Archive for the ‘Historical Fiction’ Category

Plot Structure Questions Chart

Every year, my students help me to become a better teacher. We will run into some type of a mental road block, and together we will need to think our way through it – this always results in a new way of teaching a piece of content and honestly, it is one of my favorite things about teaching. I love the puzzles!


This year we hit a stumbling block with plot structure. Not the definitions, those were easy enough to learn. Not with discussing the novel we read, Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule, that seemed to go okay. (Notice the word choice “seemed”) The problem came when I asked my students to apply their learning to their own novels, and it became clear that they needed more support.

As my former principal used to say,  “The smartest person in the room, is the room.” It was time to revisit our class novel and the concept of the plot structure chart. We had finished the book two weeks ago, and I assured the class that was actually a good thing as what we would remember now were the major plot points. Using my Promethean board, we brainstormed the people, places, and events in the story. Then we sorted each of our responses into the appropriate category: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Where the information was incomplete, I thought aloud and asked myself questions, adding to the categories.

Then we went through the categories to see how the basic problem intertwines through the plot, how it reaches its high point in the climax, and then has to be resolved. I have decided that I am going to leave out the word “exciting” when teaching about climax next year, at least initially, because that word has been a stumbling block for my students this year. We also made a record of the questions that I asked myself and them to clarify our thinking. Those questions I turned into the chart that I am sharing with you today – a Questions for Plot Structure chart as an option for those students who the plot structure pyramid charts confuse.  I am also sharing the completed Questions for Plot Structure – Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule Example  that my students and I created together.


I hope this is helpful to some of you! How do you teach plot structure?

If you were interested in this post, you may be interested in a more recent post:

Plot Structure Charts and Google Apps

So Far from the Sea – a picture book lesson

So Far from the Sea, by Eve Bunting is a beautiful, informative, and poignant picture book that tells the story of a family going to visit the grave of their grandfather, who died at the Manzanar Relocation Center during World War II. Chris Soentpiet is the illustrator, and just like in Coolies, his drawings convey a wealth of historical information. Historically, the basics of the whys and hows of the Japanese internment are explained in this story.

I used the sketch to stretch strategy with my students, as they love to draw and the pauses allowed me to step out of the story to provide additional historical background or discuss an illustration in more detail.

Other lesson plans for So Far From the Sea:

First Painter by Kathryn Lasky – A picture book lesson

First Painter

This is a beautiful picture book set in prehistoric times. It is the author’s imagining of what caused early man to draw in caves, gorgeously illustrated. The story itself is engaging and plausible, but it is most useful as a scene setter – an introduction to prehistoric times. You can read two useful reviews at Amazon. The book is currently out of print, but easily available online from used dealers or check your local library.

This book became the basis for a history lab.

I would read this to my students, asking them to make simple lists of: tools used, painting supplies, things drawn

We would then read an article on cave painting and see how much of what was written is based in fact, and how much did the author interpret. I also show them some wonderful sites on the internet:

Lastly, I would have my students create their own cave paintings. I’ve used manilla drawing paper or paper grocery bags (send out a call through your newsletter/class email). Students would then crumple the paper to produce a rougher “cave-ish” texture. Using appropriate colors from a water color palette, they then created their own “cave painting”. For best results, this takes either a block period or two regular class periods.


Weslandia by Paul Fleischmann – A Picture Book Lesson

I love using picture books to teach history. My fifth and sixth graders love them. Weslandia is a title I used for years to introduce the concept of civilization.

The best part of a picture book is of course, the pictures. I have a Promethean board, so I take pictures of the pages so that I can show them on the board as I read the book. I find that the pictures are faster/easier than scanning. This is a picture of the title page, so you can see that the image quality is pretty decent.



Weslandia Title

Weslandia is the story of a young boy named Wesley, who decides to create his own civilization as a summer project. His civilization, like all others, starts with agriculture and the development of a staple crop.

This is how I use it as a lesson. The teacher side page is the GRAPES graphic organizer that I wrote about in my previous post.

GRAPES – civilization

I ask them questions and they highlight the answers. I show them pictures and they tell me what parts of a civilization they represent. I then have them set up a concept map on the right hand side. In the center is “Weslandia” and then all of the traits spike off the center. As I read them the story they take notes on the parts of Wesley’s civilization to show me that they understand and can apply the different parts.

Here are a few other lesson plans for this book:

Coolies, by Yin – A picture book on the Transcontinental Railroad

Coolies Cover

This is a terrific story of how two young Chinese boys, Shek and Wong, come to America to earn money for their family. They go to work for the Central Pacific railroad company, work hard, have some adventures, and end up opening a shop in San Franciso.

There is some great information and wonderful pictures to build background – I would recommend this picture book to introduce or supplement your study of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Historical Highlights:

  • My favorite picture, and there are many terrific pictures by Sontpiet in this book, is a two page spread of a railroad camp. It is a terrific visual of how “busy” those areas were.
  • There is good information on how day to day work and life went on in the railroad camps.
  • Another terrific picture of the Chinese immigrants working in knee deep snow – plenty of conversation to have about working conditions.
  • The story ends shortly after the joining of the railroads in Utah.

The students thoroughly enjoyed the story, and we were able to put a human face on this important event in history. I used the sketch to stretch strategy to keep them engaged in the story. I modify it somewhat as follows:

I explain to students that their job is to visualize while I am reading, and to read as much from the pictures I project on the screen as they can. I stop about 1/4 of the way through the book and ask students to draw/sketch a picture of what they thought was most important. I also ask them to write a sentence about what they drew.

I only give them 3 minutes, so I tell them to draw/sketch quickly. Then I read the next quarter and repeat. In the center of the template I have them write the name of the book and author. I’m attaching the template I use to this post.

Sketch to Stretch Template

A lesson plan from the illustrator’s web site.