Other's Mistakes Don't Have to be Your Own

byRaymond Smith


"Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent is how you respond to it"-Lou Holtz, College Football Coach

I chose to begin my unit with that quote because not only am I targeting my students' reading skills; I am also targeting their behavior. As the oldest of four children in a single-parent home, I learned very early on that it is important to live with integrity and perseverance(1). I loved reading about U.S. presidents, many of them with their rags to riches stories. I loved reading about African-Americans, how we were able to overcome slavery, how Harriet Tubman and other slaves knew to run toward the Big Dipper to find freedom. How Martin Luther King preached nonviolence in a violent world. These things lit a fire under me that made me constantly tell myself that I could be successful. Now that I am thirty-one years old, I truly believe that you can do anything you want to do in this world, but along the way you must pick up two very important character traits: integrity and perseverance.

Webster's Dictionary defines integrity as: adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.(2) In my own words, I would define it as how people act when no one is looking. Webster's also defines perseverance as: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and discouragement. In my own words, I would define it as not letting anything get in the way of your goals.

I learned lessons early on about integrity and perseverance. I remember a Saturday morning when my mother was taking us to Kmart to look around and just see what new things were in the stores. We were never able to get anything there, but she would take us to McDonald's afterwards. On the way there our car stopped and we were on the side of the road for about a half hour when this guy pulled up and offered to give us a jump. After a few minutes, our car was back on! We were so happy! I watched the guy the whole time to be sure he would not hurt my mother. After she thanked him for giving us the jump he came over to the window and said, "I want more than a thank-you, you got some money?" My mother replied, "Do you have change for a twenty?" He answered, "I have change, I'll be right back." He grabbed the twenty-dollar bill, ran to his car, and never came back. My mother looked shocked. We asked her about what happened and she said the guy had taken her last money. We headed home. We were so disappointed! I was so mad that that guy had done my mother like that. To this day whenever I see a woman having car issues, I stop and help. When they offer money, I never take it. I just reply "GOD bless you!"


I want to highlight, for my students, positive or negative situations in biographies at that junction of where we all have been and will continue to be: What do I do now? How should I react to this? More often than not, my students find themselves in terrible situations that would have never happened had they not made one bad decision. Today's society makes that easy. Everywhere they look there is sex, drugs, entertainment, people disrespecting authority, negative behavior praised.

I teach 6 th -8 th grade Reading in Chicago. Many of my students crumble under pressure and react viscerally. So in this unit my students will learn from the experiences of others who overcome obstacles in their lives. The focus will be integrity and perseverance. We will use the following autobiographies and biographies to form and inform the unit:

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson, and Peace, Locomotion also by Jacqueline Woodson.

We have no control over certain situations that arise in our lives, or the families we are born into. But we do have control over how we respond, which is why integrity and perseverance are important. Integrity and perseverance build strong people and make the world a better place. Many of my students come from difficult situations and have no idea how to deal with what they are going through. Exposing them to different people who have overcome difficult circumstances can help them build a toolkit that will aid them in conquering troubled areas of their own lives.

"In order to attain full integrity as an individual, the protagonist must gain, through extreme experience and prolonged suffering, tragic consciousness and the moral character needed to bear up under the burden of that terrible awareness."(3) This quote reminds me that these qualities are built over time, and that some may take longer than others to develop. I can honestly say that I have always had perseverance; integrity on the other hand, came only as I experienced more in life. As the quote from Steve Ressler suggests, I attained my integrity after many experiences; the guilt coupled with the consequences of my actions were great lessons for me; lessons that I often tell to my students, with hopes that they will make a wise decision if placed in a similar situation.


In many biographies, the authors go into great detail, not only about the issues and conditions that the person is dealing with, but also how they were able to overcome these issues and conditions. From my own experiences, I know that many people do not talk about overcoming their issues with others, and many children and adults are not afforded this opportunity in their own lives, so what do they do to overcome things? Many times, they don't. They turn to other negative behaviors that make their situations even worse. Our children are robbed of the opportunity to see people's struggles and how they overcome them. All they ever see is the celebrity, the superstar, or the famous rapper and they think that the road was easy; not realizing what people have overcome, or the perseverance it took to get where they are today. A curriculum unit such as this one will give students this opportunity.

The main skills I will target in this unit are characterization, text evidence, inferring, vocabulary, narrative writing, and cause and effect. Characterization is important for my students to know because it is what attracts children to books. As with any reader, my students are especially fond of books featuring characters that they can relate to, or that remind them of someone they know. Using books featuring strong characterizations will keep my students' attention from beginning to end.

Using textual evidence is a skill that my students will use for the rest of their lives. Many times my students give answers with little or no support from a text. I want my students to get into the habit of having some form of evidence to support every answer, inference, conclusion, and generalization that they come up with. My students will need this skill in high school, college, and beyond. It transfers to many aspects of life. There are times when we all must explain ourselves, and many times people will want to know the "why". This skill is giving them practice in the "why".

Supporting answers with evidence from text also gives me a chance to truly see how my students think. This is most helpful when students give WRONG answers! Many times it shows that they do not understand the question or have the vocabulary needed to arrive at a correct answer.

Inferring is also a skill that transfers to many aspects of life. Inferences are conclusions readers make based on evidence.(4) The text does not explicitly state something and therefore we are forced to make inferences to aid our comprehension. Simply put, if a text says, "Autumn grabbed her umbrella out of her bag as she walked to class," a reasonable conclusion could be that it is either raining or getting ready to rain. We make inferences every day.

Inferences, like textual support, give me a glimpse into how my students think. I realize that many times, my students do not have enough background knowledge in certain areas to give a correct answer. This insight gives me an opportunity to bring in literature on certain topics that they have little or no knowledge about. For example, Emmett Till came up during one of our readings and I realized that they did not know his story. The next time I was able to supplement the current text with another reading, I brought in a book that gave them much more background information on what happened during that turning point of history.

As I gain more experience teaching I learn better ways to teach vocabulary, one of the main barriers in my students' reading comprehension. They do not read much outside of school, and strong vocabularies are built through reading. Therefore, I have to expose them to as much relevant reading material as I can. I remember reading books as a child and wanting to know what every word meant, so that I could use it when I spoke to people. However my students do not share the same passions for words as I do, and are often too lazy to look up words that they are not sure about. At least while they are in my class, on my watch, I will be sure to attempt to instill this strategy in them.

My students love writing, narrative writing in particular, because it gives them a chance to write about themselves or someone they know. With the biographies we read, we will have plenty of opportunities for narrative writing, but this an area where they have the most visible deficiencies. I often receive papers one-page long with only one period at the very end. The best way that I have learned to teach writing is through my students' OWN writing, not practice out of a book or worksheets. This gives them a tangible example of simple, easily correctible mistakes that they make in their writing. Many times I am able to pick out common mistakes for whole group instruction, but the best improvements in narrative writing come from the one-on-one or small group instruction that I take the time out to give my students at least once weekly. Linda Ulleseit lists seven reasons why narrative writing should be included in elementary school classrooms: to entertain, foster artistic expression, explore functions and values of writing, to stimulate imagination, to clarify thinking, to search for identity, and to learn to read and write(5).

Cause and Effect is the one skill that I foresee having the biggest impact on my students. I will use it to focus on the actions of characters in novels, and the consequences of those actions. One of the major goals of this unit is for my students to think about the consequences of their decisions BEFORE the decision is made. This skill is also necessary for my students to know because it aids in reading comprehension. They will be able to understand why different things happen in the story.

I chose these standards because the texts I've selected are rich with opportunities for their use. For example, read the following excerpt from Jack Gantos's Hole in My Life: "I was nineteen, still stuck in high school, and I wasn't living at home. I had unlimited freedom. No supervision whatsoever. I had spending money. I had a fast car. I had a fake ID. My entire year was a grand balancing act between doing what I wanted and doing what I should, and being who I was while inventing who I wanted to be." (6) From this excerpt we can make many generalizations about Jack. I look forward to expanding the knowledge of my students with literature such as this, which provides opportunity for learning experiences.


This unit will be a life-changing experience for my students, the possibilities are endless. I plan to start with how integrity and perseverance can be taught through instruction. In addition, I will research and develop some lessons and activities for my students. Ultimately, our lives are based on the decisions we make and through integrity and perseverance we equip ourselves to stop, think, and choose the best decision that will improve our lives.

Hole In My Life

Hole in My Life is the autobiography of author Jack Gantos. It is a detailed account of his life from high school through adulthood. In this book Jack is faced with many obstacles. I plan to read this book in full with my students, mainly addressing: characterization, text evidence, inferring, and cause and effect while infusing the characteristics of perseverance and integrity.

Often, however Gantos arrives at points in his life that I look at as intersections; points where based on his decision, the consequences could take him down different paths. Did he act with integrity? Could Jack have persevered through this? For example, in chapter three, after graduating from high school, Jack discusses his 1971 visit to the University of Florida in Gainesville, which was the only school he applied to. He arrived early to give himself a chance to explore the campus. It did not take him long to decide that he did not want to go there. He did not like that as a freshman he could not have a car, that it looked like a big high school, and with all that was going on in the world, the campus was too quiet. "As I drove around I came to the conclusion that I wasn't going to go. I wasn't just going to bump along to grade thirteen and not go to a real school where I'd be roughed up and challenged."(7)

This appears to be a noble decision for Jack. The only problem is that he has no other options, and stops his pursuit of a college education right there. There are at least eight other places in the book where Jack is faced with opportunities like this, and he chooses the path that leads him down a road of trouble or in his case, more trouble.

"Other than explaining to students how authors developcharacters and then telling students to write an essay analyzing acharacter, the authors of the text do not provide students with any assistance for determining how acharacter'svalues may or may not change as a result of his or her experiences—and what they do offer does not seem to invite students to become engaged withliterature."(8) This tells me that I must guide students in pulling out their characterizations of Jack. Also with characterization, I want my students to take a look at themselves, so that during each activity, they will have the opportunity to view each other through the same lens. There are plenty of ways to teach characterization. I plan to use a few of them. With this book, we will do a characterization activity at least once a week.

1. Jack gives teachers a great starting point. Following the title page of Hole in My Life, there is a portrait of him.


I will pose the question, "What conclusions can we make about Jack based on this picture?" Then in groups, I will allow my students to discuss their answers with each other. For homework, students must take portraits of themselves and bring them in either physically, or electronically. We will ask and answer the same questions we answered about Jack.

2. At the beginning of class, I will ask students to give me one adjective about someone in their family and then list three reasons why. I bring their family into because it engages them in the activity, my students love talking about their families. It is also a simple way to give students an example of the activity. After going over this activity with my students, we will turn our attention to Jack for the same activity. For instance, one adjective we could use for Jack is irresponsible. Then students will have to give me three examples straight from the text, that display Jack's irresponsibility. Then students would write a short paragraph explaining how the textual evidence supports the conclusion that Jack is irresponsible. One example is "After a while he tapped me on my shoulder. "Good stuff," he remarked. I forgot I was driving. "Did I run any lights?" I asked in a panic. He grinned. "I don't know," he replied, and shrugged. "I wasn't paying attention."(9)

3. We will write letters from Jack's perspective. Based on what we know about Jack and what he is going through, what would he say to his dad? Mom? Writing letters from the character's perspective effectively shows that a student truly understands the actions, values, and motivations of a character. As we get deeper into the book, I expect the letters to show the growth and maturity of Jack.

I have been very successful using activities 2 and 3 to get students to understand character, no matter what text I am using. Activity #1 is a great activity that was learned in depth during my seminar "The Art of Biography" with Dr. Gaddis. He taught us that portraits can say a lot about a character; from people's facial expressions, to the other areas in the portrait that may give one a sense of context. For example, in the portrait of Jack Gantos, one may be able to conclude that Jack's portrait is a mugshot and that he has been to prison.

Also through my characterization activities I will be able to address the areas of textual evidence and inferring. It is very important that students are able to support their answers with textual evidence. It not only shows that students are not guessing, but it demonstrates understanding. A thesis not supported by solid textual evidence will be weak and unconvincing. There are many times when a student reaches some type of conclusion with no textual evidence to back it up. A student may give a response such as "Jack was intelligent." Then I will ask them "What in the text made you think of that?" Usually they just try to say something like, "It said it in the book." That is an unacceptable answer. They must return to the text and give the exact passage that led them to that conclusion. It is a skill that students will need for the rest of their lives. They will always have to support conclusions they make with some type of evidence. Also, supporting answers with evidence from the text forces students to read closely and with attention. "Close reading can reveal aspects of the text that might have been glossed over had you been reading passively. You have to talk back to the text, read with it, then read against it."(10)

The word inferring means to derive by reasoning; conclude or judge from premises or evidence.(11) When students make conclusions that from Jack's character that are not explicitly stated in the text, they are inferring. An example of inferring is stated above where Jack is believed to be irresponsible based on a passage in the text, where it was not explicitly stated that he was responsible. Inferring takes place simultaneously with characterization and giving textual evidence. They all work together and ultimately build higher levels of comprehension in students.

Cause and effect is the last skill that will be tackled heavily in Hole in My Life. This is where I plan to integrate the principles of integrity and perseverance. As I wrote earlier, Jack finds himself in many predicaments, and in these predicaments, I want my students to think of the consequences for Jack's actions. They will easily discuss how Jack is "immature and silly," not realizing they make similar mistakes. Asking simple questions such as "How could Jack have responded with integrity?" In which situations from Jack's life could he have persevered through that may have changed the outcome? These are samples of questions that I plan to discuss deeply with my students, where some of their own situations will come up and give opportunity for fruitful discussions about their own lives.

For the unit I will find 15 vocabulary words that I want students to learn and master. These words will be related to integrity and perseverance, words that could possibly lead them to attain these character traits. The words 'karma," "goal," and "experience" immediately come to mind. The success I have with vocabulary can be attributed to how I saturate my classroom with the words. I use the words in questions I ask students verbally and on assignments, I add them to a word wall in the classroom. I go out of my way to use the words when speaking to the whole classroom as well as individual students, and the activities we will use with the words.


There is also a two-book series that I want to use with my students. They are called Locomotion and Peace, Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson. Although the books are not biographies, I will still use the same concepts learned from my seminar, The Art of Biography. Locomotion is the moving story told exclusively through poetry, of a young African-American boy whose full name is Lonnie Collins Motion, nicknamed "Locomotion". He is suffering from severe emotional issues. Both of his parents die in a fire, and he and his sister are sent to different foster parents. He begins to find his voice when his fifth grade teacher Ms. Marcus introduces him to poetry to help him express himself. Through his poems my students and I will see his personal struggles and his vivid characterizations of the people around him.

"At night sometimes after Miss Edna goes to bed I go up on the roof

Sometimes I sit counting stars

Maybe one is my mama and

another one is my daddy And maybe that's why

sometimes they flicker a bit

I mean the stars flicker"(12)

This passage is an example of what I would discuss with my students to illustrate the trait of perseverance. How would you deal with the loss of both of your parents at the same time? How is Locomotion displaying perseverance in dealing with his loss? In this book I will highlight the young man's perseverance in the midst of a very troubling time in his life.

Peace, Locomotion

The sequel to this book, titled Peace, Locomotion was written in 2009 by Jacqueline Woodson. It is a comprised of letters to his sister, who was separated from him after the death of their parents. He finally begins to settle in with his foster family. He decides to write everything down from his childhood. Lonnie reflects on family, loss, love, and peace, things that will captivate readers of all ages. Also, the same activities used for Hole in My Life would be used for this book. Additionally, I would use this book to do some poetry with my students.

The Locomotion series is where I really plan to get in depth with them in their writing. I will have them write from the point of view of different charactersa1a as well as write as the main character. I'm excited about how much my students will enjoy these narrative writing experiences!

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