CommonLit CommonLit 360 “The Art of Suspense”: A Thematic Story Unit from CommonLit 360 that Will Spark Incredible Discussions In the Beginning of 8th Grade

This ELA Unit includes high-interest stories about moral dilemmas and distinguishing right from wrong from authors like Roald Dahl and Richard Matheson.

What Is CommonLit 360?

CommonLit 360 is a free English Language Arts curriculum for grades 6-12 that includes content-rich units and compelling texts. Each fully-built out unit integrates reading, writing, listening, and speaking lessons. It is easy for teachers to use, with clear facilitation tips, actionable assessments, and ready-made tools to support differentiation.

Why Unit 1 Is Perfect for Back to School

The first unit in 8th grade is called “The Art of Suspense.” This unit is anchored around seven engaging texts that depict characters struggling between right and wrong, including characters who willingly make immoral decisions by reasoning that the end result justifies their bad behavior. Students also engage in a nonfiction text to help them further engage with the short stories. As students progress through this unit, they will answer the Essential Question: “How do authors create suspense, and why are we drawn to it?”

This unit engages students by encouraging them to voice their personal opinions through collaborative class discussions. The short stories open students’ eyes to the nuances of the universal debate over what is right and wrong.

The Core Texts in This Unit

  • Button, Button” by Richard Matheson: a short story about a couple faced with a mysterious and tempting offer that forces them to choose between their own happiness and greed and someone else’s life. This text will also help students understand how authors build suspense through different points of view
  • Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl: a story about how one woman reacts to her husband’s shocking betrayal and then decides to cover her tracks in an unexpected way that will show how authors build suspense through drama and irony
  • Ruthless” by William DeMille: a short story about a vindictive man’s plan for revenge featuring a shocking twist ending that will help students analyze how point of view and situational irony are used to affect readers
  • Lather and Nothing Else” by Hernando Téllez: a short story about a barber’s internal conflict who struggles to decide between taking revenge and maintaining his integrity as he shaves the beard of a cruel officer
  • The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: a classic short story where a man tells the tale of a terrible act he committed as he struggles to maintain his sanity
  • The Cone” by H.G. Wells: a short story about an ironworks manager that gives his friend a tour of his company shortly after discovering an enracing secret
  • The Psychology of Suspense” by R.J. Jacobs: a nonfiction text about people’s contrasting attitudes toward suspense
“Lather and Nothing Else” by Hernando Téllez with the Guided Questions tab of the Activities bar highlighted.

These compelling and engaging fictional texts allow students to consider the experiences and events that lead people from childhood to adulthood. There is also an informational text about the three levels of moral development to help students gain background knowledge.

Unit 1 Is a Driver for Student Success

In this unit, students will learn about how theme is developed, how dialogue and events propel action, reveal character, or provoke a decision, and how different points of view create dramatic irony and suspense.

This unit also includes incredible writing lessons that are grade-level appropriate and rigorous. Meanwhile, these lessons are effectively scaffolded for students so that they can meet the end of unit goals and outcomes. As a former teacher, I know how difficult it is to teach writing. CommonLit’s writing lessons are laid out in a way that sets teachers up for success. Each CommonLit 360 unit gives teachers all the steps they need to get students to meet end of unit goals that will accelerate their writing success. Through carefully scaffolded lessons, students will practice writing a strong claim and complete paragraphs with relevant evidence and reasoning.

By the end of the unit, students will plan and write a full literary analysis essay that includes paragraphs with strong argument statements and complete introduction and conclusion paragraphs. This is a key skill for 8th graders! Future units built on this skill. If students can master this skill in Unit 1, they will be ready to move on to Unit 2 of the 360 Curriculum, where they will be asked to improve upon their literary analysis writing skills by backing their clear arguments with contextualized evidence and strong explanations. Unit 2 is called “Courageous Choices,” making it a perfect complement that is thematically connected to Unit 1.

Students will love the Discussion Lesson, where students answer the following question: “Who is more to blame for Arthur’s death in ‘Button, Button’: Noma or Mr. Steward?” These discussion lessons will help students hone their speaking and listening skills, practicing referring to evidence in discussion to build on or challenge others’ ideas. There are many opportunities for informal discussion, but this formal whole class discussion will help students be set up for success for future classroom discussions critical in 8th grade and into high school.

One of the most engaging lessons in this unit is the Related Media Exploration. In this thought-provoking lesson, students will work with their peers to examine how filmmakers create suspense in film. This lesson allows students to hone their discussion skills while also relating suspense in film to how authors create suspense.

Related Media Lesson “Analyzing Suspense in Film” with a video clip from Jurassic Park and discussion questions to accompany the video.

Additionally, the unit also includes:

How Unit 1 Drives Teacher Success

CommonLit 360 provides a wealth of tools that will make the beginning of the year a breeze. Each comprehensive unit is set up for teachers and includes everything from fully-fleshed out lesson plans to vocabulary quizzes to discussion prompts and more. If your school purchases our School Essentials PRO package, you can access our Professional Development Portal. These self-paced tutorials are specifically designed to help teachers utilize all CommonLit 360 has to offer in their classroom.

Additionally, digital grading and feedback tools, interactive reading and writing lessons, and data tracking can save you hours previously spent on planning and grading. Working within contract hours will no longer be an unattainable pipe dream, and you can use the extra time to continue to focus on relationship building in your classroom.

Next Steps

Sign up for a CommonLit 360 webinar to get a comprehensive overview of how the curriculum works and how to use the digital platform.

Interested in gaining access to live and on-demand professional development that will help your team take full advantage of CommonLit 360?