An Introduction to A Lesson Before Dying

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SWBAT identify key conflicts in a novel by participating in an improv scenario and making historical inferences.

Big Idea

A young man in the wrong place at the wrong time--A Lesson Before Dying about life in the 1930s South.


This lesson is meant to be an introduction and hook for our next novel. It features improv and discussion, though neither is officially assessed (resulting in feedback for students and/or a score), therefore making this lesson NOT aligned to the CCSS. Still, these activities are valid choices for a rigorous classroom because they require creativity and attention to detail for success.

Improv and discussion is a good choice to start this novel because students often misunderstand the start of the novel, believing Jefferson to be truly guilty and deserving of death. They need to see him as not just a criminal in order to feel the empathy necessary for the rest of the novel, and the improv scenario and later discussion of words' impact helps establish that empathy.

An Improv Introduction

15 minutes

As students file in before the bell, I pull a few volunteers for an improv. I give them the assignment in the resources section as a guide and ask them to briefly prepare their roles in the hallway as I take attendance.

In the classroom, I prep the class for what they will see: a major conflict at the start of our next novel. I explain that before the novel even begins, a terrible crime occurs. We need to understand the crime in order to understand the novel. Our actors will show us what happened.

Then, the volunteer actors perform. They show the basics of the scenario I provided them, emphasizing perhaps a bit much the gun fight and deaths (they are teenage boys, after all). What is clear is that Jefferson did not murder anyone.

After, we discuss, what do you think would happen to the boy who was caught?

"He'll probably go to jail for robbery." Anything else?

"Well, they might think he was involved with the shooting since no one else saw him NOT involved." True. What if I told you this took place in the 1930s South and that the young man was black, robbing a white man's store?

"He's gonna get lynched!" Students clearly remember the worst of Jim Crow life, and they aren't too far off. I reiterate that this scenario is the start of our next novel, A Lesson Before Dying, and ask what else they might expect. Racism in many forms fills the responses.

The Power of a Word

15 minutes

To further hook students, I transition to a thematic quick write; I ask them to write for 5 minutes to answer the following prompt:

True or false--sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Finally, I bring our discussion to our theme connection--words will matter in A Lesson Before Dying. I ask students to watch right from the start of the book for words that could significantly impact a person.

First Reading

20 minutes

To follow through on the hook created by the improv and discussion, we distribute books and then read together in class for the remainder of the hour.