Reimagining Middle School: Civil War Companion Book Unit

Liz Misiewicz

Liz Misiewicz is a 7th grade English teacher in Ridgefield, CT. She is excited to be a part of the innovation currently taking place in education and has worked on her district’s Team Imagine committee, collaborating with Allison Zmuda to reimagine the middle school experience.

Personalized learning, and student choice. Creating a new Humanities-based unit focused on those aspects was my step toward reimagining middle school, and it started in my classroom. This unit brought the students’ writing to an impressive new level. Students chose their book, chose their writing strategies and stopped to write about important points of the book that stood out to them — not to the teacher. This produced amazing results and ultimately, a companion book. I served as only a guide and wow — did students run with the project!

To develop this unit, I blended the goals of an English book club unit with the Social Studies Civil War content students were studying at the time. Combining this with the power of writer’s workshop, I took a fresh approach to the Teachers College Information unit and made slight adjustments to the lessons to fit the needs of my students. In this new unit, students developed a companion book to their Civil War historical fiction novel. A companion book is essentially a collection of chapters that analyze key points of the book from conflict to characters, relationships, the significance of certain settings and more. It was composed of a cover, introduction and three chapters.

The Literacy Specialist and I collaborated to develop a list of Civil War historical fiction books that offered a variety of perspectives. Following a book talk, students then selected their book. I taught lessons with a mentor text and using a document camera modeled writing techniques such as charts, venn diagrams and more to show how students could use writing in different ways to help them understand the text better and come to new ideas. They could use these strategies to work a significant part of the book, or something that was confusing. For example, I demonstrated how to create a pressure map that displayed the protagonist’s conflicts. I also represented the relationship of two characters by charting their paths with plot points.The key to this was that students stopped at points in the book that mattered to them.

After a couple of lessons students began creating their own methods of thinking critically about their text. One student developed a scrapbook for the protagonist that included symbols, explanations and other important elements of the book to connect the events and changes in the character’s life. Another student created a graph to show a comparison between his protagonist’s expectations of the war versus the realities of war and from there wrote about a potential theme of his novel. Through character mapping and plot points, another student came to understand how important the setting was to the plot and how it affected the characters. One student exclaimed, “I didn’t realize you could get so much from a book!”

This work grew and became more exciting! There was an energetic buzz in the classroom of reading and writing. Students began to volunteer to write under the document camera and model their writing as others worked. Students also had many opportunities to share their work which in turn provided new ideas to their classmates. One student, who struggled with reading, drew the scene of a book with details to help him more accurately picture the setting. When he looked at his drawing and realized how the setting was finally clear to him, he quickly volunteered to share in front of the class!

Ultimately these writing entries served as the basis of their chapters. Through this entire time we became a writing community: students shared their work and provided new ideas to others. Their writing was self-directed and it impressed upon me the power of personalization and how it encourages growth, engagement and achievement.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” To me, the journey is reimagining the middle school experience, and my step towards that was developing a personalized Humanities unit. Reimagining middle school starts right in the classroom and I love being a part of the journey!

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