child” how would you handle it (discuss and connect).
    2. Build background knowledge about O. Henry (ironic stories)—define and write IRONY
    3. Build background knowledge about IDIOMs (define and give examples—find in story as we read); also do the vocab words
    4. Set up an active reading chart (predicting events/outcomes)
      1. My prediction/actual event/surprise (y or n)—I am looking to stop the group as we read at least 4 major events and have them write the event and then their prediction; after they read what happens have them write yes or no in the surprise column.
      2. Do character study sheets.
  1. “The King of Mazy May” by Jack London
    1. Pre-reading questions/activities: Look at the photos and quotes of the story.  Then ask them “What was the Gold Rush?” have them predict what the story might be about.  Then ask them “What are some get-rich-quick schemes that you know of in today’s society?”
    2. Background knowledge: protagonist and antagonist (sometimes not human); also do the vocab words
    3. Set up an active reading chart to study Walt’s character
      1. Walt (actions/thoughts/description) Meaning/conclusions
      2. Have them number the chart 1-5 to find at least 5 things and make 5 conclusions
    4. While reading the story stop periodically for fact checks, comprehension and predicting
    5. After the story do a fact check or a re-tell
    6. Do character study sheets.

Vocabulary Instruction Activity Ideas

Effective vocabulary instruction needs to be structured in such a way that students can connect definitions to their existing knowledge.  Students also need to learn word roots, prefixes and suffixes to help them figure out new words they encounter as well as be exposed to different definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  Instruction should also occur regularly and students should encounter words frequently.  The teacher should model good thinking strategies about a new word as well.  Classifying and grouping objects is also a good strategy for helping students build vocabulary.  Further, students should understand how words relate to each other and go together.  Finally, there needs to be a lot of reading and writing in an effective vocabulary instruction program.


  1. “Which word doesn’t fit.” This is an activity that you can do when students have learned enough words because it can be done as a review activity.  It requires them to remember the definitions, but it also makes them think about how the words go together to find out which one doesn’t belong, and students have to explain their thinking.  This activity can be varied among age groups and ability levels.  I have done this successfully with high school students with significant reading disabilities (and emotional disabilities).  This activity requires some important pre-planning (you can make it as easy or as difficult as you want), but it can encourage some really creative thinking as students try to eliminate words.  Finally, you should never make spelling the thing which eliminates a word–always make it relate to the definition.  Here’s an example:
  2. thwart         censure           impede            disdain
  3. woe            disdain             arbitrary           anxiety

This activity exposes students to words and requires them to figure out how they relate to each other.

  1. “True or False.” Here is an example of an activity where students need to remember the definitions (or they might even have the definitions in front of them) then they have to apply what they know to answer whether the question is true or false.   To make this a little more difficult you could even have students correct the statement if it is false (using another vocabulary word or synonym you’ve discussed already).  I like to use this activity in conjunction with a book or story we are reading to help students relate the words to something meaningful.  The following  examples come from a test I gave on the stories “Dragonsong” and “The Iliad.”

When Menolly lacerated her hand it caused her to grimace in pain.

Menolly was apprehensive about leaving the sea-hold because of the Thread, but she was audacious enough to do it anyway.

The arrival of the new harper at the sea-hold caused a lot of fervor among the girls, even though Elgion was extremely belligerent.

Mavi does a pristine job of dressing Menolly’s wound and Menolly was gratified for it.

Achilles was seething when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him.

Troy was besieged for 12 long years before the cunning Odysseus thought of the Trojan Horse.

In an impetuous act, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the city which caused Hector’s wife to become implacable.

This activity requires students to relate their knowledge of the words to their unit of study and to decide whether or not the usage is correct.  It also exposes them to the words again in a meaningful way.

  1. “Category” This activity is for when students are first becoming familiar with some new words (and after you’ve already done something like a Frayer Model with them).  You can use any set up which allows students to physically manipulate the words and move them into categories (such as a Smartboard, index cards or post-it notes).  This activity will require you to do some preparation and pre-planning to make the cards and the categories ahead of time.  Each student or small group will have a stack of cards or post-its, and each card will have on it a vocab word or a synonym of that word.  I like to have about 20-25 cards for students to use.  Depending on your unit of study, you could relate the categories to that or you could just give categories that seem to go with the words you’re working on.  Then you name the category and students place the cards into that category; you could even do this part in multiple ways: (post-it notes placed on posters around the room for students who need to move around, place cards in baskets, simply take the index cards out of the pile and make it a separate pile.  But I like to have students pick their cards before going around the room so they aren’t picking all the same cards as other people and avoiding thinking–you could also give every group or student different words so that doesn’t happen).  Here’s an example:  A stack of cards contains the words:  defiant, demure, anxious, elegant, enormous, populous, imaginative, secretive, besiege, impetuous, cunning, apprehensive, implacable, gratified, disdain, arbitrary,  impede, thwart, woe.    For the first category I might say, “Ways you might feel if you had money stolen.”  Students pick their cards and then explain their thinking to their small group or to you.  If those words were in, say, The Tell-tale Heart by Poe, then I might give a category like, “Words that relate to the setting.”  Students will come up with some pretty creative ways to defend their choices.  This activity requires students to think creatively and to see how words relate to each other.

Free Writing


IMG_1683.JPGI started writing this blog post on September 30, and then (obviously) forgot about it.  I know that I wanted to talk about how I have been doing freewriting with my students.  One of the expectations in the common core is that students will be able to write for extended periods of time.  Because my students have learning disabilities and also because they don’t have a lot of stamina, we practice writing what comes to mind for a certain amount of time.  I use either a picture prompt or a text prompt, and they must write for the whole time and they must not talk (so they can focus on writing).  We started out by going for two minutes; and now we are up to four minutes.  We do this twice a week.  The pictures I’ve included here are examples of what the students can do, but I’ve noticed that their handwriting is improving; they also talk about how their hands “cramp” up, so I know they are really working those writing muscles.IMG_1685.JPGIMG_1680.JPG

Beginning Paragraphs with Reluctant Writers


2 students practice a paragraph writing process for reluctant writers.

My middle school writing class has students who are not strong writers. In fact, they often refuse to write.  It’s been a two week process, but I’ve finally gotten them to write a basic five-sentence paragraph. Too often they get stuck when they are expected to write because they don’t know how to begin; they think they should just be able to write.  This often leads to behavior problems since not being able to do something can trigger emotional trauma.  Now we have finally gotten to the point where the students brainstorm, outline, and then write.

The process that I’ve taught them is not something I came up with on my own.  I have to give credit to the Stern Center for Language and Learning because that’s where I learned about this process through a course taught by Juliet King where she used the book Writing Skills by Diana Hanbury King to help us present writing in a new way to students with disabilities.  I’ve adjusted the technique since using it for a few years, but I find it to be a great way to teach reluctant writers how to organize and plan writing that can be used to respond to a short-answer question.

This process is short and concrete. First students will brainstorm everything they know about a topic or question.  For example, today, my students did a character study about a character from the book On My Honor.  They all completed a sheet that included character traits and then specific examples from the story to support those traits.  Once students complete the brainstorm they will do a simple outline.  The outline contains the topic sentence, three supporting details (written in note form), and then the concluding sentence.  After completing an outline, students write or type the final paragraph by using that outline.  I’ve found this approach to be easy to remember and something that provides structure and organization for students who have great difficulty with that.  The process of teaching them to use this format for writing meant that first I had to instruct them about how to brainstorm.  Then I showed them how to categorize their brainstorm and organize it into more specific topics.  Next, we learned how to write a strong topic sentence and to use the brainstorm to help write the supporting details.  I also had to teach them how to put thoughts and ideas into a note form in order to get the main concepts of a sentence onto an outline without having to write out the whole sentence.  Finally I taught them how to write a good concluding sentence.  I had students practice this process verbally with lots of modelling from me before I had them move into writing on their own.

As students get better at writing, the simple paragraphs can be expanded with more details and supporting thoughts.  They also can use the concluding sentence as a way to transition to the next paragraph when writing multiple-paragraph answers.  Over the years I’ve found that it is important to help students who have problems with organization put things into an ordered process because it helps them learn it and remember it better.  It also provides structure and support which makes them feel successful and helps them reach their academic goals.


brainstorming sheets for a character paragraph

Using Nearpod For Safe Discussions

nearpod app for ipadUsing 1:1 iPads can be tricky with middle school students.  They want to access music and games, and otherwise multi-task while attempting to complete their class work.  In addition,  the type of students I work with will do everything in their power to avoid classwork; they also can be super anxious about talking out loud or contributing to a discussion.  We want to have classrooms be more real-life project-oriented to get students interested in learning, but the students I work with need intensive structure and support; they aren’t good at independent learning. I wanted to provide a fun way for students to interact and participate in a class discussion in a safe way.  Last school year I heard about an app called Nearpod, and I’ve found it to be really fun and engaging for my students.

Nearpod allows someone to create a “presentation,” and then allows others to see it on their own device and to interact.  Presentations can be created usingnearpod featuring creator's screen Nearpod or they can even be uploaded from Powerpoint or from your Google Drive.  I like building presentations in Keynote on my iPad and then uploading them to Nearpod to finish off because Nearpod doesn’t have as many building options as other presentation building tools.  Once the presentation is in Nearpod, the creator can add activities which include polls, open-ended questions, multiple choice questions, drawings, or quizzes.  The creator inserts opportunities for the users to answer questions and provide input.  It becomes an interactive presentation and discussion tool.  To set up, the creator logs into Nearpod and then shares a presentation; when that is done, the creator gets a code.  The code is what everyone else enters in order to access the presentation.  Each person creates a screen name to use when they log into the presentation.  The creator can see everyone’s names, and when activities are shared, the creator can see everyone’s responses.  The creator is the one who controls the presentation and shares it with the group.  My students are especially fond of “draw-it” scenarios because they love using the drawing or picture tools, and they love to see each other’s artwork when I share for the discussion.

So how can you use this tool?  This week I created a presentation on friendship since we’ve been discussing it in our social skills class.  What I did was create “tricky situations,” scenarios that we needed to discuss.  I would share a slide of a situation, then present an activity for student comment or response.  Once all responses were in, I would share them, and as I shared them across the ipad screens, we had our discussion.  Each student was actively engaged, and they felt safe to participate.  They created silly screen names and would laugh when I used those names instead of their real names:  “I like what Goldfish shared, he had a great suggestion for this situation.”  I like to use scenarios and have students respond to the scenario using Nearpod; they feel safer doing it this way rather than just speaking out in class.