M.A.R. 02: A Lesson Based on Fear With Junot Díaz

  • Middle School
Kristin Leong

Welcome to Mostly Appropriate Resources where I offer teachers ideas for ELA curriculum that might inspire a few parent emails. All lessons are aligned with Charlotte Danielson’s teacher evaluation framework, TPEP. Let’s call these standards-inspired opportunities for parent-teacher communication. It’s all about the village.

This column was inspired by this list.


Díaz, Junot. “The Terror.” The New York Times Magazine. 25 June 2015.

Facing History's To Kill a Mockingbird Student Essay Contest

Grade Level: 7—8

Subject: Honors Humanities

Learning Targets:

Students will…

1) CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

2) Evaluate the impact of vulnerability in a narrator.

3) Practice bold performance of a text to support understanding of a narrative.

TPEP: Domain 2: The Classroom Environment. 2a: Creating an environment of respect and rapport. 

Background: I taught this lesson with hopes of inspiring my students to enter Facing History’s To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest. The prompt: How has the community you’ve grown up in influenced the person you are today? Has there been a moment when your sense of self has come into conflict with the norms of your community? I wanted my students to know that I get it that middle school is hard and strange but that it's also rich with material.  The essays they wrote stunned. My heart broke in half while I graded.


Post the prompt and break it down.

Get them to brainstorm all the ways community can be defined. Socioeconomic class. Religion. Manic Seahawk fandom.

Talk about sense of self. Loop back to those lessons on coming of age and Sandra Cisneros’ Eleven. Have them offer up labels quick-fire style. Jock. Nerd. Hipster. Yogi. Immigrant. Queer. Activist. Because they trust each other, ask them to tell someone near them some labels they claim as their own. Because they trust you, share some of your own. Point out that the labels haven't changed that much since you were their age. Feel old for pointing that out.

Brainstorm some definitions for norms. Urge them towards values. Ask them what the norms are in this school. Ask them if they agree with all of them.

Unpack conflict. Wonder aloud if conflict is always negative. Ask them how they are different from their parents. Now ask them how they are different from their friends.

STEP 1: Frontload. Tell them we’re going to read a personal essay that starts with a middle school beat down. Show them Díaz's picture. Tell them about his MacArthur and his Pulitzer. Tell them about how he showed up in a hoodie and dropped obscenities smooth and unassuming as he flowed from appropriation to vacations with ex-girlfriends to brown bodies in science fiction while he was at Town Hall when you saw him speak last. Describe Oscar Wao painting those D&D figures alone in his room. Show them the Dominican Republic and New Jersey on a map. Underscore that even the slickest among us were almost eaten alive by the middle school years that they are surviving now.

Excerpt from "The Terror" by Junot Diaz

excerpt from "The Terror"

STEP 2: Number the paragraphs. Get them poised for annotations as they number by reminding them like a rally call: WHEN WE READ, OUR PENS ARE READY.

STEP 3: Tracking. Instruct students to underline the lines that crush them as the story is performed. Let them know it feels good to be crushed by reading. Get them psyched to anticipate it.

STEP 4: Ready the performers. Tell them you’re going to get them started but then they’ll take over. Choose students to read aloud by telling them the number of the paragraph they’ll be performing starting with the third paragraph. Look them in the face seriously when you tell them their number so they understand they’ve been chosen.  Choose girls and boys. Choose white kids and kids of color. Choose a few obviously bold voices to start but then choose quiet kids who are unexpectedly ready to emerge by paragraph eight.  Choose someone brave to take the last line. Remind them about their underlining and then tell them to sit up and get ready.

STEP 5: Perform the first two paragraphs. Go all in. Show them we’re using the way we read to demonstrate that we get it that it’s a big deal to tell our stories and admit that we’re afraid. Emphasize just entered seventh grade so they hear that this is about them. Go slow through asked me if my family ate dogs so that the impact of the specific over the general sinks in.  Enunciate freak like the F word it is.

STEP 6: Let the kids take over. If they begin to stumble over assailants or coiled around my bowels just say the words yourself from the front of the class as soon as they start to hesitate. Be nonchalant. Show them struggling is part of it. Give them a few umm humms and shake your head yes when they lean into their parts. Don’t interrupt them. They’ve got this.

Excerpt on Freak from "The Terror" by Junot Diaz for the New York Times

excerpt from "The Terror"​​

STEP 7: Turn, talk, empathize. Start by having them compare the lines they underlined with someone next to them and then push them to explain what motivated their annotations. Call on a few to share out. Have them cite the paragraph number before the quote and watch as the class scans to meet them there. Ask who else underlined that part and why. Show them how when we are moved by reading we are simultaneously learning how to be alone and how to empathize with others.  Remind them again how reading teaches us that we're neither the center of the world nor alone in it. Remind them again that talking about race isn’t racist.

STEP 8: Assess the essay. Have the students score Díaz's essay with their assignment rubric. Ask them if they think that his essay responds to the contest prompt. Have them work independently and then compare their assessment to a peer’s. Ask them again what the value is of assessing other people's work as we prepare to become writers ourselves. Ask them what this has to do with To Kill a Mockingbird.

STEP 9: Talk about fear. Have them clear off their desks. Invite them to think about the last time they felt afraid. Alone. Different. Who was in the room? Who wasn’t in the room? What time of day was it? What were you wearing? What did it smell/taste/sound/look/feel like to be really afraid? Tell them they don’t have to take a risk with this assignment but that if they do you’ll be here for feedback until that essay tells the story that needs to be told. Remind them that entering the contest is optional. Remind them that telling the truth is not.

STEP 10: Let them write. Reserve classtime for this while Díaz's words are fresh in their minds. Don’t let them listen to music when they claim it helps them focus. Don’t let them eat while they work like you normally do. Assure them there’s time for editing later and tell them not to think too much. Just tell them to write, get it out, whatever it is, just tell the story. Now ready? Yes, yes, they’re ready now for sure. They’ll be moving towards their notebooks and laptops before you even give the signal. Go.


Previously in Mostly Appropriate Resources by Kristin Leong: Slay the Curriculum


  • Common Core State Standards
  • English Language Arts
  • Reading
  • TPEP
  • Writing
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