CommonLit 360 “In or Out: Our Struggle to Belong:” A Short Story Unit from CommonLit’s 360 Curriculum that will Set Students Up for Success in 7th Grade

A computer with the 7th grade unit 1 guide on the screen and the CommonLit 360 curriculum logo above it.

This ELA Unit includes engaging short stories and a memoir that will help students spark discussions and learn about adolescents’ struggle to fit into their communities.

What Is CommonLit 360?

CommonLit 360 is a free English Language Arts curriculum for grades 6-12 that includes content-rich units and compelling texts. Each fully-built out unit integrates reading, writing, listening, and speaking lessons. It is easy for teachers to use, with clear facilitation tips, actionable assessments, and ready-made tools to support differentiation.

Why Unit 1 Is Perfect for Back to School

The first unit in 7th grade is anchored around three engaging short stories and one thought-provoking memoir that illuminate how it looks and feels to be an outsider. This unit engages students with diverse protagonists and universal experiences that provide opportunities for students to build empathy. Reading comprehension lessons challenge students to consider their role in creating community for others through collaborative discussion. Middle school students will easily relate to and empathize with these characters, as many 7th grade students continually grapple with the struggle to belong.

Characters in this unit feel that they don’t belong or don’t know how to interact with those they see as “outsiders.” By the end of the unit, students will hone key reading skills, including identifying how authors craft and develop themes in their stories. To practice this reading skill, students practice writing sophisticated evidence-based paragraphs that include arguments, evidence, and explanations. They will plan and write a full literary analysis essay that includes complete paragraphs and clear introductions and conclusions.

The Literary Texts in This Unit

This unit features three stories and one memoir that serve as a backbone for exploring the unit’s theme of belonging. The texts include:

  • The War of the Wallby Toni Cade Bambara: a short story about how one community interacts with, and eventually grows to appreciate, a mysterious outsider that will teach students about community ties and accepting differences
  • The White Umbrellaby Gish Jen: a short story about a young girl’s struggle to belong, and how a scary experience helps her come to terms with what truly matters in life
  • Hello, My Name is ______by Jason Kim: a memoir about Kim’s experience moving to Missouri from South Korea and his search for belonging and acceptance in his new home
  • The Stolen Partyby Liliana Heker: a short story about a young girl who finds out her invitation to a birthday party is not what it seems, and must grapple with socioeconomic differences and power dynamics present in her supposed friendship

This unit also includes an informational text about the human need to belong and how that shapes our everyday actions. In addition, this unit includes four supplemental texts in English and in Spanish that add depth to the essential texts. These texts include a short story about a fictional blue creature who helps a young girl embrace her differences, a poem about an outsider in a new country, and two informational texts.

How Unit 1 Drives Student Success

The Essential Question in this unit is “What does it mean to be an outsider? How does our need to belong affect our actions?” In this unit, students will analyze how different story elements interact to develop a theme, and how story elements like conflict, point of view, and setting influence character change. These are foundational skills for analyzing literary texts in 7th grade, which is why we chose to emphasize them in Unit 1. If students can master these important literary analysis skills, they will be set up for success for the rest of the year.

This unit also includes incredible writing lessons that are grade-level appropriate but rigorous. Meanwhile, these lessons are effectively scaffolded for students so that they can meet the end of unit goals and outcomes. As a former teacher, I know how difficult it is to teach writing. CommonLit’s writing lessons are laid out in a way that sets teachers up for success. Each CommonLit 360 unit gives teachers all the steps they need to get students to meet end of unit goals that will accelerate their writing success. Through carefully scaffolded lessons, students will practice writing evidence-based paragraphs that include arguments, evidence, and explanations.

A screenshot of the Arc of Writing Instruction.
This Arc of Writing Instruction demonstrates how writing lessons build on one another to help teachers and students succeed. 

By the end of the unit, students will plan and write a full literary analysis essay that includes complete paragraphs and clear introductions and conclusions. This is a key skill for 7th graders! Future units built on this skill. If students can master this skill in Unit 1, they will be ready to move on to Unit 2 of the 360 Curriculum, where they will be asked to compare and contrast texts.

Students will enjoy participating in the Discussion Lesson, which asks students to debate the prompt: “How can the communities we live in either bring us together or separate us?” This is a great opportunity for kids to practice discussion skills and talk about the texts they have been reading in class. These discussions build students' abilities to find appropriate evidence and use it to support their ideas and claims, which will be useful for them in their writing as well.

Additionally, the Related Media Exploration gives students the opportunity to engage with three videos that will build knowledge about the experiences of being an insider and an outsider, and the benefits of embracing differences to form inclusive communities. For example, students will watch a video about students at a school who divide themselves into groups during break time and a video about how a Somali refugee created a community in Minnesota. They will use these videos to discuss how students can make their school community more inclusive and welcoming to all.

A screenshot from the slide show for the Related Media Exploration lesson, which instructs students to watch a video and then answer questions about the video.
This slide from the Related Media Exploration will get students excited about learning.

How Unit 1 Drives Teacher Success

CommonLit 360 provides a wealth of tools that will make the beginning of the year a breeze. Each comprehensive unit is set up for teachers and includes everything from fully-fleshed out lesson plans to vocabulary quizzes to discussion prompts and more. If your school purchases our School Essentials PRO package, you can access our Professional Development Portal. These self-paced tutorials are specifically designed to help teachers utilize all CommonLit 360 has to offer in their classroom.

Additionally, digital grading and feedback tools, interactive reading and writing lessons, and data tracking can save you hours previously spent on planning and grading. Working within contract hours will no longer be an unattainable pipe dream, and you can use the extra time to continue to focus on relationship building in your classroom.

Next Steps

Sign up for a CommonLit 360 webinar to get a comprehensive overview of how the curriculum works and how to use the digital platform.

Interested in gaining access to on-demand professional development that will help your team take full advantage of CommonLit 360? Reach out to partnerships@commonlit.org. You can also request a quote for School Essentials PRO via this link.


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