Connecting If I Grow Up to the Common Core


If I Grow Up --- Do we determine our futures or are our futures determined by our neighborhoods and families?


Aligning with ELA CCSS Common Core State Standards Literacy

Dr. Rose Cherie Reissman

Director of the Writing Institute

Ditmas IS 62, Brooklyn, NYC



CCSS Literacy Alignment Support

Summary/Key Issues:

To what extent does every adolescent in the United States have the capacity to shape his/her future?  Would or should any adolescent in good health anticipate the possibility of never reaching the age of 21 or even the age of 18?  To what extent do the geographic location of an adolescent’s schooling, the neighborhood, family income level and racial/ethnic background of family determine how he or she will contribute to society and her/his economic, social and familial future?  Would being poor into a family unit run by a grandmother living in a city housing project that is also home to a well known gang with frequent shootings, be sufficient to negatively shape the futures and even life expectancies for a sampling of its adolescent residents?  Would this power to negatively alter their lives hold true even if some of them were recognized as academically talented and of good character by school and local police?  Adolescence is a period where with the guidance of family, school and other community groups, teens start to self define their values, aspirations, and visions for the future as adults.  Is this self definition for the individual good and positive goal setting, impossible if you are born into an inner city housing project and a family run by a grandmother who tells you from the get go to hit the ground if there is a shooting?


In the moving and sadly instructive story of DeShawn , Strasser suggests that for a bright, caring adolescent who wants to do right and help friends and family, the geographic, economic and family values within an inner city project are too strong.  As Strasser has DeShawn detail five crucial years in his life from ages 12-17,  the reader gains insight into how a bright sixth grader who has witnessed a child pushed to his death by a teen gang member, the transformation of his best friend into a drug seller/gang member, the murder of his sister’s boyfriend by a rival gang, the murder of his mentor who is also the leader of the project gang, the transformation of a teen mother into a prostitute/junkie and another brilliant friend’s being left aside to survive as a janitor; can indeed wonder how his life might have been different had he been born in a small town or a suburb . 


 In addition, to a purpose  of alerting his teen readers and perhaps unknowing teachers and adults to this ongoing loss of a generation growing up in projects rife with enticing gang authorities and structures in the United States, Strasser’s work also helps Common Core  teachers to focus  and to excite students about nuances of colloquial teen inner city language use, special domain gang language,  crafting a work using a character’s age mixed with statistics plus rap quotes. and quotes (using many from rap artists) .    Although the fast moving, bullet ridden, and heart wrenchingly tragic plot (one baby is shot in its mother’s womb and a child is pushed to his death) more than holds the reader’s interest, Strasser amply sprinkles his work with pop culture references including : Sanford and Son, Judge Joe Brown, Mos Def, Public Enemy, Common and others.  His use of Frederick Douglass Houses and Washington Carver as the name for the middle school will if researched as part of the Common Core short paper mandate yield some ironic factual connotations given these institutions as depicted in the book serving majority black students and failing them.  Most compelling about this harrowing chronicle of DeShawn’s adolescence is not how well it works as a fiction story, but how factual it is.  The challenge and the essential questions behind this work are:  Is the way DeShawn’s Frederick Douglass neighborhood, family history, and local gang work together to determine his future, the only possible future  he or someone from less than economically successful background without a solid two parent family structure  can aspire to, assuming the individual lives to grow up?  If no, then how can a bright aware individual work to change the future?  If yes, then what does this say about American society where supposedly there is no class or set education level and one can on merit transform life for the good?


Common Core ELA and Literacy in History/SS and Civic Education for Citizenship Connections:

Todd Strasser’s past works on a system of teen detention,  Boot Camp informs the well researched passionate purpose of this work, which he states in his If I Grow Up  Preface , are to alert readers to “these social and economic gulags. . hidden in plain sight, often in the inner cities. . .[where] young people are denied the basic social, economic, and education opportunities to succeed.”  His closely aligned to ELA Common Core plot, characters, word choice (with an emphasis on insider special domain gang and drug terms) and critical reading of  stylized book craft division headings, genre (fictional memoir) integration of statistics on poverty, education, and crime, and easy comparisons to Myers’ Darius and Twig and Monster as well as West Side Story/Romeo and Juliette: student readers an opportunity to learn LIFE and juvenile rights lessons .


Not for Common Core ELA teachers only- Great for Collaboration with American History, Sociology, Urban Affairs and Law Studies /Juvenile Justice teachers as well in addressing Common Core Literacy in History and Social Studies


  Indeed American History and Law Studies teachers can use it in collaboration with ELA partners to focus on the difference between punishment in the juvenile system from that of teens who are 18 and beyond.  While the story of DeShawn is an expertly developed fictional  narrative, teachers can use it for a full range of juvenile penalties, drug laws, gang laws, bullying laws, undercover informant and surveillance legality.     The book stimulates student centered discussion and arguments about the viability of entitlements and low paying jobs at fast food franchises versus quick but dangerously earned money from bench sitting, enforcing or processing crack.  The work focuses on the extent to which education can indeed for students from an inner city project make a viable safe earning and comfortable life possible as law abiding citizens versus the immediate financial, clothes, housing, and social status awards of gang life with its built in short term length and danger.  Teachers who want to authentically and passionately enhance Common Core Speaking and Listening Skills can have students research in news articles and books (particularly those by Kotlowitz, Leblanc, Kozol, and Klein)these issues and debate them in front of the class, as part of a filmed school magazine, with PTA, school counselors or as a podcast.  Just as the work suggests, some of these topics  and solutions are debatable with no clear one size fits all solution.  The debate and using cautionary tale of DeShawn is the thing here.  


Making Connections to the Real World of Careers and to other texts/informational literature:

 Beyond print and online research for details and arguments/counterarguments to back up  student writing, If I Grow Up also allows teachers to have students go out as roving reporters or oral historians or as research for careers, to interview school staff including teachers, administrators, psychologists,  drug counselors, school safety officers, nurses, para-professionals and others, how DeShawn, Lightbulb  (Raydale Diggs), Terrell and even Marcus would have served/mentored at their own school.  They can gain career insight into their school staff would and do address the needs of students similar to those in the book.  They can also have the staff weigh in as readers on how  accurately they are portrayed in this work.


The veteran English teacher alignment below and suggested directions for projects/short research that address CCSS ELA standards are initial ones representative of a multiplicity of growing reading, writing, speaking and listening and language  opportunities.  The work reads like a film/thriller script or a limited episode television series. Should the teacher want to engage students in deconstructing the text chapter titles to script dialogue and scenes that would address ELA Common Core Writing a narrative script guidelines.  Beyond that Strasser has used quotes from rap artists which could involve students in explanatory writing and helping to suggest a “score” for any digital format of this print work.  In compiling a playlist for a digital version, students would have to explain in writing why the recording artist’s work would fit in the score or research and explain if they decide to use some of the works that Strasser cites in his story divisions.


Essential Questions (Part of Speaking and Listening focused on student centered discussions) Formative and Summative – Pre and Post and to be used for reflective reference by the students:

Before the reading begins either independently or as part of a full class set of lessons the teacher may want to distribute the following  questions for students to focus on BEFORE they read the story and then to REFLECT on after they finish the work.  Tell the students that they are going to get two copies of this survey.   However, by comparing their initial RESPONSE  with their REFLECTION, they will be able to see the extent to which their beliefs and expectations about life have been shaped or not by reading this work.  This of course, addresses the Common Core ELA Writing- Reflective response  standard.  But the discussion both Before reading and after is crucial to the life lessons and life goal setting purposes of the study.


If I Grow Up Essential Questions to discuss before  and after the book. There are no single correct answers to these, but all of us pose them throughout our lives.



  • Why would a book be called “If I Grow Up” ?  Have you ever doubted that you will live to be 18 and then live on to middle and to old age?  Tell why or why not.  What do you think this title suggests about at least one character in the book?

  • What do you expect to be like when you are “grown up”?  Be realistic in your expectations, say 75 per cent likelihood.  What will your job or business be or will you not work fulltime,  Where will you live?  What kind of conveniences, rooms, electronics and property will you own?  Will you live alone or have a family?  What do you expect to contribute to others or what do you want the world to do for you?  Draw or describe your “young adult” say “25 year old” self.  Share with others during open discussion or do not share.

  • What would your family say if you shared this vision of yourself in the future with them?  Would they be pleased with your vision or not?  Why?  In what ways , if any, are they consciously or unconsciously helping you to make that vision possible?  Explain.

  • If they do support you – with money or love- or both- toward this vision of your future or toward any future you want, what would you do if they were against it?  Would you pursue it anyway or would you give up your vision for theirs?

  • If you needed to abandon your loved ones to attain your dream future, would you be able to do it?  Why or why not?

  • Do you believe attaining your dream future has to do with where you grow up, your friends, neighborhood and the quality of middle school and high school training you get?  If yes, why?  If no, why not?

  • If you could get easy and quick cash to improve your family’s lifestyle or help with needed medical or living expenses, would you do anything , even if illegal and with some chance of being caught?  Why yes or why no-explain.

  • If most of your peers and all of your friends are using drugs, part of gangs, and skipping school, plus have much more cash than you have, would you ultimately break down and do what they do?  Or would you hold out and do what is right?

  • Is someone who leads a gang , a completely evil person doing drugs, committing violent acts and organizing teens to do crimes?  If yes, why and if no, what redeeming qualities, if any could this person have.

  • If you do live in an inner city where there are well organized gangs, would reading or thinking about gangs and how they impact on peers lives who live among, be relevant to you as a teen.  Why yes or why not?

  • AFTER READING THIS – Look at question 10.  If you are not from a project and no gangs are in or near your school neighborhood, are the issues here important for you.  Why yes or why not? 

  • Without your family and if you lived in Frederick Douglass projects, would you be susceptible to gang influence?  Why yes or why not?  What would you have done were you DeShawn or Tarnish?

  • Is there a way realistically if Strasser wanted to make this book more “upbeat” that he could have rewritten DeShawn’s scenario so that he DOES stay out of the gang system.  Why yes or why not?



If I Grow Up –A haunting story of an adolescent whose potential was overwhelmed by his social and economic background:

Through a dedicated focus on DeShawn, a young man, who values family, friendship, loyalty, elders, and relationships, Strasser grabs his readers attention to the plot details, ideas, themes, perspective and language of his narrative.  By carefully focusing on these components of rigorous Common Core ELA reading, the reader is thrust into experience and analysis of the exact circumstances, persons, and ideas that determine DeShawn’s future.


As students read through the first few chapters of the book:

Reading- Key Ideas and Details

Standard 1 –Cite textual evidence

Standard 2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text

Standard  3- Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story propel the action


DeShawn as shaped by his Frederick Douglass Project, the Disciples, his best friend and his immediate family:

1.Teachers who want to focus on student authentication of the Key Ideas and Details standard, can ask the students to take notes of the key details in sections of the work covering DeShawn’s life from age 12 to 13.    Alert them to the fact that not only does DeShawn through his narrative provide the readers with facts and details from his perspective as a middle school student, but that they can also cite “textual evidence” DeShawn includes from conversations with other peers and adults. They should also be reminded as readers to reference back the ideas and details they collect and compare them with some of their initial assumptions about the extent to which a middle or high school student is alone in determining her or his future.   (Speaking and Listening Standards- Engage in a collaborative discussion)The teacher should provide at least ten minutes for the students to share details and to talk about their findings thus far and their reaction to DeShawn’s unfolding  story.  The teacher might even ask them to reflect on whether this story could “happen” to them or one of their peers.  They might compare or contrast their own school environment , setting, comments by their peers when they were 12 or 13 and their economic and family responsibilities with DeShawn’s.  This discussion should be totally student centered with student citations from the text.)


Now shift the students attention to why Strasser the distinguished YA author has included these circumstances, dialogue and details in the work.  What is his perspective on the issue of self-determination and positive futures for someone with DeShawn’s set of challenges?  Focus students on the factual data and quote sources, Strasser uses to caption his first two chapters.


2.  Ask the students to sum up Strasser’s message what in the first few chapters appears to be Strasser’s theme/central idea in this work and how he is using the unfolding of the plot, its setting, and characters to communicate and to alert them as readers to that theme.  In terms of  having them talk to the text, ask that they pick out characters other than DeShawn and demonstrate how the ways these characters are depicted through description and dialogue works to underscore Strasser’s theme and purpose.    Also if desired ask them to focus on details of the physical environment of the Washington Carver School  and the Frederick Douglass Projects and to reflect how those details also support Strasser’s message. (Speaking and Listening- Engage in a collaborative discussion)  After they have cited individually or in pairs at least three descriptions , give them a chance as readers to talk about what they identified and have that discussion be student centered.


Craft and Structure- As the students progress through their reading of the book, to focus them on these key author devices and how their use enhances the author’s themes.


Standard 4 – Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, . . . analyze  the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.


Standard 5 - Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts – Suggested Texts can include Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, Walter Dean Myer’s Darius and Twig, Louis Sachar’s Holes, The movie Musical West Side Story, and Sharon Draper’s nonfiction work     We Beat the Town as well as Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here:  The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America.


Standard  6- Analyze how differences in points of view of the characters and the audience or reader create effects such as irony or humor.- In this case, humor mixed with pain.


The special domain language of the inner city projects and the colloquialisms used by gang members.

3. Challenge the students as they are reading to begin to collect individually or in reading partners, words whose use has specific connotations and meaning to gang members and inner city residents. These activities also address the ELA Common Core Focus on Language Standards- Particularly Standard 4 –Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.


Encourage students to reread the opening chapters of the book and copy down these special domain use words and their meanings.  They may want to illustrate them or if they want to begin aligning this fiction work to real news from the Internet, print or broadcast research or digital gang/project research.  This will address the Writing Short Research Paper requirement. 


Among the slew of these words students will identify are:  shortie, jumped in, blessed in, gangbangers, body bag, hype, skank, crib, you wack,  lost respect, black and white beads, runner, enforcer, pinner, baby daddy, leave the bench, gwap, and smash  ‘n grabs.


5. Among the quotes students can and should identify as arguable statements and deliberately used by Strasser to support his theme of environment and economics determine future are:


  • The divisions between black and white , and rich and poor, begin at birth and are reinforced every day of a child’s life.

  • By the age of twelve, seeing dead folks was nothing new.

  • It’s hard to get a good education from bad teachers.

  • Public Schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated, and the trend is likely to accelerate .

  • . . .you’re in the bottom quarter. . .It’s not your fault. . .many children get private tutoring or special preparation for those entrance exams.

  • . . .in a year he’ll be making good money, but there’s a better chance that he’ll be dead or in jail.

  • It’s a hopeless cycle of broken families , illegitimate children, failed education, poverty and lawlessness.

  • But when you grew up in the projects, there were no choices.  No good ones, at least.

  • …I cling to the idea that there is hope in education.  Not necessarily the “education” they’re giving inner city kids. . .today. . .but an education that relates to their lives; . . . and what they can do to change it.



This text reminds me of . . . .Comparing and contrasting how other authors and narratives treat some of the same issues and challenges.


After reading the book:

6.   After students finish reading this work, ask them as readers what other YA works this setting with other works that focus on students in conflict (inner and external) with the law, gangs, and designing their own preferable futures.  The teacher  should quickly be able to elicit even from a few students the following YA works:  Sachar’s Holes, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster and Darius and Twig, and Draper’s nonfictional profile of friends who beat their upbringing to become doctors.   Ask the students to compare one of these works with If I Grow Up and see how that comparison and the outcome of the second work confirm or refute Strasser’s theme.  Why might Myers, Draper or Sachar have written more positive narratives or in the case of Draper have identified three inner city friends who did not die or go to jail?  Have them reflect on how reading this work and now comparing it to another work on the same theme or with protagonists from similar circumstances has shaped their responses to the initial questions they answered before reading the works.


This is NOT what I learned in School Law, Law Studies or American History-Constitutional Issues.


7.  Students who have taken a Law or School Law elective in junior high or high school or are aware of the juvenile justice system, can compare and contrast for factual accuracy why children 9 and 10 can be used by drug dealers and why when DeShawn turns 18, he is arrested for Rance’s murder. , They can also gain insight into why the guns are immediately thrown down the sewer and how the camera filming at Rance’s office finishes the case against DeShawn.  They can interview school safety officers and the youth crimes divisions detectives /school liaisons at their local precinct for more insights or visit the websites and articles that Strasser has in his Notes.  They can also update these to 2014. They may wish to focus on updating Stats of Harlem and the Frederick Douglass Projects or other inner city projects. This will allow for students balancing this literary work with non-fiction research online or in print.


  Student reports on their findings would then reflect ELA and Literacy in History/SS Writing Texts and Purposes Standard 2 writing informative /explanatory texts to examine a topic and ideas.  This activity also addresses Writing Standard 7 – Conduct short research projects, 8- Gather relevant information from multiple digital and print sources, and 9 –Draw evidence from sources to support analysis, reflection and research. 


Reaching out to Counselors, Parents, Administrators, and Other Professionals on these issues.

8.  Of course students can also interview counselors, deans and administrators as well as parents at their schools with for their take on the role their schools play in positively shaping student futures. They can get oral history comments from all of the above to the essential questions they reacted to before reading the book. (As students work on this activity they will have a chance to enhance their level of Text Reading and Complexity in literary nonfiction and also address Speaking and Listening posing questions to several speakers, and engaging in collaborative discussions.)


9. Retelling and Revisiting the story from other points of view.

Are there other stories beyond the pervasively pessimistic view of DeShawn?  Could there be another story as retold by Officer Patterson, Lightbulb, Tanisha , Ms. Rodriguez and Terrell?  How might their perspective on these five years differ from that of DeShawn?

  •   Digital and Musical interpretations

In what ways might the story be compared with the “There’s a place for us” song from West Side Story or is the outcome of DeShawn and Tanisha’s relationship the reality of that for their environment?

  •  Strasser suggests some rap songs that fit the story, what others might students suggest and have them justify their playlist with reference to the story chapters.


At the end of study, engage the students in talking about whether their initial response to the question of the extent to which in present day US, they can determine their futures, whether they are from challenging economic and social settings or no; has changed through these discussions and research.Ultimately as powerful a read as If I Grow Up is, whether students can and do focus on creating proactive and meaningful lives for themselves and society is the crucial question.Hopefully the work will empower them on that path.