Climbing the Ladder

a temporary structure on the outside of a building, made usually of wooden planks and metal poles, used by workers while building, repairing, or cleaning the building.



Literal definition aside, scaffolding is essential to teachers. It’s one of the first things we learn how to do in “teacher school” — scaffold our lessons to help our students reach the end goal. It is an essential part of our job, because we can’t just expect our students to jump right to the top. Some of them may be pole vaulters, but the vast majority need the rungs. And they need them in different places. And maybe of different shapes and sizes.

Whenever I plan for my 9th grade English classes, I’m always trying to think “up the ladder” in terms of scaffolding. I want to help them reach the highest levels possible, but sometimes that can be a tall order. My classes are heterogeneous, meaning I have both Honors-level and Academic-level students in class. A high proportion of my Academic-level students have IEPs for various reasons. And, several of my Honors students will one day move on to AP English.

So, basically, I have kids at every rung. Some are way down at the bottom, and some are ready to jump off the top. But my goal is to help every one of them climb up at least one rung.

It can be tough, but I’m always willing to experiment and find ideas that work. The best way I have found to do this is to teach process and approach. In other words, I don’t want to teach to an end product — I just want to teach them how to get there and let them figure it out on their own. So, we learn process, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.

This week, we started our third unit, thematically titled Conscience & Justice, during which my students will study Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird. As a way to introduce the unit, I tried something new this year, starting my kids on a new process: creating a synthesis essay.

I realize synthesis essays are typically used with Advanced Placement-level English classes, which is a long way from 9th grade English. But, that doesn’t mean they my students are incapable of being successful at this type of essay, or that this type of writing is not useful to them. After all, the higher-level thinking skill of synthesizing information is a necessary one. It just takes a number of steps to teach them how to get there.

Here’s how I’m attempting it this year.

Step one: A film
Traditionally, I have had my Honors-level students independently read the play Twelve Angry Men concurrently with Mockingbird. But, last year, so many of my students told me the play was their favorite reading of the semester, so this year I decided to change tactics and have everyone in the class study it. To make it more accessible to my more visual and auditory learners (and for the sake of time) I showed the classic 1958 film during the first two days of the unit.

For this unit, the film is meant to serve two purposes: a launching point to introduce my students to an example of an individual fighting for justice (under similar circumstances of To Kill A Mockingbird), and a means to give them evidence for their synthesis.

Of course, they celebrated the fact that we were, “watching a movie!” But, to make them work for it, I asked them to watch the film with a piece of paper in front of them, and to jot down notes about the following:

  • Injustices
  • Actions taken to fight injustice
  • Characteristics of those fighting injustice
  • Reasons for behaviors (i.e. What makes each juror change his verdict?)

Step Two: Discussion
Post-film, we discussed their observations and allowed them to jot down further notes. True to everything else they have done, some kids surprised me with the depth of their observations. By sharing out to the class, those who had keen observations were able to have a moment to share their knowledge. And those who didn’t have much to say at first were able to make connections and come up with a few responses and connections of their own.

Step Three: The Prompt
With some ideas about justice versus injustice from the film, we were ready for the next step of actually introducing the essay, which in itself is a multi-step process.

Since, thematically, we are focusing on justice and injustice, I wanted the essay to focus on this topic so that they have a broader basis of knowledge of the historical impact of fighting for justice, as well as the connections between historical/social events and campaigns for justice (i.e. Women’s Suffrage, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement).

To focus their essay, I started them off with some quotations. I chose five famous quotations about injustice, from a number of well-known individuals (from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr) and asked them to pick one as a focus. They were to then apply the quote to the film, uncovering evidence from the film to support it or counter it.

Finally, I introduced them to the Data Dig. This is a concept I was introduced to at a professional development training. It’s basically a fancy term for a Google folder full of resources about a specific topic. The idea is for the students to dig through the folder and find the common threads between the resources, and then think about the ones that match to their chosen quotation and film evidence. There are more resources in the folder than they can possibly use, so they have to sift through and determine the ones that best support their case.

I purposefully chose a wide array of resources for the folder, not only to give them more choice, but also because the skills involved in extracting information from each are a little bit different. They could choose from famous speeches (by Susan B Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Gandhi, Red Jacket), essays (“Letter from A Birmingham Jail,” the Emancipation Proclamation), songs (“Fortunate Son,” “What’s Going On”), videos (Malala’s Nobel Prize Acceptance, Emma Watson’s address on women’s equality to the UN), and political cartoons. The requirement: Choose two sources, of two different types. Study them, and find the common threads. Then, use them as additional evidence.

So, synthesizing all of this information requires them to make connections between the film, the quote, and the historical sources.

In class yesterday, I gave them an outline and an example thesis with sentence stems, the final steps they need in order to be able to craft their response. They will spend the weekend extracting evidence and piecing together their responses, and have one last chance to ask questions or get help on Monday before submitting their final response.

This might be difficult for some of them. Even though they have all the parts, sometimes incorporating and putting them together gets a little messy.

But, they’ll have two more chances to repeat the process during this unit — once as they synthesize historical events and documents with the text, and another when they complete their final project, answering the question “What Would Atticus Do?”

With repeated practice and exposure, I’m betting that over time even those who are struggling to put words and connections around these initial connections will be able to connect the text to deeper ideas. 

And, deeper ideas = deeper connections = deeper learning. And moving up to that next rung.




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