Survival in the American Wilderness: Fiction v. Nonfiction

by Tim Bailey

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based units. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

Over the course of four lessons, students will compare and contrast the dangers of the American West in the mid-to-late nineteenth century as described in the short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and in the historical events surrounding the Donner Party as recorded in the diary of emigrant Patrick Breen. Students will use textual evidence to draw their conclusions and present arguments as directed in each lesson.

Lessons 1 and 2

Objective

The students will read the short story “To Build a Fire” by Jack London and use organizers to facilitate a close reading of the text as well as track their understanding of the text on a literal and an inferential level. Student understanding of the text will be determined through classroom discussion and the organizers completed by the students. In preparing this lesson you may want to introduce literary techniques such as figurative language and foreshadowing.

Introduction

Jack London first published the short story “To Build a Fire” in 1902. The version used in this unit was revised by London and published in 1908. It is the story of a lone man in the frozen wilderness of the Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896–1899. Jack London used this same setting for his novel The Call of the Wild.

Materials

Procedures

At your discretion you may have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction but don’t give too much away. Remember, we want the students to discover the meaning of text as they read. Decide if the text is at a level that is manageable for your students on an independent reading level. If it is, then let them read the text and fill out the first part of the organizer as they go, selecting the most important sentence in each paragraph.
  2. If the text is too challenging, then “share read” the story with the students. Shared reading is done by having the students follow along silently while the teacher begins reading aloud. The teacher models prosody, inflection, and punctuation. The teacher then asks the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while the teacher continues to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL). The students should now reread the story and complete the first part of the organizer as they read, selecting the most important sentence from each paragraph. If you have students work with partners or in groups, let them negotiate what they think would be best to include on the organizer.
  3. Students can brainstorm as partners or small groups but must complete their own organizer to fulfill the assignment.
  4. Students now answer the critical thinking questions. Remember to emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers.
  5. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share both their choices for key sentences and their answers to the critical thinking questions. Compare those with the responses from other groups.
  6. The second part of the lesson, paragraphs 19–36, can be done on the second day using the same procedure or for homework.

Lesson 3

Objective

The students will read excerpts from the diary of Patrick Breen, a survivor of the Donner Party disaster of 1846–1847, and use the organizer to facilitate a close reading of the text as well as track their understanding on both a literal and an inferential level. Student understanding of the text will be determined through classroom discussion and the organizers completed by the students.

Introduction

The Donner Party was a wagon-train company of eighty-seven emigrants who found themselves trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle of winter while attempting an ill-advised “short cut” to California. Only forty-seven of the party survived to be rescued in the spring. From November 20, 1846, to March 1, 1847, Irish immigrant Patrick Breen kept a diary of his family’s ordeal in the mountains. Breen, his wife, and all seven of their children survived the winter. What happened that winter has come to be one of the most infamous stories of the American West.

Materials

Procedures

You may choose to have the students work individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction but don’t give too much away. Remember, we want the students to discover the meaning of the text as they read. Decide if the text is at a level that is manageable for your students on an independent reading level. If it is, then let them read the text and fill out the organizer as they go, selecting and analyzing the most commonly used words in the diary excerpts.
  2. If the text level is too challenging, then share read the diary with the students.
  3. The students should now reread the diary and use the graphic organizer as they read. If you are having students work with partners or in groups, let them negotiate what words they think would be best to include on the organizer.
  4. Students can brainstorm as partners or in small groups but must complete their own organizer in order to fulfill the assignment.
  5. Students now answer the critical thinking questions. Remember to emphasize that they are to use the author’s own words as evidence for their answers.
  6. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share both their frequent-word choices and the answers to the critical thinking questions. Compare those with the responses from other groups or other individuals.

Lesson 4

Objective

The students will compare and contrast the fictional short story “To Build a Fire” with the nonfiction diary excerpts of Patrick Breen. Students will first revisit the two pieces by writing summaries based on work done in the last three lessons. Afterward, students will use textual evidence to answer questions that compare the two documents.

Introduction

In both the fictional short story “To Build a Fire” and the primary source document of Patrick Breen’s diary, the focus is on survival in the American wilderness. While one of these accounts is a work of fiction and the other is a historical record, we can draw some interesting comparisons between them. What can we learn about some of the life-threatening dangers that faced early travelers through the American West?

Materials

Procedures

You may choose to have the students do the lesson individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four students.

  1. Discuss the information in the introduction.
  2. Students should have the work from the last three lessons available.
  3. Instruct students to review the key sentences they selected from “To Build a Fire.” You can have the students write the sentences on a separate sheet of paper to help them recall the story or simply have the students read them through in order. These sentences should serve as a useful way to summarize the entire story.
  4. Have the students use the frequently used words from the document analysis of the Patrick Breen diary as a guide to write a short summary of the diary.
  5. Students can brainstorm as partners or in small groups but must complete their own summaries in order to fulfill the assignment.
  6. Students now complete the Compare and Contrast worksheet.
  7. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share both of their summaries and then discuss the comparisons that they drew between the dangers recount in the fictional and nonfictional texts.

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Discussion

Thank you for the paired resource. I teach both ELA and history and spend a good deal of time gathering resources to complement the fiction I use. These lesson plans meet my needs, and those of my students who are learning to evaluate fiction in the light of non-fiction information.


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