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
In this gripping and realistic young adult fiction, Strasser tackles the specter of a middle-class teen with two college-educated and formerly employed parents, who become homeless in the United States today.
While telling a story that is increasingly possible in today’s volatile economic climate, Strasser also examines—from the perspective of a bright and insightful teen—the social, emotional, and psychological reverberations of homelessness.
Dan Halprin is a popular high school star baseball pitcher with a teen-queen girlfriend and major league prospects. Through his eyes, Strasser helps his YA audience debunk stereotypes of how and why people become homeless, and the extent to which they alone can reverse their circumstances.
Through the use of multidimensional adult characters—including police detectives, real estate dealers, civic leaders, and contractors—Strasser provides his readers with multiple, conflicting perspectives regarding homelessness in America.
Another excellent craft technique used by Strasser is having Dan compare and contrast his status with the Joad family in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, thus comparing two different literary works, and bridging significant and similar historical events.
In addition to being easily applicable—through connection to craft, style, point of view, digital media, and research, and display of knowledge— to ELA /Literacy in Social Studies standards and skills, No Place provides teen readers with a powerful portal for going beyond community service high school requirements to actually beginning to comprehend what a condition like homelessness entails for a peer and his family.
Todd Strasser’s past books on social issues, such as The Wave, Give a Boy a Gun, and If I Grow Up, compare favorably—in plot, characters, word choice, craft, genre, and allusions—to other texts with the requisite literacy components for rigorous alignment. In addition, he uses the characters of the police detective, the school guidance counselor, and community organizers to provide authentic insights for teen readers into the potential of those jobs and career choices.
Teachers will appreciate the classroom conversations in Ms. Mitchell’s Politics and Government class, which are ELA /Literacy in History collaborative and comprehension-driven. This dynamic character gives her students assignments that offer good models for the short research paper writing inherent in the Common Core Standards.
No Place can and should be compared with ongoing news stories about homelessness, local strategies for dealing with that issue, and nonfiction works (including The Pursuit of Happyness). Strasser’s book is the best type of YA fiction in that it instructs and models multiple approaches for dealing with homelessness.
As a subtext, the book also trains teens to reflect and to empathize with peers whose families face financial, health, social, and political challenges. Strasser deliberately includes true friendships and “real caring” that withstand the vicissitudes of financial downturns and changes of address. Hopefully, these suggestions will inspire educators to align these examples with their own skills, content, and life lessons approaches.
Before reading, the teacher may want to distribute a survey on homelessness. Tell the students that they are going to get two copies, one that they will fill out BEFORE they read No Place and the second they will complete AFTER they have read and discussed the book. (Since this is a survey of what they know about the realities of homelessness and what they feel about this issue, they should not be graded on it.)
However, by comparing the initial survey with the second copy, they will be able to see the extent to which their preconceptions of homelessness tallied with their research and reading knowledge of the issue after book study. They can then write a reflective comment about the impact and extent to which reading this work has shaped their knowledge of homelessness as a social issue.
What is homelessness?
If an adult becomes homeless, is it his or her fault?
How can an adult who becomes homeless remedy this situation?
What does a homeless person look like physically?
How does a homeless person feel as he or she tackles this challenge?
Have you ever had a friend whose family has gone through, or is going through, this challenge? If yes, describe, without giving his or her name, what this experience has done to him or her?
How would you react to a homeless person on the street? Would you give him or her money? Explain why or why not.
Would you try to help a homeless person in other ways? Why and how? Or why not?
Do you feel that government should provide for the homeless? Or should they be left to fend for themselves? Explain your position with some supportive details and include a counterargument the other side would offer and how you would react to that argument.
ONLY ANSWER after reading No Place. Look over your initial responses to questions 1-9 before reading this book. In what ways have your opinions changed or remained the same? Detail how the characters, plot, terms, ideas, allusions to The Grapes of Wrath, or other story elements in No Place have reshaped your view on homelessness or confirmed your initial perspectives. Would you have agreed with Dan’s uncle Rob, the mayor, or Aubrey about Dignityville? Explain your response.
Depending on the time allotted and whether the teacher wants to train the students in being part of Speaking and Listening student-centered discussions, the students could spend a full period talking about their preconceptions on the issue of homelessness before reading Strasser’s book and after reading it. If the students do have the discussion it is important that the teacher not share his or her perceptions and knowledge and only act as moderator.
No Place is elegantly crafted to focus readers on homelessness in the United States today, and the extent to which attitudes about homelessness are misconceptions fueled by inapplicable stereotypes. Strasser achieves this by embedding his work with evocative quotes that use metaphor and simile. Teachers who want to focus on the Standards for Reading Literature can use the following quote-driven strategies and be confident they are modeling “talking to the text” (using the quotes to work through the “staircase of complexity”).
Quote driven strategies
Standards for Literature (RL)
Key Ideas and Details
RL1 Cite textual evidence that strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
RL2 Determine a theme or central idea and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
RL3 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.
Following each quote from Strasser’s No Place are questions that students can discuss in reading circles, or as a whole class, or respond to as part of an evolving scrapbook portfolio. Some educators include opportunities for students to make personal connections to quotes, details or themes. The teacher can also include the personal queries listed in discussion or as reflection/writing prompts.
Dan states he is “feeling adrift like losing an anchor.” What does Dan mean by using the metaphor of the anchor? In what ways does Dan’s family’s reversal of fortune parallel the loss of an anchor in all of their lives? How did Dan’s school district address, cash flow when his father worked, and ability to move within his social set change when he became homeless?
Personal: Has anything happened to you or to those close to you that has made you feel adrift? How have you or those you know coped with this feeling? How does Dan attempt to cope in the story?
Unlike Dan, his mother sees or at least states that she considers homelessness, “a new beginning.” Dan’s father, Paul states: “We’ll get things together.” How realistic and mature are their reactions to this sad turn of affairs? Why do they react in different ways to the same situation, although they are both college graduates and caring parents?
Personal: Have adults in your family ever reacted to external events in ways you did not feel were rational or mature? Describe them if you feel comfortable, and explain why you think these adults acted in what seemed to be an irrational way.
At the age of 17, Dan reflects that “when you are a kid, things are mostly black and white, good and bad. Then you get to be a teenager and you start to see the hues in between.” How does Dan’s black-and-white perception of homelessness, and the responsibility of those who are homeless for being that way, change once he becomes a homeless teen? What gray areas does he begin to see in his father’s character? In his uncle’s values? In his girlfriend? How does Dan react to these new hues of grey regarding homelessness and the need for a Dignityville? To what extent do you agree or disagree with his reaction? Explain your viewpoint with reference to the plot details as they unfold throughout the work.
Personal: Have there ever been topics, issues, or persons you previously viewed as “bad” and “evil,” that you now view differently? What caused you to change your viewpoint? As a teen, are you as quick to judge things as good or bad, black or white, as you were when you were younger?
The following quote by Aubrey, Meg’s older brother and an organizer of Dignityville, can be used not only to enhance the Reading Literature Common Core Standards, but also as a task prompt for a persuasive argument or informational research paper. It should be noted that this work and this quote can also be used to complement Social Studies/American history study of Hoovervilles and current local agencies that deal with homeless issues. Such research satisfies the informational writing research paper Common Core Standards for both literature and literacy in history/social studies.
Aubrey notes that he envisions the Dignityville community in Median as a “self-contained, self-sustainable eco-village where people who lost their homes will feel welcome and good about themselves.” To what extent does Dan share this vision? How does Hannah, Dan’s mother, react to it? In what ways do Uncle Ron, Talia’s father, and others in Median object to this view?
If you were challenged by Mason to join the protest to support the homeless and to help fund further Dignityvilles, would you argee or not? Explain the reasons in the narrative supporting your pro or con arguments.
If you are taking American History or studying the Depression, use texts or digital archives to research comparisons made in No Place to Hoovervilles. Then form a response to Aubrey’s vision. Make a five- paragraph argument for or against his vision.
Mason, a high school junior, is not homeless, but he is busy trying to get his peers involved in a march to highlight the following facts: “nearly one third of this country is living at or near the poverty level . . . one out of nearly every three people. More than a hundred million people are either poor or close to it.”
Do you agree with Mason’s message? Find statistics and research that support or refute his message. Share them in a short research report. If his basic research is sound, is it appropriate and helpful for citizens to demonstrate through a nonviolent march the need for new methods to help this impoverished one third of our nation?
There is no correct answer, but the student should use sound research to back up —and then argue persuasively for or against—the idea of a nonviolent march as a positve step toward highlighting the need for the government to intervene. If desired, students can also use Mason’s quote and the flyers throughout the narrative as texts to be shown to adult family members and friends to survey their responses, as well as local elected officials. This would involve one-on-one and small group discussions and interviews plus explanatory writing — all part of ELA/Literacy in History/Social Studies Common Core Writing Standards.
At a young age, Meg has dealt with homelessness, a father with terminal cancer, and a brother who, despite being a college graduate, is bartending and burdened by college loans. At times she is disenchanted with the standard dictum that a college degree will lead to lifelong financial security. She notes: “You really have to wonder if college is worth it. I mean, if I graduate with tons of loans and can’t get a decent job? I could be in debt for years. I might be better off getting a job right after high school.”
In light of current media focus on the considerable debt many college students accumulate, this argument is both provocative and timely. Have the students research with at least two to three digital sources the accuracy of Meg’s comments. This research paper can allow students to interview teachers and family members who may be paying off debt, and present the subject as an oral history or podcast or student news show. They can also interview human resources, school guidance, and job recruiters to identify the extent to which in various fields a college degree matters. This quote and its argument have no single correct response; it is a critical thinking and careers-preparation issue, which authenticates the job-training purpose of the ELA Common Core Standards.
No Place is an exquisitely crafted work that alludes to one major Amercan literary classic repeatedly, and also integrates references to technology research and use of functional documents in its story.
The ELA Common Core Standards asks that students compare and reflect on different major works that deal with the same themes. The Grapes of Wrath, with its family responses to homelessness and portrayal of homelessness in the 1930s, can be compared to the present-day depictions Strasser’s book. Such a comparison can address the range of reading from a YA book to an American classic. Film versions of The Grapes of Wrath as well as filmed teleplays can be studied for script, visual, and thematic comparisons with Strasser’s book.
Dan studied The Grapes of Wrath during his junior year, but it is in his senior year— when he becomes homeless —that he begins to compare Steinbeck’s writings about the Joads in the 1930s with his own upheaval from living in a house to a tent in Dignityville.
Have the students read and record the various quotes throughout the work that reference The Grapes of Wrath. For each quote they list, have them explain what the quote means in the context of No Place and then how it worked in The Grapes of Wrath. Students can reflect on the similarities between the effect of homelessness on the Joad family versus the Halprins. The book closes with Dan noting that: “The Grapes of Wrath is based on events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. How is it possible that the problems that people faced back then, are still the problems we have today?” Students can expand the mandated ELA Common Core Shift from literary to nonfiction research by going online to get current images and articles about the homeless that tally with these lines. They can also collect images of the Hoovervilles of the 1930s and then compare and contrast them with the descriptions and facilities of Dignityville and other tent towns.
Craft and Structure
Additional student activities and short research opportunities.
RL 4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
No Place includes wordplay on a “shoeless” baseball player versus “homeless” baseball pitcher. Students can collect special-domain words referencing the homeless by examining Strasser’s text first and noting the words the guidance and support staff use at his school. They might also record the homeless jokes made by Dan, Meg, and Tory to examine the extent to which the humor is bittersweet and why it is bittersweet. They can also take this a step further and consider whether being able to use humor as a coping mechanism for dealing with homelessness is a tool for survival. Students who are researching current US homelessness or that of the Great Depression might also compile, define, illustrate, or download period images for a lexicon of homelessness. They can begin to examine which words and phrases have lasted and which have been dropped since the Hooverville days.
RL 5 Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.
Students can compare Mason’s flyers —attempting to recruit his high school peers to march against homelessness— with actual flyers for the Civil Rights and Vietnam protests marches of the 1960s, and with more current movements. This is an opportunity to share content with the Social Studies teacher to demonstrate how government and politics trade on language use and style. This can also alert students to immediate opportunities to be engaged as citizens, since many marches take place on weekends or holidays.
RL 6 Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience, or reader, create such effects as suspense and humor.
As with any work of fiction, the plot and multidimensional portraits of Dan and his peers, his parents, Paul and Hannah, and Talia’s father and Ms. Mitchell offer the students an opportunity to reframe the story from adults’ differing perspectives and justify their retelling with reference to details in the book. Beyond the analytic writing opportunity, this activity can offer students insights into how events that they feel adversely impact on their lives have been covered up by parents to purposely prevent pain. This could help them deal with future family financial reversals or breakups.
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
RL 7 Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.
RL 9 Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered anew.
This work can also be compared to the 2006 memoir by Chris Gardner The Pursuit of Happyness (also a film starring Will Smith), and to Jonathan Kozol’s classic study, Rachel and her children. These works—which are only two among many on this issue—offer students an opportunity to compare two more perspectives.
Ultimately, Ms. Mitchell, Dan’s Government and Politics teacher— who values students speaking out on issues and doing research on what concerns them— notes that Dan has developed a social conscience as a result of becoming homeless. Ms. Mitchell succinctly summarizes: “The injustices of life bother you.” Beyond the rich facts, details, craft, structure, classic allusions, research, and reading opportunities offered to teens in this work, ione hopes that students who live under a “porous protective bubble” of youth, safety, or naiveté will gain insight into the possibility that major life reversals of fortune can happen. Through reading this work as a tale told by a teen, they will be alerted to how to respond, react, and reset their lives if they find themselves dealing with life-altering challenges. No Place is full of literary import, signifying life lessons.