Women Firefighters Lead the Way to Organizing a Summary

13 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


Identify the main idea and supporting details in a non ficition article.

Big Idea

America’s female firefighters have worked long and hard to be accepted into this traditionally male profession. Use this historical perspective to find the main ideas and organize a summary of an article.

Activator: Vote with your feet!

10 minutes

Get the students up and moving with this active learning strategy meant to activate prior knowledge.  Place 5 signs in different places around the room each with a tip for good summary writing:

  • Write in your own words
  • Include only the most important facts
  • Stay on topic
  • Make a plan before writing
  • Shorter than the original text


Of all of those listed, ask students to decide which one they think is most important when writing a summary and to go the place in the room. There they can talk with others who made the same choice and prepare to defend their thinking. After each group’s representative offers their response, students have a move a different group if they have changed their mind. In this lesson, on the suggestion of a student, we all ended up in the middle of the room because each tip is important! (Which is just what I was hoping would happen!)

Identifying Main Ideas

50 minutes

Now that we are primed with information about what makes a good summary, it is time to get to the business of actually writing one. The use of an article at an easily accessible level to 6th grader readers puts the focus on analysis. As the unit progresses and the students’ skills develop the texts will become more challenging. A few years ago I came across the article “For Men Only? Not!” by Christine Graf and have been using it with great success ever since. The topic of women breaking into a once male-only profession generates interest and the article is arranged with a number of the non-fiction text features we have been learning about: a cleverly placed title, a subtitle, headings, a photo and a chart. The students dive into making meaning of these items by underlining or circling each. The chart generates the most response – they note the areas that they expected to see on the list of places most likely for a fire to start and those that are unexpected, like ‘heating areas’ most students had no idea what this means.

Knowing that a summary is made up of the most important main ideas in a text, we decide that our annotations should focus on marking them as we go through the article. To find them, students suggest that paragraphs are arranged around one main idea and include supporting details. One student added that “It can be hard to find the main idea because sometimes they come at the beginning of a paragraph, but not always.” Already these kids are showing off their text savvy!

The subtitle or maybe it should be called the main heading, in this article is in the form of a question. We talk about how helpful this is in setting a purpose for the reading and decide that turning the remaining headings into questions and answering those with information from the paragraph(s) is a good strategy. It takes time to make our way through the article analyzing each paragraph, sentence by sentence, for its “big idea.” Once each section is highlighted we analyze our highlighting for the article’s overall big idea. We decide to call it the “Big Mac” – the same way McDonald’s knows that when you order a Big Mac you expect a bun, a burger and all the fixin’s, when you name the main idea of the text you do not have to name each detail too. With that in mind, we identify the Big Mac of this article as being that today’s 46,000 American women firefighters prove the job is no longer for men only. The next step in the process is to take what we now know and turn it into a summary, but that will have to wait for another day. A marked up copy of the article appears here.