What is the Best Response to Injustice?

By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan

Sometimes poverty is a concrete noun that we can study and dissect as we attempt to break its power in the lives of our students.  If you’ve been following this blog, you already know we’ve been making students aware of poverty through Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men.

But for the memoir, The Other Side of the Sky by Farah Ahmedi and Tamim Ansary, poverty is more than a noun to be studied; it becomes an abstract noun that carries such a great power that it becomes a symbol for a way of life.  And it is this poverty that carries our students through the narrative to experience survival and pursue education with fresh perspective.

Teaching The Other Side of the Sky, 850 Lexile

Man cannot live by Lexiles alone, so we don’t let a Lexile score make or break our text choices.  We teach this book in a sophomore English class, and the Lexile demand is far below the CCSS’s guideline of 1050-1335.  There are many sound reasons for our choice, but we prefer pirate logic:

To open our study, we begin by reading the first four paragraphs of the prologue aloud.  Students don’t have a copy of the text yet—we want to control the pacing for now and offer what Kelly Gallagher calls a deluxe guided tour before we morph into the budget tour to avoid over-teaching or under-teaching a text.

After reading aloud, ask students, “What is this beginning to be about?”  Now project the first four paragraphs on a screen so students have access.  Allow them to write their responses for 2-3 minutes before they read their writing with partners.  If you haven’t already taught your students how to read their writing aloud, do it now.  Think that’s not necessary for high school students?  Look more closely—students are likely just telling their partners what they wrote rather than reading what they wrote.  Not good.  Don’t let that be your classroom.  It’s ineffective on several levels, aside from students blowing off your instructions.  Remember, you’re micromanaging the deluxe tour for now.

Bring the class back for group sharing of 2-3 written responses (you already know not to let students bully other students into reading their responses, right?).  Be patient.  Someone will share.  BTW, we write along with our students, and we read our responses to students, but we share less once students get comfortable with reading their writing aloud.  And how does that comfort happen?  By daily practice, just like anything else.  This is a great time to use Talk Moves to facilitate a discussion and deeper thinking.

Next move, finish the prologue by reading aloud the remaining two paragraphs—block the projection of the first four paragraphs so students aren’t distracted by it.  Once you’re done reading, project the passage you just read so students have access.  Have students list what they expect to pay attention to in the coming chapters.  Again, have students share out (skip the partner work this time—students are warmed up and will share with the class more readily; also, it’s only a list, which makes it less risky to share).

Last move for the launch of The Other Side of the Sky, have students mark or highlight the writing that they’ve already done for hints of injustice (it’s an easy target with this prologue—“survival,” “how most of her family died before she was 14,” “how her home was turned to rubble,” “land mines,” “how she lost her leg,” and so on.  Of course, you’ll have your list ready, too.  Right?

Ask: what details matter here?   Have student finish this sentence in writing: “This seems to be the kind of place where…”

Have students say back what the text suggests (they’re citing evidence with this move–let them know that; we’d also point out that students are re-reading to verify their thinking.  It’s vital that they know when to re-read–it’s the most used comprehension strategy effective readers employ.  Make that move explicit by pointing it out until you see students internalizing it).

Ask: what issues are hiding in the text?  What in the text makes you say that?  Use mitigating language—“seems,” such as “The text seems to indicate…” or “Farah seems to be a woman who …”

By the way, you’re touching on 4-5 CCSS with all these moves.  Yeah, you!


Now launch the essential question for a written response:  What is the best response to injustice?  This is too big of a question to process verbally–this needs to be a focused write.  It’s low-stakes at this point, so there’s not a lot of pressure for students to perform.  Insist that you all write.

Students may want to limit their responses to the text, but that will be hard because they only have six paragraphs to draw from.  We’d invite them to get more global with their responses, using the prologue as a starting point.  Let them write for 5-10 minutes, depending on their stamina—you’re writing, too, but watch your class for signs of fatigue and don’t push too far beyond it.  Again, use your Talk Moves to facilitate student thinking before releasing students into the first chapter, “The Gondola.”

If this style of teaching is students’ first foray into writing to learn, we suggest you start with a shorter text—“To A Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pastan works well as an introduction to the moves we discussed above.  There are no injustice issues in Pastan’s poem, but there’s loss mingled with freedom and autonomy, which is a tie to The Other Side of the Sky.

Your work is to deeply consider:

  • How can I teach this memoir in a way that makes it more beautiful?
  • How can I help my students love reading this book and get comfortable with writing?
  • How can I continue to read my students closely to help me find Gallagher’s sweet spot of teaching, not under or over teaching?

And then report back to us–we’re sharing with you, so let us know how it’s going and allow us to learn from you.

We believe students can learn and write anywhere, in any context:


What’s stopping you?

 Flash forward 3-4 sessions:

Since the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, the plight of the Muslim women seeking educations has again come into the spotlight.

Malala Yousafzai

This summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Shabana Basij-Rasikh spoke of her journey to be both educated and an educator in Afghanistan in a country where only 6% of the women graduate from high school.  Shabana talks about her family’s dedication to education for women in this nine-minute TED Talk.

It’s important to help students learn to take accurate notes.  We like a fillable Cornell Note template.  If students don’t have devices, it’s easy to print.  We also found it’s best to give students starting points in their notes because they’re not used to active listening / active reading.  Check out our scaffolded template for Shabana’s TED Talk.

It’s easy to pause a TED Talk to let students note their thoughts.  We also like to give students 2-3 minutes to check with a partner on the accuracy of their notes.  This video may be longer than students’ stamina for active listening, depending on the class.  Read your class carefully.  If they need this video in two sessions, break it around the four-minute mark when Shabana is talking about her extraordinary father.

We also recommend a response to one of the three vital quotes from Shabana’s talk.  As students grow in their note-taking skills, we reduce the amount of placeholders we offer.  Eventually, we want students to independently take accurate notes without our scaffolds; some students will get the concept immediately and won’t need assisted notes; other students may not be able to capture the content without your or peer assists.  In the second case, we think it’s a vital move to confer with those students so they understand the target (taking accurate notes independently), where they are in relation to the target and what strategies they need to use to shore up this challenge.  This is a very brief description of an important process for striving learners.  If you want to know all of our moves within this framework, please comment, and we’ll dedicate a blog to it.

 War is God’s way of making Americans learn geography                                                                                        Ambrose Bierce

A little background on Afghanistan:



Afghanistan is a mountainous country that was once part of the Silk Road.  An ancient tribal structure still dominates society.


  • Monarchy overthrown
  • New government overthrown
  • Marxist government
  • Soviet invasion
  • Rebel Taliban destroys Soviets
  • America invades and forces out Taliban
  • America will soon be leaving and the Taliban could re-emerge


  • Pashto
  • Dari
  • Multiple minor languages and dialects

Websites for students to begin their inquiry work:

Life of Women in Afghanistan

Poverty in Afghanistan

Still with us?  We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in this week’s blog.  Next week we’ll share:

  • Two Performance Tasks for The Other Side of the Sky (one features an explanatory short essay; one features an argument short essay)
  • Learning Beyond the Classroom—land mines
  • A video on helping girls stay in education
  • Character study with a twist

About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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1 Response to What is the Best Response to Injustice?

  1. Pingback: Learning From War: What is the Best Response to Injustice? Pt. 2 | Teaching it Forward

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