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Concept Development: "Facing Hard Times with Courage" - 5th Grade

Kirstin Gerhold

Columbia Elementary School

Mukilteo, Washington


Theme: The topic I chose for the themed literature unit was the American Revolution because it coincided with one of our social studies units. I wanted students to explore an important theme within this topic: What does it mean for ordinary people to face the immense difficulties of hard times in their lives, such as war? Instead of naming the theme for the students, I decided to have them develop the theme as they read. I told the students that we were going to focus on the general concept of "courage." Through literature circles, students explored this concept in relation to the main characters in their books. We began to develop the theme after they had read enough of their books to begin to know the characters well. After many steps, they created the theme, "Facing Hard Times with Courage" and formed generalizations that related to all of their books.


The Process:

1. In their literature circle groups, students brainstormed a list of character traits that described the main characters in their books. We made a list of these traits on the board. Then we grouped the traits that the students thought were similar (e.g., "brave" and "courageous.")


2. Next, the students eliminated traits that did not relate to courage or did not describe the main character in their books. For example, one group had listed "age 16" as a trait of their character. We discussed how this trait did not relate to the concept of courage and eliminated it. I also read aloud Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by James Ransome. We used this story and a discussion to move their focus away from "war" and to talk more about people who are facing a difficult situation in other contexts. This step took a couple of days of discussing and negotiating. We ended up with a list of traits that related to all five of the books. Some of these traits were: thoughtful, brave, curious, foolish, prepared, unprepared, strong, smart, determined.


3. Students chose several traits from our remaining list to focus their group discussions. They worked together to find examples where their characters showed each trait in the story. After this discussion, each student chose two traits and wrote about each one in their journal. They included either the example that was discussed in their group or they chose another example.


4. The next step was to turn the examples into general statements. We practiced taking specific statements making them broader, applicable in more than one context. We used examples that did not relate to the stories but related to students' lives. For example, "I like to play basketball" would become "Fifth graders like to participate in a variety of activities including sports."

To help students begin to form generalizations about courage, I modeled the process. I took one of the traits from our list, "determined." We discussed evidence from their books of how a character had been determined and how that demonstrated his or her courage. I said, "What could we say about people in the Revolutionary War time period about determination and courage?" One student made the following general statement: "People who show courage often have determination." They were getting it!

Anton gave us an example of how Johnny Tremain showed determination and courage after his devastating injury. I suggested this statement: "Johnny Tremain faced a hard time and showed courage and determination to overcome his injury." As we discussed this specific statement, a student offered the next step by generalizing, "People who face a hard time often show courage and determination to overcome injuries."

Then the students took their examples from their journal entries and turned them into general statements. For example, one student wrote, "Sarah Bishop was brave when her father and brother died because she went to live by herself and she tried to stay away from the Hessian men." This example became, "People can be brave when someone in their family dies by living on their own." After this process, we ended up with a list of 11 generalizations.


5. Each group went through the 11 generalizations and crossed out the ones that did not relate to their book. We worked on eliminating choices and changing some of the statements to make them more general. In addition, each group proposed a title that incorporated all of the generalizations.


6. We continued the process of whole class and group discussions until they reduced the list to four generalizations and the title, "Facing Hard Times with Courage." The theme and generalizations became the focus for discussions and journal writing for the rest of the unit.



· Sometimes people are disobedient in order to achieve their goals of freedom and equal rights. It take courage to be disobedient because people may put themselves in great danger by doing what they are not supposed to.


· People who conquer their fears are brave and have courage.


· People must be brave to adventure out into the unknown.


· People who face a hard time often show courage and determination to overcome their problems.


7. As a final project, the students created a story quilt. Each group created one square for each generalization. The squares within each group share a common border that was created by each group. We also talked about color as a symbol and they voted to mount the quilt on a black and yellow background.



Avi. The Fighting Ground. New York: Lippincott. 1984.

Collier, James Lincoln & Christopher Collier. My Brother Sam is Dead. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 1974.

Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain. New York: Franklin Watts. 1943.

O'Dell, Scott. Sarah Bishop. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1980.

Woodruff, Elvira. George Washington's Socks. New York: Scholastic. 1991.

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