Digging Deeper into Narrative Nonfiction

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SWBAT evaluate impact and effectiveness of author's word and sequence choices in mixed media and informational texts such as spirituals, letters, and autobiographies.

Big Idea

What makes informational text an easier sell to 11th graders? The lure of video clips and songs as supplemental, CCSS-approved materials!


30 minutes

Today's class period will start with a reading quiz over "An Episode of War" in Socrative.  Socrative is wonderful because it gives teachers feedback in real time and reports scores easily.  Check out the resource section below for examples.  This quiz was not initially planned in my weekly lesson plans, but due to the fear of an impending lack of student preparedness for class discussion, we will start with this quiz.  See my reflection in this section for more information on this choice.

As soon as individual students complete their reading quiz online, they will begin taking notes and reading the supplemental material in the "Building Knowledge" section of this lesson.  I maintain a website for my students, so I typically post given notes and links to supplemental materials to this page so students can utilize their class time effectively and move on to the next project when their first project is finished.  When all students are finished taking the quiz (which I will monitor using the Socrative interface), we will discuss the story.

The questions I will ask will be as follows:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how easy or hard was this text for you to read?  Why?  What parts specifically were unclear or confusing to you and what did you do to overcome them?  (Students will probably report that what actually HAPPENED to him was unclear with a first reading.  In past years, the issue of whether he was shot or somehow stabbed himself with his sword was unclear, which provides wonderful fodder for a text-based debate between students using evidence to support their understanding of the text!  Another area that typically comes up deals with the events after his injury, which seem to be disorganized or just plain bizarre compared to what we imagine would happen today.  As the year progresses, I have found that students are much more confident with both expressing their areas of misunderstanding and then actively seeking information from the text to show specifically what confused them and then suggest other pieces of textual evidence to "solve" their confusion.  I anticipate  more and more of this behavior in coming years, as this level of critical reading and thinking is ingrained in the Common Core.)
  • Why would Crane have chosen to present this story in such a confusing perspective?  Doesn't it seem bizarre that he would write this whole story and make the plot so unclear at times?  What possible purpose would that have?  What's the effect on your reading?  (Students tend to immediately start with the effect on them, which can range from mild to utter confusion.  It's absolutely fine that they start there!  Once we've confirmed that this leads to reader confusion, I will again remind them of the earlier questions.  Students will pick up on the idea that the author's choices lead to readers sharing the same sense of confusion the character feels, and they may continue to draw out those ideas to the concept that war, as a whole, is confusing.)
  • What effect does it have on you that the opening scene is a bunch of soldiers doling out coffee?  (Students will point out that it's such a "regular" activity that they wouldn't typically expect on a battlefield.  In previous years, students have also said that this "regularity" helps the reader see that this was a random act, not one that would have been typically anticipated, and emphasizes the soldiers as humans.  I always point out the "triumph in mathematics" comment as a connection point for me if students don't pick it out first, as I know it's a line that is very easy to relate with for anyone who has had to split up a check at a restaurant or reduce a recipe by an odd fraction because of a limiting factor like chocolate chips!)
  • Why do other soldiers have such a hard time bringing themselves to touch him?  What does the text say?  What's that mean?  (Students will identify sections of the text where Crane explains that wounds like his give an air of "strange dignity," foreshadow a "terrible majesty," and give fellow soldiers a glimpse of their own mortality using figurative language.  They will also identify lines where others are afraid to "send him headlong...into the dim, grey unknown."  In the past, this discussion has confused students until the evidence from that paragraph was identified, and after identification, discussing the idea that they become fearful and realize that they are mortal comes very easily.)
  • How does this soldier's injury allow him to see things on the battlefield so differently than he did prior to the event?  Use examples to support your point and infer why he sees things so differently now.  (Students will point out examples from the text of the description of the battlefield as he moves toward the hospital and likely suggest that it's like he's been woken up from this dream-like state of battle in which he was previously living.  If students struggle with connecting to this idea, I will offer and seek additional examples from "regular" life where living in a situation for so long becomes your new "normal," but can be broken with sharply contrasting experiences.  I vary what experiences I recount from class to class, but any experience where you have to hold it together under pressure, only to have that pressure then released or interrupted works to make the connection.  I have Narcolepsy, so I tend to share an example of my life before medication, then the "awakening" of my existence after treatment.)
  • How would you react if you got this kind of treatment at a hospital?  Is this all rude doctors?  Or is there evidence that maybe the lieutenant is taking things more personally than they are meant?  Share evidence supporting both ideas.  (While there is an overwhelming amount of evidence showing the hospital staff is rude with words like "contempt," "disdainfully," and "scorn," students should also be able to catch that the lieutenant does appear to be less-than-confident with himself, saying that he "did not know how to be correctly wounded" and generally ignoring self-advocacy.  Students may have the misconception that the doctors are actually taking him to jail, so if they hit on this quote, I will make sure the point out that it's a simile and ask them to determine what that means for facial expressions and tone of voice.)
  • Did this ending happen like you thought it would? What did you make of that?  Why would Crane end like this?  (Students are typically violent about this ending, especially since the doctor said his arm wouldn't be amputated and there is seemingly a complete lack of emotion about the amputation from the lieutenant when he returned home.  Students usually suggest that this ending makes readers see war as more pointless than other stories might, and they will also likely add that his lack of emotion--other than his shame for something he couldn't have prevented--shows how bleak and hopeless this time period was.)

Building Knowledge

20 minutes

When students complete their reading quizzes, they will add the notes attached in the resources section to their own notes and begin reading the Library of Congress's information on African American Spirituals.

Once we have finished discussing last night's reading assignment, we will switch gears to take a look at other examples of nonfiction and informational text of the time.  Students are familiar with both the terms "narrative" and "nonfiction," but we will review the notes about "narrative nonfiction" to clarify the types of material found in this genre and connect our previous readings to each type of text.  I see it as vitally important to treat texts in my classroom as interrelated works, so actively recalling and asking students to make connections between texts throughout history and genres is a major part of my instruction.  While old learning standards didn't focus as much as drawing connections between texts, the Common Core has created a major shift in expectations, and students must be able to call up their own knowledge about different texts to demonstrate mastery.  To that end, we will review the narrative nonfiction notes, then I will ask students to give me an example of each type of narrative nonfiction from the texts we have read this year.  They will add these examples to their notes and label them as public (PU) or private (PR).

  1. Journal: Puritan journals for self-improvement (PR)
  2. Historical Narrative: excerpt from "Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford (PU), excerpt from the "General History of Virginia" by John Smith (PU), & "A Confederate Account of the Battle of Gettysburg" by Randolph McKim (PR turned PU)
  3. Slave Narrative: excerpt from "The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano" (PU)
  4. Autobiography: Malcolm X's "Homemade Education" excerpt from his autobiography (PU)
  5. Exploration Narrative: excerpt from "The Journal of the First Voyage to America" by Christopher Columbus (PU), excerpt from "Boulders Taller than the Great Tower of Seville" by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas (PU)

After gathering our list, I will ask students which type of narrative nonfiction they believe is more historically accurate and why.  Students can make a case for either side using examples from texts that we've read or making inferences based on their own writing experiences for public or private audiences.  I will also ask students to remind me of the definition of historical fiction and explain the difference.  We have discussed this concept before, so the question will be more of a review and clear delineation of this type of text (which can so often be construed as nonfiction to readers who are not aware of the difference!).

Next, we will review the notes on Spirituals (contained in the resources section), followed by the Library of Congress article.  I will use this series of questions to connect the information on spirituals with prior knowledge about music, literary terms, and history:

  • Why are refrains important?  What would happen without a refrain?  (Historically, my students are chatty about music, so I anticipate many responses here!  I imagine that students will say that a refrain is what you first learn about a song, what sticks in your head after listening, what contains the overall message [THEME!!] of the song, and what breaks up verses that could otherwise get tedious.  Though my students are rapidly becoming too young for this analogy, I will probably throw out Don McLean's "American Pie" extended version as an example of a song that is difficult to learn in the version with a greater verse-to-refrain ratio.  I am also actively seeking some other song (that I don't love so much!) to better show the perils of too little refrain in any musical number to keep this discussion happening long into the future!  Most students will not have a difficult time seeing that songs without refrains are boring and unmemorable.)
  • What is an allusion--not an illusion or when you elude something?  Where have we seen them before?  (I always point out all three similar words when opening up discussions about allusions to help students recall the term and discriminate between similar words.  Students will recall that an allusion is a reference to some other text and probably share our "Giving Tree" allusion lesson from earlier this year as an example.)
  • How is an allegory different from symbolism?  Can you give me an example?  (Though we've talked about it numerous times, allegory has always been a concept my students need TONS of exposure to in order to truly understand.  Students will define "allegory" and likely share the "Horton Hears a Who" or "Minister's Black Veil" allegory we analyzed earlier in the year.  In addition to any example given from class, I will also seek out an individual or group-constructed sample allegory at this point in the discussion before moving on with the next piece of the lesson.  I want to be absolutely sure that they are recalling how allegory is USED, not just what stories we associated that word with earlier in the year.)
  • Based on the Library of Congress article, spirituals as we know them evolved in the 17th century during slavery in the United States.  What is the sequence for how this happened?  (Students will need to look back in the text to show that colonists did not appreciate or allow African rituals on plantations and sought to replace their religions with Christianity.  Slaves enjoyed the Bible as literature since they connected with the struggles and felt it paralleled their lives, so they retold them in song to express their faith, sorrow, and hope.  I want students to recognize that this development of culture comes from a specific set of circumstances in a specific order, with one event shaping or changing the next, which is a Common Core informational text reading standard.)
  • Were slave owners being generally oppressive by not wanting to allow slaves to sing spirituals, or did they have a right to be concerned about the effects of spirituals on slaves?  (Students need to take complex perspectives here to share a wide range of ideas based in the text.  Some may share that spirituals were giving faith and hope to slaves, which would be a less than ideal outcome for slave owners.  Others may point out that since spirituals contained additional meaning through allegories, coding, and symbolism, they really did pose a real threat to slave owners once the Underground Railroad commenced.  Overall, I just want to see students sharing a unique perspective backed up with textual evidence in this section of the discussion.)
  • Why do you think spirituals continue to be remade and are such a huge part of American musical history?  (Students will probably point out that spirituals are popular protest songs and still hold the same meanings about overcoming hardship and sorrow through faith and hope that they did in early America.  Americans still struggle against various oppressive forces on a daily basis, so spirituals continue to be relevant.)
  • Do you think music could really be as influential as people of that time period are making it seem?  (I love asking questions like this, because I know it will provoke a strong response every time.  Students will absolutely feel that music is empowering, and they will probably be willing to share examples until you cut them off!  I really think everyone feels this way, but it entertains me to see students become so passionate about things, which leads to my continued role as devil's advocate!)


37 minutes
To apply the content of the notes about spirituals and practice picking out characteristics of spirituals, we will then listen to two spirituals.  I play the music from YouTube (without showing the video to students) while they read the lyrics from the links below.  Since the lyrics to spirituals often have slight variations, I will address this with students before we begin listening.  First, I will solicit ideas as to why lyrics would be different in various versions, then if no one answers that they are passed along orally and, therefore, may change through time and region, I will tell them.  Then, students will be instructed to complete the chart in the resources section for each spiritual.  After the first song, we will discuss the chart entries before moving on to the second song.


As a final nonfiction exploration of today, we will view a mini-biography of Sojourner Truth to gather background information about her life.  Many students have heard the name but have little understanding of who she really was or why she was so inspirational.  I love to use these mini-biographies to help students get an overview of this information before reading text that really needs historical background to be entirely understood.  Additionally, watching short informational clips and then relating that knowledge to our upcoming textual study is important for getting students comfortable with gathering information from multiple sources in varied formats on a single subject, as required by the Common Core.

After watching the video, I will ask students what they learned that they didn't already know about Truth and also what surprised them about her.  Students will typically say that they knew she was a former slave who worked to get others out of slavery, but few will know about the other areas of her life.  In past years, the fact that she went to court about her son's involvement with slavery at such a tenuous time for African Americans (freed or otherwise) has been the most surprising fact of this short clip.  Students will build on the knowledge developed in this clip by taking 2-3 minutes to individually read "An Account of an Experience with Discrimination" (on page 254), marking evidence from the letter and clip to form an indirect characterization about Truth.  

  • When everyone is finished reading and choosing character traits supported by evidence, I will ask students to give me descriptive words (which I will list on the whiteboard) with supporting examples for Sojourner Truth.  Common words to describe her include tenacious, determined, fearless, passionate, brave, and tough.  
  • Then, I will ask students to characterize Mrs. Haviless in the same manner, using a base word and supportive examples.  Students will probably use words like empathetic, assertive, and supportive using her behavior on the train for evidence. 
  • Finally, I will ask students about the effect and purpose of Truth's word choices in this selection, which seem to be very factual and primarily objective, despite describing an undoubtedly harrowing experience with a repulsive person.  Students will likely say that this word choice shows that she is not exaggerating her claims or looking for sympathy, but instead that she is simply recounting a situation that she has probably been through a thousand times in a manner that lets the reader be the judge of events.  We will also discuss how it may have impacted her effect had she chosen more emotionally charged words, and students will say that this may have made her seem less credible or weaker.


3 minutes

In the final few minutes of class, I will emphasize the importance of coming to class with complete, prepared homework.  The Sojourner Truth activity we just completed will serve as a model for their homework tonight, which is explained in the next section, but additionally, students that did not get their reading logs done for "An Episode of War" must have logs completed by next class period for any credit recovery at all.  To emphasize the importance of the readings I assign for homework, students will also be warned here that they will have another reading quiz when they enter class next class period.

Next Steps

For homework, students will need to complete two tasks.  First, students will need to watch the mini-biography on Frederick Douglass below.  

After watching the short clip, students will need to read Chapter 11 of My Bondage and My Freedom.  There will not be written homework about this section of text, but students will need to come prepared to discuss the material next class period and with a list of questions about items in the text that they struggled with and what they did to overcome those challenges.