CommonLit CommonLit 360 "Characters Who Change & Grow": A Short Story Unit from CommonLit 360 that will Get Students Excited About ELA in 6th Grade

This ELA Unit includes engaging short stories and a nonfiction text that will engage students and help them reflect on their own lives to discuss how people change overtime.  

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 So Well Suited for 6th Grade

Teachers know that the first unit sets the tone for the rest of the school year. The first few weeks are vital for relationship building, and teachers can use this precious time to establish a classroom environment where students feel safe, heard, and understood.

According to research, young adolescents have a need for affiliation and a sense of belonging, so it is very important that teachers help foster peer relationships (Scales, 2010) and facilitate positive peer interactions (Kellough & Kellough, 2008). This unit will allow students to feel connected and build relationships with their classmates and their teachers by introducing students to characters who face challenges that may be similar to their own.

Much like many middle school students, characters in this unit worry about being different, are concerned about peers’ opinions, cope with peer-to-peer issues, protect their siblings and loved ones, and navigate unfair situations.

The Core Texts In This Unit

Research has shown the importance of culturally responsive teaching, and how it allows for deeper comprehension through text-to-self connections. Exposing students to diversity in texts also allows students to develop respect for cultural differences.

In this unit, students will read texts about Native American, Black, and Mexican-American characters facing problems sixth graders can relate to. Let’s look at the core texts:

  • Do People Really Change?” by Jessica McBirney: an informational text that asks students to think about if personalities can change over time and serves as critical background knowledge for the three short stories in the unit
  • “Home” by Hena Khan: a short story that describes the experience of a young girl as she struggles to adjust to life with her newly adopted brother
  • The Scholarship Jacket” by Marta Salinas: a short story about a girl whose teacher tries to unjustly cheat her out of an academic award because of her economic status
  • “Thrown” by Mike Jung: a short story that tells the story of Stevie, a boy with autism who is struggling with the challenge of advancing to a more difficult aikido martial arts class
  • The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Hawk Sneve: a short story about a Native American boy who lies to avoid being embarrassed by his grandfather’s adherence to tradition, but soon learns that he was wrong to be ashamed of his identity
  • “Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina: a short story about a middle school student who views her father differently after experiencing discrimination at her new school
  • Raymond’s Run” by Toni Cade Bambara: a heartwarming story about how characters can grow and change through moments of epiphany, centered around a young protagonist determined to protect her brother, who has an intellectual disability
“Do People Really Change?” by Jessica McBirney lesson with Assessment Question 1 highlighted.

These high-quality and compelling texts allow students to consider how relationships influence each character and to think about how important people in their lives have affected their growth. Throughout the unit, students will be asked to call on their experiences and text evidence to write essays about change, discuss with their classmates, and pause for self-reflection to help cope with the unfamiliarity and uniqueness of this stage in their lives.

For example, after reading each text, students will be asked to answer questions about how the main character changed over the course of the story. Class discussions will ask students to use text evidence and life experience to argue who or what is the biggest influence in teens’ lives. The end of unit essay asks students to determine the theme of “The Medicine Bag” by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve and explain how the author uses at least one of the literary techniques discussed throughout the unit to convey it.

How Unit 1 Drives Student Success

The Essential Question in this unit is “How are people changed through their relationships and experiences?” In this unit, students will learn how to cite evidence to support analysis, and how to identify plot elements, character change, and central ideas. By the end of the unit, students will be able to articulate how characters change through their interactions with others. They will also write a full-length essay that determines the theme of a story and backs up their findings with claim, relevant evidence, and reasoning.

Practicing writing a full-length essay is essential for 6th graders. Unit 1 will set students up for success in the rest of sixth grade, where they will be expected to write more complex literary analysis pieces starting in Unit 2. Unit 1’s writing 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 determining the theme of a text, writing explanations, planning an essay, and writing clear introductions and conclusions.

Each element and lesson in Unit 1 is explicitly connected with the goal of helping students master RL6.3 along with other core standards. Students are consistently asked to compare texts and recall past discussions and lessons in their work.

While students grapple with important, relevant topics, they learn and practice fundamental reading, writing, discussion, and grammar skills that will allow them to succeed in middle school and beyond. Teachers can help foster student independence through guided support, and lessons that focus on how to break down prompts, write complete paragraphs, conduct class discussions, and more.

Additionally, students will interact with the texts and themes in this unit through interesting lessons like the Related Media Exploration on “Characters Who Shape the Protagonist and Plot.” This lesson includes clips from popular children’s movies such as Disney’s “Moana” or Pixar’s “Up,” paired with informational videos on archetypes and character functions.

A screenshot from the Related Media Exploration on “Characters Who Shape the Protagonist and Plot” slideshow with a clip from Disney’s “Moana” and questions to ask the students.
A screenshot from the Related Media Exploration on “Characters Who Shape the Protagonist and Plot.”

This 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 live training and on-demand 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.

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