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University of Wisconsin–Madison

9th Grade English Students at West High School Read and Respond to Just Mercy

Post written by Kim Schopf and Lynn Glueck, Madison West High School

Every year, Madison Metropolitan School District students in English classes take beginning, middle and end-of-year writing assessments that help students and teachers gauge progress on the critical skills of reading a text closely and writing an argument based on that text. This year, as a way of tying this reading and writing authentically to the English 1 (9th grade English) curriculum and to current and relevant events and issues  in our community and the nation, the team chose to use an excerpt from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  The excerpt, the story of 13-year-old Ian Manuel who was imprisoned in Apalachee Correctional Institution, for much of  time in solitary confinement, struck a chord with students, many of whom were interested in reading the book. When they reviewed their assessments together as a class it engendered discussions about race, justice, punishment, and forgiveness. While being horrified about the treatment of Ian in prison, they also struggled with notions of appropriate consequences for actions in adolescence. These are exactly the kinds of discussions that foster critical thinking that we want to see in our West classrooms.

In support of engaging students in their learning, there’s a new structure for English 1 instruction at Madison West, in which students choose books to read based on interest rather than exclusively reading whole-class texts. Also, while the focus is still mainly on reading literature, there’s more integration of nonfiction text. So the recent donation of copies of Stevenson’s Just Mercy from UW-Madison’s Go Big Read program is a welcome addition to the classroom libraries.  Students’ reading of the book, and attendance at the Go Big Read event at which Stevenson spoke, ties in well with the curriculum for quarter three of English 1, in which students will dig deeply into a unit of instruction entitled “Because Lives Matter”  and focus on writing argument based on text.  A central focus will be on social justice and exploring the following questions:

  • What is the significance of being able to express self and to be acknowledged?
  • How do readers deepen their content knowledge as well as come to understand perspectives and cultures?
  • How do writers create argument writing in order to examine and convey their ideas?
  • How does research enhance the discovery of storytelling, ideas, and arguments?

We strongly encouraged our 480 9th grade English students to attend the Go Big Read author event on October 26!

A big thank you to UW-Madison for providing the copies of Just Mercy for  West High students. The Wisconsin Idea in action.