Standard Lesson

Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Critical Discussion of Social Issues

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Six 45-minute sessions, plus additional time for students to read a book outside of class
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Students read and discuss a series of picture books that highlights social barriers and bridges of race, class, and gender. Prior to a read-aloud of each picture book, students participate in activities, such as research or independent reading, that help lay the context for critical discussion of the read-aloud. Throughout the series of readings, students respond to each book in a writing journal. After all the picture books have been read, students use their journal responses to help them synthesize the themes they encountered in the books. They discuss how they can take action to break barriers they have identified in their own worlds and to build bridges from what is to what could be. Finally, students read the novel Maniac Magee and discuss how the novel relates to the picture books they have discussed.

From Theory to Practice

In their article "Critical Literacy," Leland and Harste argue that "teachers who want to reimagine [the read-aloud] as an opportunity to engage children in critical conversations about power and social justice can help them begin to understand that every text is written from someone's perspective" (468).  The use of picture books, which take little time to read, allows students to explore  multiple perspectives around the theme of social bridges and barriers. Picture books can invite students to engage in critical discussion of complex issues of race, class, and gender. They "show how people can begin to take action on important social issues . . . and help us question why certain groups are positioned as 'others'" (Harste, 2000, p. 507). When they are read aloud, picture books enable students to engage in dialogue as they consider the narratives in terms of historical contexts, the nature of the implied barriers, and how individuals can take action to promote social justice and equity.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges (NY: Scholastic Press, 1999)
  • The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles; illus. by George Ford (NY: Scholastic, 1995)
  • The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson; illus. by E.B.Lewis (NY: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 2001)
  • The Royal Bee by Frances Park and Ginger Park; illus. by Christopher Zhong-Yuan Zhang (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 2000)
  • Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard; illus. by E.B. Lewis (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000)
  • Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (NY: Harper/Trophy, 1990)
  • Knots in My Yo-yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid by Jerry Spinelli (NY: Knopf, 1998)
  • Response Journals



  • Obtain copies of all necessary picture books and become familiar with them in preparation for reading aloud and discussion.
  • Obtain a class set of Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.
  • Familiarize students with to expectations for an opportunities of Response Journals.  Consult ReadWriteThink resources such as Exchanging Ideas by Sharing Journals: Interactive Response in the Classroom or Demonstrating Comprehension Through Journal Writing for ideas on getting students started with response journals.
  • If the students are not familiar with literary terms such as viewpoint, setting, and metaphor, specific preparation will be necessary.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • engage in critical discussions of three shared texts.
  • analyze and compare the three shared texts in terms of genre, historical settings, conflicts, character development, and themes.
  • explore the craft of the authors and artists.
  • discover the potential of the picture book for presenting complex ideas about the human experience.
  • engage in independent reading of nonfiction to prepare for shared reading experiences and to enrich the group discussions of the shared texts.
  • use intertextual links to build understanding.
  • confront injustices and inequities in the past and present.
  • learn how literature can become a catalyst for social action: breaking barriers and building bridges.
  • respond to shared texts in group discussions and in Response Journals.
  • respond to independent reading experiences in small group discussions and in Response Journals.
  • learn to formulate their own questions to generate critical study of literary texts.

Session One

This lesson serves as preparation and introduction to more focused work and questioning in Session Two.

  1. Read aloud the autobiography of Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes, as well as The Story of Ruby Bridges (Robert Coles), a picture story book about this African American who, as a six-year-old child, became a pioneer in school integration when she broke a racial barrier to enter an all-white school in New Orleans in 1960.
  2. Invite students to work in small groups to discuss the people and events in American history described in these books, using the Internet to search for background information on the Internet about Ruby Bridges as well as Jacqueline Woodson.
  3. Explain to students that they will have the opportunity to record their thoughts in their Response Journals in the next class session.

Session Two

  1. In a whole-group session, the students listen to and discuss The Other Side, a picture story book by Jacqueline Woodson. This story is told from the viewpoint of Clover, an African American girl who lives in a town with a fence that separates the black side of town from the white side. Clover tells the story of the summer she becomes friends with Annie, a white girl who lives on the other side of the fence.
  2. A few questions are introduced to initiate a discussion include

    • What was the viewpoint in this story? Why do you think the author used this viewpoint?
    • Why did Clover’s mother warn her not to climb over the fence?
    • How did the Clover and Annie work out a way around this racial barrier? How did they manage to "build bridges"?
    • How did the books about Ruby Bridges help you figure out the implied setting for this story and the significance of the fence?
    • How is the fence used as a metaphor in this story?
    • Why do you think Jacqueline Woodson wrote this story? What did you learn about this author that would help you answer this question?
  3. Give students time to reflect on their learning from Session One and the discussion of the questions in this session in their Response Journals.

Session Three

  1. In this whole-group session, the students listen to and discuss The Royal Bee, a picture story book by Frances and Ginger Park. This is the story of Song-ho, a poor peasant boy who is determined to learn how to read and write. However, he lives in Korea over a century ago when only the sons of wealthy families are allowed to go to school. Song-ho finds a way to break this barrier and to take control of his own destiny.
  2. Introduce questions such as these while reading to initiate discussion:

    • Examine the front and back covers, the title pages, and the Authors’ Note. What do you learn about the setting, the central character, and the inspiration for this story?
    • [At the conclusion of the story] What kind of barrier is featured in this story?
    • What action does Song-ho take to break through this barrier?
    • What action does the teacher take to stand up against injustice and help Song-ho build a bridge out of a life of poverty? What role do the students play in this story?
    • Compare Song-ho’s response to the final question at the Royal Bee with the response of the other finalist in this national academic contest. [Note: Students may choose to use the Interactive Venn Diagram for this and other comparing activities in this lesson.]
    • Compare this story with the story of Clover and Annie in The Other Side.
    • Why do you think the authors of The Royal Bee included their note at the beginning of this book?
  3. After they listen to and discuss The Royal Bee, give students time to write in their Response Journals about the connections between the authors and their work.

Session Four

  1. In this whole-group session, the students listen to and discuss Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys, a picture book by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard who was inspired by childhood stories of her grandfather to write this story. Set in the post-Civil War South, this is the story of Virgie who is determined to go to school with her brothers who attend a Quaker school for freed slaves. Although her brother tells her "girls don’t need school," her parents finally decide to allow her to go. Her father tells his children, "All free people need learning—old folk, young folk…small girls, too" (n.p.). The author includes a note at the back of the book to provide information about the historical context for this story as well as its connection to her own family.
  2. Offer these questions to initiate discussion in this read-aloud session and to guide written responses in their Response Journals at the conclusion of the group session:


    • Examine the front and back covers. What do you think is the setting? What clues about this story do the title and picture provide?
    • Who is telling this story? Why do you think the author chose this viewpoint?
    • What is unusual about the way this story is told?
    • What barriers are featured in this story?
    • How do the people in this story break barriers caused by racial and gender stereotypes and prejudice?
    • Why do you think the author described the long walk to school in such detail?
    • What did you learn from the author’s note at the back of the book and from her dedication?
    • Did this note change the way you viewed this story? Explain. Why do you think this note was not included in the front of the book as in The Royal Bee?
    • Compare this story with the other books we have read as part of this unit.
  3. Give students time to write and reflect in their response journals.
  4. Close the session by asking students to prepare for the next session by reviewing what they have recorded in their Response Journals and then writing about the literary themes they have discovered as well as connections between these stories and their own lives.  Ask them to compose a response to the question, which should be posted or projected for students to jot in their Response Journal:  "What can you do to help break down barriers and build bridges in your own world?"
  5. Encourage students bring their Journals to this fourth session, the synthesis session.

Session Five

  1. Begin the synthesis session by asking students to get out their Response Journals.  Give them time to review what they wrote in preparation for today's class and to add whatever new thinking comes to mind around the question "What can you do to help break down barriers and build bridges in your own world?"
  2. Facilitate a  discussion of the literary themes the students have identified and recorded in their Journals.
  3. Then focus on the final question and consider how they can take action to break barriers they have identified in their own worlds and to build bridges from what is to what could be.
  4. For preparation for the next session, ask students read Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli and keep a running record of their responses to this novel. In preparation for the whole-group session, the students formulate 2–3 questions that would be used to generate a critical discussion of this novel.
  5. Determine the date by which students should have read Maniac Magee and remind students as the agreed-upon date approaches.

Session Six

  1. Students should come to class with a basic understanding of Maniac Magee, the story of a racially divided town, Two Mills, Pennsylvania, in which the East End and West End are two hostile camps separated by Hector Street. Maniac Magee, a legendary hero in a contemporary realistic novel, crosses Hector Street and moves between the East End and West End in an attempt to break down barriers, build bridges between these camps, and bring together those who have learned to see each other as the enemy. Maniac is a larger-than-life character who confronts the prejudice, ignorance, and fear that he finds on both sides of Hector Street. He is also a "regular kid" who is searching for a home and a family. A few examples of student-initiated questions are included below.
  2. Use questions from students' Response Journals and questions such as the ones below to facilitate a discussion of the book:

    • What clues did the author give you to let you know this novel is both a tall-tale and realism?
    • Why did the author put the jump-rope rhyme at the beginning of the story?
    • Why did the author include all of Maniac’s amazing feats?
    • Why did the author create a character without any prejudice?
    • Maniac is a tall-tale hero. What was his quest?
    • Maniac is a regular kid. What was his quest?
    • Why is Grayson an important character?
    • How did Mars Bar help Maniac Magee with his quests?
    • How is Hector Street like the fence in The Other Side?
    • What barriers are in this novel? How do they get broken?
    • What bridges were built in this town?
    • If you read Spinelli’s autobiography, what did you find out about how he got the idea for this novel?
  3. At the conclusion of the discussion prompted by these questions, ask students to compare the books featured in the first four sessions withManiac Magee and to explain how these books could serve as preparation for reading Spinelli’s book.


  • Prior to each read-aloud session, provide students time and resources to search for information about the authors and books they will be discussing.
  • Consider providing students with time and resources to work in class with partners to search for information about Spinelli and his work on the Internet. Some students might also be interested in reading Spinelli’s autobiography, Knots in My Yo-yo String and discovering the way this author translates real life into fiction. The chapter called "Dr. Winter’s Finger" (pp.102-109) provides fascinating insights about the origins of Maniac Magee.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Assessment is an ongoing process throughout this cumulative lesson. Objectives that are used to guide the development of the lesson plan also provide criteria for assessment of the students' involvement and understanding as readers, writers, and thinkers in response to literary experiences as the plan is translated into practice.

  • The teacher should observe the students' participation in the group sessions, their contributions to literary discussions, their responses to independent reading selections, and their Response Journal entries. For example, in preparation for Session Five, the students are given specific written assignments to record in their Journals. These entries provide relevant information about what each student has learned from this literary experience.
  • The student-initiated questions in Session Six provide further evidence of the students' literary learning as well as their grasp of the central focus of this lesson.

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