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.

A Few Comprehension Resources

I was looking through old documents on my computer and found some things that I decided to provide as a resource.  I must have put these together originally for a class I took, but I can’t remember now.  Enjoy.

Questions to ask Yourself While you are Reading:

Does this phrase/passage make sense?

How do I say that word? (when you come to a word you don’t know)

What does that word mean? (when you come to a word you don’t know)

What did I just read?

What is the main idea?  How can I find it?

What are the implied meanings of this passage?

How does this connect to the real world, to my life, or to something I remember?

What is the author trying to say?—what is the message?

Close Reading Questions:


            Read the problem 2 or 3 times

State what the problem asks you to solve

Select data that will help you solve the problem

Decide if there is a formula you can apply

Set up an equation/chart/graph

Sketch to help you see the problem

Does my answer make sense?

Graphics and Charts (any subject area):

Look at the graphic and read the title—what does it tell you the graphic is about?

Read all of the text in the graphic

Think about the information—how does it relate to the topic?

Ask:  “what’s important?”

Connect this important info to life and experiences

Prompts for Making Connections

How does this information apply to your life?

What feelings did the reading raise for you?  Why?

What have you learned about yourself by studying this (event/person)?

What new information did you learn from the article that the book didn’t discuss?

Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary

Predict and clarify:  write some vocab words on the board and have students predict what they think the meaning is.  Then, preview the reading—bold faced words, titles, graphics (etc…) and write a refined explanation of the word.  Next, read the sentence/passage with the word and show students how the passage tells you about the word’s meaning—get the meaning down if the students don’t already have it.  They can move to doing this independently with reading material they can handle and they can share their responses with the group.  Help them refine their explanations/definitions into phrases they will remember.

List, Group, Label:  Brainstorm a list of words associated with a topic.  Categorize the words into different groups/headings.  Explain why words are in certain groups/headings (this is a group activity).

Ways for Students to Keep Track:

Learning Logs:  a small notebook or handmade book where students jot down what they learned that day in the subject.

Inquiry Log:  like a learning log, except that students write down further questions they have on the topic and you address that question with additional resources or activities—this can be part of the learning log as well.

Fast-write:  before learning do a freewrite where students write all they can think of about the topic in a short amount of time…after learning, this would be a technique where students write all they’ve learned about the topic and their thoughts about it in a short amount of time.

Coding System (sample you can use):         √ = agree with this point

X = disagree with this point

* = new information

? = don’t understand this

­­underline something interesting

Here is a PDF of some generic Graphic organizers as well.

Reading Comprehension Strategies for Non-readers

From my own experiences, what I’ve found most helpful with working with poor readers are the pre-reading strategies or preparatory work that we can do with students to really “hook” them into a piece of text.  I recently had the task of teaching a 6-7 grade class (of all non-readers and behavior problem students) about the 3 main types of volcanoes.  Rather than just get into the 2 paragraphs, I began with a website that showed them video clips and photos of different volcanoes erupting.  I know they didn’t have much background knowledge of volcanoes; I know they didn’t have good strategies for coming up with questions about a piece of reading, so I needed to give them visuals which would stimulate some ideas or connections for them.  They thought it was so cool—one student said, “you mean there’s different kinds of volcanoes?” and they were into it; they wanted to know the three types.  We read (the 1st grade level text) about the 3 main types and then looked at the pictures and video clips again to match the types with the real photos/videos.  I am certain they never would have even bothered to be interested without that “visual hook,” that thing that needed to be done to capture their interest and prepare them for the reading.  When I wanted to go back to review the three types of volcanoes the next day, I reminded them of the pictures and video clips that they saw to help them remember.

One thing I find difficult to teach to students who are poor readers is the meta-cognitive stuff about reading.  Some of them can hear themselves stumble when they read out loud when something doesn’t make sense, and they go back.  I think the RAP (read, ask what’s important, put it in your own words) strategy will work well for that too.  This strategy has helped me teach them the idea of paraphrasing—so if they can paraphrase what they read then I can be reasonably sure they are understanding and monitoring their understanding.

Questioning during reading is something I’ve become very practiced at.  My students have become very good at answering my “how” and “why” questions.  I want to show them how they can find the answers to the different kinds of questions.  Break questions down into “in the book” and “in my head” questions.  In my classroom we keep a list of questions everyone asks as we read.  For example, when we were reading The Iliad, some of the questions my students came up with were “Will Paris die?”; “Will Achilles die?”; “Who was good and who was bad?”; “Why was Paris called a coward?”; “who will win the war?”  Then I can work with them further on how to better discover the answers to the questions—will we find the answer in the book or will we have to think about it?  Then I can ask them, “will we need information from the story to think about it or can we answer it without the book?”  I want to be able to get them to a point where they can generate questions for each other without my prompting.  Learning to distinguish between kinds of questions will help them in their other subject areas too. Teaching them to think about reading isn’t just teaching them to think about reading—it’s teaching them to think about the world.  I always love when one or more of them say, “ok, so now Dawn is going to ask us how this character is like a real person and what advice would we give them if we met them blah blah blah,” and they do it with a bit of exasperation and sarcasm because I always ask it and they are so sick of hearing it, but they do it– and I’ve made them think about things in the world that are different from what they are used to.

One thing we are fortunate enough to be able to do in a small, alternative setting is to help generalize reading strategies through the other subject areas.  Students at ONTOP take different classes every day (like they would in a mainstream high school). But one of our goals is to focus on literacy—get them to read and think at higher levels than they do now so they won’t feel so intimidated in a high school class.  When teachers teach a reading strategy or a vocabulary strategy then the other teachers in the building will also model and use that strategy in their subject area.  There are only 6 teachers, so it’s easy to collaborate and we have support for each other—it makes it easy to give the students as much exposure to strategies as possible.  This is one of the main things that helps our students learn to read and comprehend more quickly.  We don’t need all those reading accommodations that the students needed in mainstream education because we use text that they can read and have the time to teach them strategies and expose them across subject areas—you just can’t get that kind of package deal in a mainstream high school classroom where the goal is to get through the curriculum rather than teach the student how to read.  Learning and practicing strategies for reading helps the students gain confidence and self-esteem which will make sitting in a mainstream high school class less intimidating.  A couple of years ago I had a student say to me, “you tricked me into liking reading.”  He became the first in his family to graduate from high school.

Reading Disabilities and Their Relationship to Behavior Issues

Fluency, vocabulary, background information, awareness of text structure, and self-monitoring (for application of strategies) are the things a reader needs.  A further understanding of the structure of the genre and sentence/discourse patterns is helpful as well.   Comprehension is an ongoing process; a process that changes with the individual and the situation.  It is also something that can be improved with instruction.  It is easier to understand comprehension as a whole process when it is explained in relation to three areas:  the text, the person and the situation.

A person brings different ideas and understanding to a piece of text.  His or her background knowledge, knowledge of vocabulary, and personal experience with the type of genre are all important to understanding the text.  When you have students, like I do, who have been out of the classroom through a lot of their school experience because of behavior, then you have students who don’t bring a lot of background knowledge to a text.  Further, when they come from homes where reading is not valued then their knowledge of vocabulary and experience with reading different genres is severely limited.   Clearly these types of students have a long way to go to comprehend different kinds of texts.  But this is only a small part of the issue with these students.

The text itself has a direct relation to how well a person will comprehend it.  It may be written with lofty or discombobulated discourse.  It might have difficult sentence structure, or the content itself might be something difficult to understand.  Working with students to learn the style and structure of different kinds of texts can help them overcome problems with difficult discourse and sentence structure.  Further, teaching them strategies for how to navigate through different kinds of expository text will be beneficial.   But this will only help the students who come from homes where education is valued.

The situation in which a reader must comprehend his or her text is a final big factor in comprehension.  Thinking about what goals, you the teacher, have for the reading, what the learning activities are and the whole context of the situation will make a difference to the reader.  Is the student reading for a standardized test?  Is the student reading to gain background information?  Is he or she reading to find the answer to certain questions?  Thinking about comprehension beyond “the reader” will help a reader utilize the situation and the text in the best way for understanding, and it will help the teacher be able to guide the students better.  But, again, students who don’t value education or see the importance of it will gain nothing even from the best teachers.

Comprehension is more than just what the student brings to a text.  At the same time, I began to get frustrated and angry about the content of the chapters.  It is so simple, so straightforward— but only for students who come from homes where education is important.  All these ideas and practices mean nothing to students who have a jaded view of reading (and school) because of years of difficulty.  There is another barrier to comprehension for these students, and these students are the ones who need the most intense instruction.  They aren’t going to learn anything from teachers they don’t value.

Many students I work with began their reading instruction way behind most other students simply because of their home environments where reading and education weren’t valued—this would have been noticeable even in Kindergarten.  Then, because these students kept falling behind their peers, they developed behavior issues to avoid reading altogether—this would have been noticeable even in first grade.  Then as elementary school progressed it was easier to be kicked out of school and fail than to learn to read—and it was easier for teachers to have them out than to discover the true reason for the behavior.  Sometimes the baggage teachers carry, their prejudices about socio-economic status or family names, may be the worst thing of all about why so many students fail to learn to read and eventually become significant behavior problems.

It is a story told every year in the files I read of most of my students; a student is identified with a behavioral disability in first grade, then years later (fourth or fifth or even sixth grade) they are found to have a reading disability; but there was always a history of reading problems from the “get-go”–a reading disability, misdiagnosed (or missed altogether) in favor of labeling the child “emotionally disabled.”  Dealing with the behavior became the priority rather than teaching the child to read.   My work with these students to teach them to read and comprehend involves breaking down the “walls” that have been built after years of failure in school.

Students who come from a background where education and reading are not valued, who come from a background of aggressive problem-solving or other types of abuse, who come from a background where getting the next meal is more important than being in school—those types of students must feel successful in school and valued by others in order to become better readers and better able to see the value of learning to read, the value of education as a whole.  If we, as teachers, don’t connect to our students and work with the “whole” child, then we will never teach them to read—why would they even care to learn if no one bothers to understand them?  Most teachers I’ve worked with in public schools find it easier to remove a problem child than to work with him or her.  These are the children who need the most attention—the others will learn to read without much of our help.  It’s those problem children who need our attention—before they reach middle school and high school–before they become so jaded to education that their only future is on the streets or in jail.   Without really knowing a student, without bothering to care about his or her situation, all the comprehension work in the universe isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

ELL:  Equity and Excellence and the Common Core

When teachers work with a population of students (be they low SES, new Americans etc…) they need to have cultural sensitivity and they need to understand where the child comes from and how that affects how they learn.  The teacher is one of the most important factors to helping kids become more literate.   It is also important to remember that teaching a child is not just the job of the teacher; the parents and the community need to be part of the equation as well.  It’s like a tri-pod:  one leg is the parent, one is the teacher, and one is the community–the student is the “camera” on top being supported by the three legs.  If everyone is working together then a child is being educated better and will become more literate.

In our school district we have partnered with a neighboring district and the two school communities to help bring equity and excellence to our schools (www.partnershipvt.org).  The goal is to create equitable curriculum and education practices that take cultural backgrounds into account and prepare Americans and New Americans for high school graduation and beyond.  Further, teachers are trained in equity where we talk about issues related to diversity and tolerance, and we are given training in biases in order to better understand them, so that all students can feel safe and respected, and so that we, as teachers, can provide a bias-free classroom.  Historically there have been huge bullying issues among students of different races, backgrounds, and cultures, and there has been discrimination toward students by teachers; those problems are not completely gone now, but teachers have been trained to address it–not ignore it or think its “normal.”  When there is a general feeling of safety in a school then kids are more able to attend to their learning.  You can be the best teacher in the world, but if your classroom isn’t a “safe” space, then the anxiety a student feels will block him/her from being the best learner they can be.

Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp state that very early in life: “Children learn to use symbols, combining their oral language, pictures, print, and play into a coherent mixed medium and creating and communicating meanings in a variety of ways.”   What we need to remember is that a child can be literate in their native language and we should be measuring their progress in reading and writing in that native language.  An ELL child should be immersed in English, but we shouldn’t test their literacy in it until they’ve had several years of instruction and immersion in it.  Literacy is extremely important and being literate in the language of the country you live in is beneficial, but remember that individual students need to feel safe and respected and teachers need to treat students equitably and they need to be properly trained to work with students from different cultures and backgrounds.

Common Core and Special Education

I refer to the Common Core Standards quite frequently with my students to show them exactly why they do the activities I have them do.  I also do progress reports for students bi-weekly (since we have parent-teacher meetings every two weeks) so parents can get feedback about how their child is progressing and I am able to show parents the standards.  My students are all on IEP’s so I also have to keep track of reading comprehension goals that they have; at my school we (the teachers) have worked on developing reading comprehension goals that are realistic but that also support Common Core standards.

Helping my students meet standards is difficult.  Many of them have reading levels significantly below grade level (4th or 5th grade on average with some students at 1st and 2nd grade).  Having them meet high school standards (or middle school standards for those in middle school) can be significantly daunting.  If we didn’t have one-size-fits-all expectations then students could show that they are progressing.  For example, if a student can choose details from a text at their instructional level which support his/her thinking then that, to me, is just as good as being able to do that from a text at his/her grade level.  The student has shown me that she can do the skill so has met the standard.  Working with the student to help increase their reading level is still a good idea, but it’s not realistic to think that a student who reads at the 2nd grade level in 10th grade is ever going to read 10th grade material–not without significant intervention that takes away time needed for learning other school subjects.  By the time a student is in high school he or she has learned many accommodations for reading and writing.  Many teachers use audio books or audio formats to reach these students because a student can show comprehension and understanding without having to read a 10th grade text (for example), and students can dictate into software like Dragon in order to get their thinking across in writing.   Students can be thinkers and can participate in discussions without being “literate” according to the Common Core.