Literacy & Power with Malcolm X (Day 1 of 2)

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SWBAT construct evidence-based inferences from informational text through group work and discussion about the role of literacy in both Malcolm X and our lives.

Big Idea

Building a powerful framework for the value of literacy sounds like a challenging task, but Malcolm X's story makes the connection easier!

Lesson Overview

This lesson occurs in the first unit of literature study, which focuses on literature of the early Americans: Native Americans, explorers, slaves, and colonists.  Since it's the first unit, we're still building a foundation for each student's individual learning path, practicing what reading means under the Reading Apprenticeship model, and navigating the dynamics of successful, productive group collaboration.  Additionally, I feel that it is crucial during this point in the school year to choose literature and activities which will allow my class to experience genuine thought, open discussion, diverse perspectives, self reflection, and contemporary connection in order to build a deeper sense of a community of learners rather than a bunch of students sitting through a required English course.

At the end of the last class period, students were left with two tasks: finish crafting their two academically-based SMART goals and objectively observe their family (or a pet in special circumstances which were individually worked out with students) for 30 minutes to an hour while taking observation notes in an outline format of their choice.  Since then, I have informally been monitoring student progress on SMART goal creation via their shared Google Docs, and I have fielded several questions clarifying characteristics of SMART Goals and the SMART Goal Form they used to create their goals.  Students were to have these written by today, so my lesson will start out by addressing any remaining questions and allowing students to revise these goals before I formally evaluate and comment on them tonight. 


5 minutes

Bell Work (5 minutes): Since some students have contacted me with questions about the timelines associated with the steps to reaching their SMART goals, I will start today by answering last-minute questions about students' SMART goals and allowing them to revise any sections of the goals that did not meet expectations before I grade them tonight.  I proactively monitor student progress on projects like these between instructional days and leave notes or send emails to specific students if I notice an issue in executing an assignment, but since more than one or two students emailed me questions about their goal planning, I want to allow the whole class the opportunity to get any outstanding questions answered and correct any errors not addressed earlier by inquisitive students or caught by myself during informal checks.  This time will also allow students finished with their goals to share them with peers and comment on similarities and differences in goals, plans to reach them, and motivations for selecting them.  

Building Knowledge

50 minutes

From Outline to Report: Formalizing Your Night with the Chimps  (20 minutes)

Since Jane Goodall is pretty much the best recent example of an outsider recording objective, foreign behavior and then making inferences about it (in my opinion!), I wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to introduce my students to this wonderful woman.  And who could resist creating an analogy which related their families to chimpanzees in the wild?  It gives the whole assignment an entertaining "selling" point to students and makes them much more willing to complete and discuss their observations with the class.  I expect that observations will be largely uneventful, which plays in perfectly to today's review of "objective" and "subjective" language and will increase enthusiasm for the "Analysis" section of the report which allows them to inject some Christopher Columbus-styled inferences into their Garcia Lopez de Cardenas-styled observations. 

After a minute or two of discussion with students about how their observations went, I will ask students to refresh my memory of the definition of objective and subjective language.  In addition to the definition, I will randomly select several students to give me either a subjective or objective word or phrase that described their observational experience.  Next, we will contrast terms they have learned in previous grades: observation & inference.  In order to do this, I will ask students to contrast the terms and then I walk through some of the common trademarks of a poorly-supported inference (too little evidence to support or no logical connection spelled out).  

As an example, I always use the same scenario of a student walking down the hallway with red, puffy eyes.  Students will brainstorm possible inferences that they could make about him or her (allergies, pinkeye, crying, drug user, etc.), then we will talk about how far apart some of these inferences are to demonstrate how dangerous weakly-supported inferences can be.  I will then ask students to add one more observable trait that would support some of these inferences more strongly (like allergy pills falling out of a pocket for an allergy sufferer or burying a face in their hands for someone crying).  Making inferences in daily life is usually something that comes naturally with students, but I have found that they rarely think about the steps to producing good inferences, which tends to make them struggle when they have to make inferences from complex texts.  The same roadblocks exist when it comes to producing evidence to logically support arguments, so I will really emphasize including evidence for all inferences, assertions, and arguments from the very beginning of my class.  Activities like this one will mesh daily-life inferences with more academic applications, so their comfort level will be increased while they practice consciously thinking about applying the skill.

Once students understand the connection between observations and inferences, we will relate each term to a type of literature or author we have looked at so far in the year.  Students will connect observations with literature like that of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas (in an excerpt from "Boulders Taller Than the Tower of Seville") and inferences, while weakly supported, with Christopher Columbus in the excerpt from "Journal from the First Voyage to America."  Students will also explain how Jane Goodall used observations and inferences to inform her work with chimpanzees so that we can circle back to the observational report students will begin writing.  In the report, students will use objective observations to comprise the "Observation" section of their essay, but supported inferences will make up the "Analysis" section.  The rest of the requirements and tips for the observational report will be delineated on the board at this time.  Those requirements are listed in a student-friendly handout in the resources section.  Since MLA formatting will be expected, the basic requirements are listed, but the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue will be suggested for additional student reference.  After requirements are outlined, students will be given ten minutes to get started on drafting.  As students begin, they will likely have questions, so I will be circulating around the room to answer questions and give tips.

Things that you should definitely make sure you are on the lookout for while assessing in-progress work on the fly:

  • Only observable phenomenon make it into the "Observation" section.  No judgement works like "pretty," "ugly," "funny," etc.  Emphasize that things things are not empirically observed, so they may not be included here.  (For the record, if they choose to include these in the "analysis" section either, they will need to provide evidence for their inference, and it's unbelievably hard to show evidence with this observation of someone's prettiness or ugliness!)
  • No names or past histories are being shared in the report.  Students are outside observers, looking in.  They should not be interacting with the inhabitants or using background knowledge for inferences.
  • Observation specifics are included in the first section of the report, like the setting, time, and other details that give the reader the appropriate imagery for the environment.

Check out the student notes & essay paper in the resources for a great example of this assignment at different stages of the process.  I love her transformation, because she manages to take a large mass of observational "data" and pick out a single perspective to follow throughout the essay.  Instead of overwhelming her essay with irrelevant details, she has very cleverly selected those which are relevant to the "story line" she's following!

Scoping Out the Issue of Illiteracy in America & Connecting with Malcolm X  (30 minutes)

Once students have gotten a good start on their observational report, I will shift our focus to preparing for a collaborative analysis of "A Homemade Education."  My community is extremely homogeneous, predominantly affluent, and largely sheltered from many issues that affect communities all over the United States--even just a few miles away.  My students don't always recognize that issues like illiteracy exist in the United States today, much less at the high numbers with which it occurs.  Many also see illiteracy as something which is a result of laziness rather than accept that larger variables may be at play.  Reading Malcolm X's "A Homemade Education" is a way to expose my students to a diverse perspective, inspiring story of self-made literacy, and call attention to the importance of developing literacy skills, resulting in a deeper drive for success in students.  This essay fits perfectly here, because many parallels can be drawn between Malcolm X's autobiography and Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, and both authors used literacy skills to gain power and become agents for change against unjust social conditions.  

In order to address the issue of illiteracy, I will ask students to develop a collaborative definition for "illiteracy" and "literacy" on the whiteboard.  The definitions must be a result of a class consensus.  Then, I will play an ABC World News clip, Illiteracy in America (2:27), while students note observations about the clip.  


We will discuss student reactions, ensuring that students discuss how the woman in the video could make it to the 9th grade and still be illiterate.  Students will make inferences based on their own experiences on how this might happen.  Be aware in advance that students will probably need the term "hysterectomy" explained to them!  I have done this both before and after the film in different classes and different years, and I personally think it is most effective to explain this after the film.  It's so horrifying already that the woman had surgery without knowing what was removed, but when students find out what that procedure actually is, it's even more horrifying and puts the danger of illiteracy in clear perspective.  

Next, we will watch a CBS News clip, Adult Illiteracy in the U.S. (2:00), which goes further into detail about how many people are considered illiterate compared to previous years and how our national reading ability compares to our international counterparts' abilities.  Again, we will pause for discussion (including inferences about why illiteracy is higher in some parts of the country) before moving on to our knowledge-building session about Malcolm X.  

I will explain that many people know who Malcolm X is, but far fewer people know that he was actually functionally illiterate until relatively late in his life.  I will ask students to tell me what they know about who Malcolm X was and why we know his name.  In my school, knowledge is fairly limited, though they usually can tell you that he was involved with civil rights and took a stand that was more violent than that of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Once we have collected all of our prior knowledge, we will watch our third and final clip, a Mini-Bio of Malcolm X (4:54) from the Biography Channel.  (Please note that this video does use a racial slur twice, but both times it is used were taken from what a middle school teacher told Malcolm X about why he couldn't ever become a lawyer, as was his dream.)  During the video, students will note things that they found surprising, interesting, or inspiring, especially in light of the fact that when he entered prison he was nearly illiterate.  

Upon completion of discussion, students will individually fill out the Literacy in America & Malcolm X Checkpoint Form to demonstrate their understanding of the video and practice making inferences from the films.  

Since students will wrap up with their literacy checkpoints at different times, they have two options once they complete this assessment.  The first student done in their "pod" of three (assigned by me utilizing learning preference assessments and rotating every quarter) will create a Google Doc called "Malcolm X Reading Log" and share it with their two other group members.  It should have three columns and two rows.  A sample Malcolm X Reading Log with roles explained is available in the resources section.  Once all of their group members are finished, each group member will select a role for reading the Malcolm X selection and add their name in that section of the table.  Additionally, they will all pull up a copy of "A Homemade Education" for the next portion of the lesson.  If the group is done with this process before others are finished with their checkpoint, they will continue working on their observational report while they wait for their peers.


10 minutes

Once students have completed their literacy checkpoints, I will begin modeling a close reading of the first 6-7 paragraphs of "A Homemade Education," reading log use, and team member roles in order to give students a clear picture of critical reading.  Just as other think-aloud activities, I will work through the text as I might in my own head.  In addition to noting my own suggestions, I will ask the audience at my stopping points if there is anything there that they might write down as a word that they struggled with (and walk them through trying to figure it out using multiple processes), a reaction they had to something Malcolm X stated, a question they were left wondering, or a connection to an experience detailed in the autobiography.  Examples of questions like, "Who was Mr. Elijah Muhammed?" are fabulous to note as possibilities that students may have written down if it wasn't for the background information delivered by our earlier videos. More information about these roles and common responses for discussion are outlined below.

Vocabulary Tracker: 

  • Job: Log words/phrases your group didn't understand, how you tried to figure them out, what you think they mean, and any language that's particularly beautiful or inspiring.
  • Common Responses Here: articulate, "let me pull your coat about a cat," penmanship, and tablets (which makes a great launch-point for talking about how words evolve through they years!  Just think of all the meanings for tablet there were!)


Reading Monitor: 

  • Job: Note areas of text which were difficult to understand, write down what reading strategies you used to try to figure out what they meant, and reactions of your group to the text being read.
  • Common Responses Here: he was only in school until 8th grade, he must have written this retrospectively since he's on TV now, that's some determination that would propel you to learn to read using a dictionary



  • Job: Lists any questions your group has to the text or to your peers and notes any sections of text that they were able to connect with (while describing the connection).
  • Common Responses Here: he sounds like a baby that knows how to make noise but not yet speak--I recognize that frustration, Ben Franklin also sounded educated well beyond his years in school, I've been in the situation learning Spanish or even reading upper-level science books where I've skipped too many words to understand the meaning, I used to have to write the dictionary when I was bad in school, I was awed by the massive amount of information in encyclopedias like he's awed by the amount of words in the dictionary, who is Bimbi?


20 minutes

Once the first 6-7 paragraphs have been modeled and students are clear on their roles within the group, they can begin working as a team to continue closely reading and logging their progress on their shared Google Doc.  While they work through this process, I will circulate throughout the classroom to ensure students are on task, groups are working productively to talk this essay out (rather than attacking it independently), and logs are being thoughtfully completed.  Instead of letting groups get too far out with this new skill without checking on them in a whole-group setting, I prefer to stop group work around the end of page four to have the whole group check back together.  During these check-ins, I ask the following series of questions and then allow groups to volunteer their responses or call on groups if I have some that are slow to volunteer:

    1. What questions did my connector/questioner write down for their groups that we can help you with?  Any questions asked I throw back to the group to see if peers can help peers to answer them.  If they are questions not explained in the reading and that peers do not know, I note them to either have students look them up later or inform them based on my knowledge.  Common questions like this are, "How long was he in prison?" "Was the prison he was in a nice prison, because it sounds like it is based on the books he had access to." and "What the prison segregated?"
    2. What vocabulary did you see that either struck you as really cool or something you were unsure of?  What did you do to try to figure out what that word meant? Common Core requires students to use a variety of strategies to determine the meanings of words, and this activity is fabulous for practicing context clues, using parts of words to determine meaning like in "piratical" or "Faustian," looking up words in dictionaries, and even checking their initial thoughts of word definitions when the whole group is together to confirm word meaning.
    3. Were any parts of the text unclear?  What did your group do to figure out what he was talking about?
    4. How did you feel as you were reading this passage?  What were your reactions?  Do they change over the course of your reading?  What changes them?  Many students are shocked by the ideas that Malcolm X relates from the books that he has read.  I always try to contextualize his strong feelings with his life experiences, current personal situation, and his later more tempered beliefs and switch toward a "human rights" advocacy.  
    5. Does this text remind you of anything you have experienced in your life or anything you have read or seen in film?  

Groups usually point out the fact that they are shocked that he wasn't fully aware of all of the horrors of slavery and sometimes question the claim that history had been "whitened" at the time.  This is one great example of a point in this essay that demonstrates how powerful literacy is to accessing the world fully.  Another point that students tend to bring up is the irony that he "had never been so truly free in his life" until he goes to prison.  This is another fabulous talking point to discuss the factors that "imprisoned" him before prison and how literacy gives him the freedom and power to access a better future.  Another talking point in the first four pages is the access of inmates to such high-level and valuable text and education.  Using the text to identify the purpose of prison, rehabilitation, helps students to see the point of providing these materials to inmates.  Malcolm X also serves as an exceptional example of the kind of rehabilitation learning can provide to dedicated inmates.

Next Steps

5 minutes

Once discussion of the first four pages is completed, groups will continue to work through the text until they reach the bottom of page six.  Many of my student groups finished this in class, but some groups will need to complete this outside of the classroom.  I encourage them to make a plan with their group for when and where each individual will complete their part of the collaborative Google Doc.  Furthermore, this project works best when all parties are actively working through the story together, so setting a time that they can all meet online within this collaborative environment will be the most helpful for the group.  This is not required, just encouraged.  In addition to the completion of this portion of the reading and reading log, students will also be reminded to complete their observational report within a Google Doc and share it with me before the next class period.

During the next class period, we will complete our exploration and analysis of "A Homemade Education" and take a deeper look at types of literacy and improving literacy.