Teach Students How to Write Topic Sentences

Over  the years, I’ve tried so many different ways to teach students how to write topic sentences. And, I’ve definitely learned that if I assume students know how to write one, I end up kicking myself for not starting with the basics!   This year, something popped in my head that seemed to help my students, so I wanted to share it.

My magic idea?  Umbrellas!

I was trying to find a way to teach students how to write a topic sentences for an introduction and topic sentences for each body paragraph in an argumentative essay when I stumbled upon the idea.  I drew a large umbrella around my topic sentence in my introduction.  I explained that everything in the paper would have to fit under this umbrella.  For the three body paragraphs, I drew smaller umbrellas.  I told students that while each body paragraph had its own topic sentence (umbrella), these three topic sentences still had to fit under the larger umbrella – topic sentence for the entire essay.  The illustration explains it better!

topic sentence umbrellas


This is basically what I said to my students to explain:  The topic sentence in the introduction is like an umbrella, a big huge one that lots of people could fit under.  You see, everything in the entire paper must fit under this big umbrella and that’s why you must choose a good one. Then, in each of the three body paragraphs, there is also a topic sentence- represented by smaller umbrellas.  Only the information in that paragraph must fit under it.  However, this umbrella still fits under the big one in the introduction.

If my big umbrella is something like “The Burmese python is a beautiful creature” then all of my small umbrellas will have to be something about what makes the snakes beautiful.  This would be hard to do.  Under my first small umbrella, I might write the following topic sentence:  The patterns on the snakes body make the Burmese python beautiful.  This works well as it fits under my big umbrella.  However, I can’t think of anything else to say under my next two umbrellas.  There is just no way I can write that many paragrraphs about why this snake is beautiful.  This means one thing, my topic sentence under my big umbrella is not a good one.  I need something else.  What if I changed it to the following: The Burmese python is an interesting creature.?  Now, i’ts much easier to come up with my smaller topic sentences for the body of my paper.  I can still use the umbrella about the snake being beautiful, but under my next umbrella, I can write the following topic sentence: The Burmese python has interesting eating habits.   Under the last umbrella, I could write the following topic sentence: The Burmese python kills its prey in a unique way.

topic sentence umbrellas mistaketopic sentence umbrellas python example

So far, this illustration I used to teach students how to write topic sentences has been wonderful!  I even brought in a big umbrella and a smaller one as an illustration.  My next idea is to look for the “umbrellas” in informational texts.  Hopefully this will help us with identifying main ideas too.

You can print all of the illustrations above by clicking here.

Happy Teaching!


Cover for "Among the Hidden" Test Bundle plus Activities and Reading Signposts

Among the Hidden

Among the Hidden was not a novel I used as totally my own choice.  As we started our new school year in August, we had a request from our administration.   They wanted us to use a class read aloud during our grade level self-selected reading time for the start of the year.  I must admit that I was not overjoyed at this request.  But, I looked for a title that was new for me too and hoped for the best.  And, I was HAPPY once I made my choice!  Among the Hidden was awesome!  I had long heard of the Among the Hidden series from my son and other teachers, but I had never taken the time to read it.  Reading it with my seventh grade boys was fun!  🙂  Of course as we read, the ELA teacher in me kicked in.  Although I knew at the end the boys would take an Accelerated Reader test on the entire novel, I wanted to be sure they were comprehending the novel along the way.  So, I made up tests to use for after chapters six, twelve, eighteen, twenty-four, and thirty.  You can look at the types of questions I used on the Among the Hidden here.

I also decided to use a Venn diagram with the fourteenth chapter of Among the Hidden. (I placed this in the sample unit.)  I wanted to use this to be sure the kids had a clear contrast in mind of Jen’s wealth and Luke’s poverty.  And, I think anyone reading Among the Hidden can appreciate the allusions Haddix uses.  🙂  With my students, I focused on the Alice in Wonderland and “Give me liberty or give me death.” examples.

As we completed Among the Hidden, I had my kids write some poems based on the novel.  And, they worked with a partner to choose a mini-project to complete.  The best news is, many of the boys were hooked on the series after reading Among the Hidden and read more about the Shadow children. Score!

Now, feel free to take a look at a little snip-it of my lessons for Among the Hidden here.   You will see that I added a vocabulary component that I will use the next time I use Among the Hidden with a group.  🙂

Here is a picture of a student’s “Good-Bye, Luke” handout from the end of Among the Hidden.  If you like these samples, consider purchasing our entire teaching unit for this novel.

Oh!  One more thing!  I decided to purchase the book from Audible from Amazon.  I downloaded the app to my iPad and then if  a student was absent, he could listen to what we read in class.  Great option to have!



Middle School Novel Units

We have a lengthy list of middle school novel units to share!  As seventh grade teachers, we use the following middle school novel units for book clubs, as class reads, and for independent novel studies.  Our favorite whole class novel that we begin each year reading is The Man Who Loved Clowns.  Our students fall in love with our class a little more each day as we read this book that makes us laugh and makes us cry.  Another book that we love to read as a class is The Devil’s Arithmetic.  This profound book is not only a great read, but our students learn so much about the Holocaust.

Over the years, we have created standards-based, engaging, and fun lesson plans and activities for several novels suitable for middle schoolers. Each title includes a handout for each chapter of the book and tests as well.  While we developed these lessons with middle school in mind, some of the middle school novel units in this list can also be used in upper elementary grades.  Check out each title below to download a sample free lesson plan or activity from each one! You can use these free handouts today in your classroom, and if you like them, come back to download the entire unit.  You’ll have it for years and years, and your planning will all be completed for you!  Oh, and if you have Pinterest, make sure you pin this page so you will always have this list of middle school novel units!  As we continue to create units, we will add them to this page.

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo is a middle school favorite!  Your students will love the award winning book Because of Winn-Dixie.  While this book is often used in elementary school, this is one of the middle school novel units that is perfect for struggling readers in the sixth, seventh, or even eighth grade.  Print free lesson plans for Because of Winn-Dixie.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, an unforgettable tale of the Holocaust, is sure to hook your most reluctant readers.  Print free lesson plans for one of our best middle school novel units, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson tells a heartfelt story of friendship.  Your middle school students will hang on to every page of this book!  Print free lesson plans to teach this novel.

Bud, Not Buddy  by Christopher Paul Curtis is an excellent middle school novel.  With a backdrop of the Great Depression, Curtis weaves together a story of friendship, family, and acceptance.  Print free lesson plans for Bud, Not Buddy.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor is a story of survival and friendship.  Your students will not want to stop reading this awesome and powerful story!  Print free handouts and lessons for The Cay.

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen is a powerful and touching story of the Holocaust.  Check out our lesson plans and tests for this novel.  Plus, recently we created an interactive notebook edition of this novel unit.  If you use interactive notebooks in your class, check out this post to download a free interactive activity!

Double Dutch by Sharon Draper is sure to be a hit with your middle schoolers.  Check out our free lesson plans for this novel.

Freckle Juice by Judy Blume is a fast and easy read.  It’s another one of those great middle school novel units for struggling readers in middle school.  These lesson plans would also be suitable for elementary school students.  Print free lesson plans for Freckle Juice.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is sure to be a hit with your middle school students!  Gilly proves to be a realistic, hilarious, and somewhat wayward character who really just needs to be loved.  Print free lesson plans for The great Gilly Hopkins!

Flush by Carl Hiaasen  is just as good if not better than Hoot.  Carl Hiaasen’s second novel for young readers is filled with his usual quirky characters, and it centers around environmental themes, and life lessons.   Noah’s dad is furious that raw sewage is being carelessly dumped from the Coral Queen casino boat.   In fact, he is so upset that he sinks it and ends up in jail.  Noah is determined to right the wrongs of his father while all the while seeking to find justice himself.  Click here to view free lesson plans to teach this novel and a test for the first seven chapters.

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen has become a middle school favorite!  Print free lesson plans to teach this novel.

Holes is a must-read for middle school students!   Print free lessons and activities for the novel Holes.

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen is sure to be a hit with your middle schoolers.  In his first novel for a younger audience, Carl Hiaasen brings readers right into the middle of a mystery, involving endangered miniature owls, a goofy police officer, the Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House, and three middle school kids who are determined to do whatever it takes to fight for what is right.Of all of our middle school novel units, this one has the greatest reviews, and it is an unforgettable book!   Click here to view freelesson plans to teach this novel and a test for the first seven chapters.

Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of suspense and action.  Print free standards-based activity sheets and a portion of a test for this novel.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos is a lighthearted novel suitable for middle school kids.  Your students will laugh at Joey’s antics yet sympathize with his needs.  Print free lesson plans for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.

Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is the touching sequel to Stargirl.  In this novel, Stargirl writes letters to Leo as she tries to come to terms with their complicated relationship.  Print free lesson plans for Love, Stargirl.

 The Man Who Loved Clowns by June Rae Wood is a number one favorite among middle schoolers.  They will laugh like never before, and they may even shed a tear or two!  This moving novel tells of the hopes, struggles, and fears of a teenage girl and her  special relationship with her uncle who has Down -Syndrome.  Your middle school students will love this book, and they will never forget it!  Click here to view free lesson plans  for the novel.

Maniac Magee is a page-turner your students will not forget!  View free lesson plans for Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Number the Stars, a book about the Holocaust, by Lois Lowry is a Newberry Medal award winning novel.  This compelling story will hook your reluctant readers and pull them into and unforgettable story of friendship, courage, and hardships.  Print free lesson plans for Number the Stars.

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer tells a powerful story that your students will never forget.  This book is short and a suspenseful page turner.  It’s perfect for reluctant readers!  Print free handouts for On My Honor.

Rules  by Cynthia Lord will keep your middle school students interested as they read about twelve-year-old Catherine and her autistic brother David.  Catherine just wants a normal life, but there is more than her younger brother that complicates that.  Print free lesson plans for Rules.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is always a favorite among middle schoolers.  This classic is timeless and will never be forgotten.  Print free handouts for The Outsiders.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan is a heartfelt, touching story that will captivate your students.  This is a short and easy read for reluctant or struggling middle school readers. Print free lesson plans for Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Small Steps, Louis Sachar’s newest book stars Armpit, one of the guys from Camp Green Lake.  Armpit is now in his late teens and while trying to make something of his life, finds himself in some tough situations.  This humorous and touching book gives a real world outlook and teaches a notable life lesson – The secret to life is to take small steps and just keep moving forward.  Your students will love this fun loving, adventurous novel!  Print free lessons to accompany Small Steps.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli is also an awesome novel for middle schoolers!   Your students will fall in love with Stargirl and laugh as she tries to fit in with the students at her new high school!  As soon as they finish reading Stargirl, they will rush to read the sequel, Love, Stargirl!  Print free lesson plans for Stargirl!

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume is suitable for students in the third through sixth grade.  Your students will automatically fall in love with the character Fudge and laugh through every page!  Print free handouts for tales of a fourth grade nothing.

Tuck Everlasting is a touching novel your students will not forget!  They will love to read about Winnie as she becomes friends with the friendly yet unusual Tuck family. Click here to get our free lesson plans for Tuck Everlasting.

The Tale of Despereaux  is a magical story that your students will remember forever.  Print free lessons for The Tale of Despereaux.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham is sure to be a hit in your classroom!  Print free lessons for this novel today!

Check back often!  Our list will grow!  Happy teaching!

The Devil’s Arithmetic Lesson Plans

Every February, we read The Devil’s Arithmetic as a whole class novel in my seventh grade classroom.  The first year that I read this novel, my The Devil’s Arithmetic lesson plans only consisted of reading, learning new vocabulary words, and answering comprehension questions for each chapter.  My, have my plans come a long way!  Now when it comes time to read this novel, I know that I will successfully teach Common Core based standards as we examine the literary elements and author’s craft.  More importantly, however, together, we will feel a minuscule hint of what it was like to be a part of the Holocaust. It is that “hint” that the author provides that keeps me from moving on to a different Holocaust novel.  Jane Yolen takes us into Hannah Stern’s world – one in which she takes for granted at first before she travels back in time and finds herself in a concentration camp learning all about the devil’s arithmetic.

There is so much that I am able to teach while we read this novel.  I would like to share a few of our activities.  I am also including a link in this post for you to print these activities from our The Devil’s Arithmetic lesson plans.

First, I must tell you that the first seven chapters of this novel do seem to read slowly if you’re using this as a whole class novel that you read aloud.  You may want to consider having students read these first chapters independently or with a reading partner.  In recent years, I typed up all seven of these chapters as a readers’ theater script, and we read it that way.  Whatever you do, do NOT give up on the plot.  Once you hit the end of chapter seven, your students will beg you to keep reading!

The first The Devil’s Arithmetic lesson plans activity I would like to share with you is one you can do prior to reading the book.  On the day that you plan to begin the unit, tape The Star of David on random desks throughout your classroom. (The free download has a printable page of stars for you to use.)

As students enter the classroom, begin to treat those students who have a star on their desk differently than you do the other students.  For example, make them stand instead of sit.  Have them remove their shoes and put them under their desks.  Take away their pencils and give them to those students who do not have stars.  Tell them that they cannot talk, but allow those without stars to talk all they want, etc.  Your point is to make the “the have nots” experience just a “pinch” of what it feels like to be mistreated for no reason at all, and to allow the “haves” to experience what it feels like to watch others be mistreated for no apparent reason.

Once you can tell that your point has been made, which probably won’t be very long without a riot, hold a discussion allowing both students with stars and without to talk about how they felt.  This discussion can then lead you into the beginning of your Holocaust unit.

I am also sharing two other handouts with you.  The first one should accompany chapter three.  It will allow you to teach the literary elements of symbolism and foreshadowing and take a look at how the author uses them in this chapter.  The next activity page goes with chapter seven.  This is where the reader meets that unforgettable and slightly eerie character – the Badchan.  Students will examine his poem and then write one of their own.

We hope you enjoy these free activities from our The Devil’s Arithmetic lesson plans.  Click here for your free download.

If you enjoyed these free printables, consider purchasing our entire teaching unit for this novel.  All of your plans will be complete, and you can use them for years to come!  Happy teaching!