The Titanic: Determining a Purpose

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SWBAT share what they want to know about the Titanic and building a background about the ship.

Big Idea

Weeks before our unit begins, students complete a KWL chart to determine what students what to know about the Titanic. Then excitement about the topic builds as students begin to learn facts by reading through collected texts.

Unit Introduction

The last unit before the big OAA (our state’s end of the year assessment) is always a tricky one. So much to review, such little time. This year I wanted to create a multi-genre reading and writing unit that would review essential fiction and non-fiction skills that was engaging and driven by student interest.

My students are obsessed with the “I Survived” series. Each book in this historical fiction chapter book series is written from the viewpoint of a boy who survived a major event in world history. I’ve found that these addicting little books are an excellent way to get boys (and girls!) interested in history while burning through an entire series!

Building on their frenzy, I decided to create a four week unit around the title, I Survived: The Sinking of the Titanic [Tarshis, L. (2011). I survived: The sinking of the Titanic. New York, NY: Scholastic Paperbacks]. In this unit, students will research the actual Titanic using a website I created in order to gain an understanding of the ship, its passengers, and why it remains a popular topic to this day. Second, the students will read the I Survived text as a part of book clubs while reviewing fiction skills learned throughout the year. Last, students will produce opinion writing pieces about the Titanic using information gained from their non-fiction research and fiction book study. 

Setting a Purpose

5 minutes

I ask students to join me in the meeting area and to bring their pencils and sticky note pads. I explain that I’ve been working on creating our next unit, which is all about the Titanic.  I tell students that I’ve noticed how many of them have become interested in the “I Survived” series and so I decided to incorporate one of those titles into a large unit that reviewed what we have learned about fiction and non-fiction this year. To review fiction skills, students will read I Survived the Titanic in book groups, which we will start in a few weeks. For the non-fiction skills, students will conduct a two week study of the Titanic. Although I have many ideas of what we should cover about the Titanic, I want to make sure I’m not including details that students already know or those in which they are not interested. To ensure this, I tell students that we will complete a KWL chart. 

KWL Chart

10 minutes

I ask students if they have ever learned about the Titanic. Several enthusiastically reply that they had. I ask students to share with me what they know about the Titanic and I record these under “K” on our chart. Some recall facts learned from lessons in previous grades while others tell me what they remember from TV shows or movies. While some of the facts they provide may not be accurate, I record them all and can address misconceptions later in the unit.

After we have a thorough list, I ask students to write their names on a sticky note. Then I ask them to think of what else they would like to know about the Titanic. This can be about anything related to the ship – its construction, the people on board, the tragedy, icebergs, where it was built, how it was discovered, etc. I ask them to write down at least one question they have. After a few minutes, students place their questions under the “W” on our chart. I read over a few questions students posted or what they would like to know about our topic. 

Building a Background

30 minutes

Students return to their desks and I point their attention to the collection of books in the back of the room. On our back counter, I placed dozens of books about the Titanic. I explain that before we start our unit, students have the opportunity to build their knowledge of the Titanic using these texts. Students can choose to read these during independent reading time and it is my hope that they will read several. I conduct book talks on several I believe will be most interesting for students because of their unique formats or because of the information they contain. 

To jump start the process, students spend the next thirty minutes or so becoming familiar with the texts. During this time, students aren’t expected to read entire texts. Instead, they will skim through various texts, see which interest them, and make a list of those they want to read. 


5 minutes

To end the period, I tell students that we will begin our unit in approximately two weeks. During that time, I would encourage them to read the texts I’ve collected or check out their own texts from the library. If they come up with additional questions or facts they’d like to know about the Titanic, they can add those to our chart at any time. I will try to incorporate as many of their questions into our unit as possible.