Jim Murphy, The Great Fire Grade 6 Originally published in New York: Scholastic Inc., 1995. Learning Objective



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Text Under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

He untied the ropes of the cows, but the frightened animals did not move. On the other side of the barn, another cow and the horse were tied to the wall, straining get loose. Sullivan took a step toward them, then realized that the fire had gotten around behind him and might cut off any chance of escape in a matter of seconds. The heat was fiercely intense and blinding, and in his rush to flee, Sullivan slipped on the uneven floorboards and fell with a thud.
He struggled to get up and, as he did, Sullivan discovered that his wooden leg had gotten stuck between two boards and came off. Instead of panicking, he began hopping toward where he thought the door was. Luck was with him. He had gone a few feet when the O’Learys’ calf bumped into him, and Sullivan was able to throw his arms around its neck. Together, man and calf managed to find the door and safety, both frightened, both badly singed.




(Q5) The author includes a number of details about how Sullivan acts. Look at each action. What does the author want you to understand about Sullivan?

He goes into the fire, unties the animals, falls and gets his leg caught, and still hops to the door. The details together suggest that Sullivan is a very strong, stubborn man and that he’s concerned about doing the right thing.


(Q6) What happened to the O’Leary animals?

The animals were in a building that burned, and the author’s last reference to them said that the animals were too frightened to leave the building. The implication is that the animals burned.





Day 2: Instructional Exemplar for Murphy’s The Great Fire
Summary of Activities

  1. Teacher introduces the day’s passage with minimal commentary and students read it independently (5 minutes)

  2. Teacher or a skillful reader then reads the passage out loud to the class as students follow along in the text (5 minutes)

  3. Teacher asks the class to discuss text-dependent questions and perform targeted tasks about the passage, with answers in the form of notes, annotations to the text, or more formal responses as appropriate (40 minutes)




Text Passage under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

A shed attached to the barn was already engulfed by flames. It contained two tons of coal for the winter and a large supply of kindling wood. Fire ran along the dry grass and leaves, and took hold of a neighbor’s fence. The heat from the burning barn, shed, and fence was so hot that O’Learys’ house, forty feet away, began to smolder. Neighbors rushed from their homes, many carrying buckets or pots of water. The sound of music and merrymaking stopped abruptly, replaced by the shout of “FIRE!”. It would be a warning cry heard thousands of times during the next thirty-one hours.
[read the intervening paragraphs]
The links between richer and poorer sections went beyond the materials used for construction or the way buildings were crammed together. Chicago had been built largely on soggy marshland that flooded every time it rained. As the years passed and the town developed, a quick solution to the water and mud problem was needed. The answer was to make the roads and sidewalks out of wood and elevate them above the waterline, in some places by several feet. On the day the fire started, over 55 miles of pine-block streets and 600 miles of wooden sidewalks bound the 23,000 acres of the city in a highly combustible knot.

1. Introduce the passage and students read independently.

Other than giving the brief definitions offered to words students would likely not be able to define from context (underlined in the text), avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson while students are reading the text silently. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Murphy’s prose. It is critical to cultivating independence and creating a culture of close reading that students initially grapple with rich texts like Murphy’s text without the aid of prefatory material, extensive notes, or even teacher explanations.


2. Read the passage out loud to the class as students follow along in the text.

Asking students to listen to The Great Fire exposes them a second time to the rhythms and meaning of Murphy’s language before they begin their own close reading of the passage. Speaking clearly and carefully will allow students to follow Murphy’s narrative, and reading out loud with students following along improves fluency while offering all students access to this complex text. Accurate and skillful modeling of the reading provides students who may be dysfluent with accurate pronunciations and syntactic patterns of English.






Text Under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

A shed attached to the barn was already engulfed by flames. It contained two tons of coal for the winter and a large supply of kindling wood. Fire ran along the dry grass and leaves, and took hold of a neighbor’s fence. The heat from the burning barn, shed, and fence was so hot that O’Learys’ house, forty feet away, began to smolder. Neighbors rushed from their homes, many carrying buckets or pots of water. The sound of music and merrymaking stopped abruptly, replaced by the shout of “FIRE!”. It would be a warning cry heard thousands of times during the next thirty-one hours.
Chicago in 1871 was a city ready to burn. The city boasted having 59,500 buildings, many of them—such as the Courthouse and the Tribune Building—large and ornately decorated. The trouble was that about two-thirds of all these structures were made entirely of wood. Many of the remaining buildings (even the ones proclaimed to be “fireproof”) looked solid, but were actually jerrybuilt affairs; the stone or brick exteriors hid wooden frames and floors, all topped with highly flammable tar or shingle roofs. It was also a common practice to disguise wood as another kind of building material. The fancy exterior decorations on just about every building were carved from wood, then painted to look like stone or marble. Most churches had steeples that appeared to be solid from the street, but a closer inspection would reveal a wooden framework covered with cleverly painted copper or tin.


small pieces of easy to burn wood used to start a fire

being happy (typically during a celebration or party)

fancy or elaborate


built poorly or quickly, especially to save money; able to burn
outside


a tall structure on the top of a church


3. Ask the class to answer a small set of text-dependent guided questions and perform targeted tasks about the passage, with answers in the form of notes, annotations to the text, or more formal responses as appropriate.

As students move through these questions and reread Murphy’s The Great Fire, be sure to check for and reinforce their understanding of academic vocabulary in the corresponding text (which will be boldfaced the first time it appears in the text). At times, the questions themselves may focus on academic vocabulary.



(Q7) The author describes a number of specific items in the setting (coal, the fence, dry grass, leaves, kindling wood). Why does he reference these specific objects?

The author is showing how many flammable items are near the fire. This is a major reason why the city burned so quickly.


(Q8) What evidence does the author give to back up his description of Chicago as a city “ready to burn”? How do the sentence structures employed in the second paragraph draw the reader’s attention to these facts.

Many of the structures in the city were constructed of wood—even those that didn’t appear to be. Murphy’s use of long dashes, parenthetical asides, and even semi-colons all feature in constructing a clear vision of tinderbox that was Chicago.


Sidebar: Image of Chicago

If students are intrigued to see what Chicago looked like at the time of the fire, teachers can direct them to Appendix A and/or the following image:



http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/pacyga/gallery/index.html




Text Under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

The situation was worst in the middle-class and poorer districts. Lot sizes were small, and owners usually filled them up with cottages, barns, sheds, and outhouses—all made of fast-burning wood, naturally. Because both Patrick and Catherine O’Leary worked, they were able to put a large addition on their cottage despite a lot size of just 25 by 100 feet. Interspersed in these residential areas were a variety of businesses—paint factories, lumberyards, distilleries, gasworks, mills, furniture manufacturers, warehouses, and coal distributors.
Wealthier districts were by no means free of fire hazards. Stately stone and brick homes had wood interiors, and stood side by side with smaller wood-frame houses. Wooden stables and other storage buildings were common, and trees lined the streets and filled the yards.
The links between richer and poorer sections went beyond the materials used for construction or the way buildings were crammed together. Chicago had been built largely on soggy marshland that flooded every time it rained. As the years passed and the town developed, a quick solution to the water and mud problem was needed. The answer was to make the roads and sidewalks out of wood and elevate them above the waterline, in some places by several feet. On the day the fire started, over 55 miles of pine-block streets and 600 miles of wooden sidewalks bound the 23,000 acres of the city in a highly combustible knot.


a shed-like building that covers a deep hole used for going to the bathroom
where alcohol is made; where flour is made


proud and impressive

(Q9) The author provides a list of businesses. What do these businesses have in common?

All of these businesses are “fire hazards” and burn both quickly and dangerously. Lumber, gas, furniture, and coal are all primary sources of fuel for a fire. Flour burns, paint gives off fumes as it burns, and warehouses might have more flammable material in them.


(Q10) How is the location of these businesses important?

All these businesses with dangerous materials are in the same area with houses where people live and sleep.


(Q11) How are the dangers in the wealthier neighborhoods different or similar to the fire risks for those who lived in poorer areas?

The wealthy areas did not have dangerous businesses, and the buildings were more likely to be built out of stone or brick. However, buildings still had wood interiors, are still standing close together and are surrounded by other flammable structures.


(Q12) Why does the author make a point of saying that the wooden roads were a “quick” solution?

He’s implying that one of the reasons that the wooden sidewalks and roads were produced is because the decision to make them was made too quickly, and if the city builders had thought about the consequences of having so much wood around, they might have made a different choice in terms of how to handle the mud.


Sidebar: Students often disregard numbers or have no way to understand them in their own context. Teachers might consider translating these numbers for students into easily understood references to local landmarks.


Day 3: Instructional Exemplar for Murphy’s The Great Fire
Summary Activities

  1. Teacher introduces the day’s passage with minimal commentary and students read it independently (5 minutes)

  2. Teacher or a skillful reader then reads the passage out loud to the class as students follow along in the text (5 minutes)

  3. Teacher asks the class to discuss text-dependent questions and perform targeted tasks about the passage, with answers in the form of notes, annotations to the text, or more formal responses as appropriate (40 minutes)



Text Passage under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

Fires were common in all cities back then, and Chicago was no exception. In 1863 there had been 186 reported fires in Chicago; the number had risen to 515 by 1868. Records for 1870 indicate that fire-fighting companies responded to nearly 600 alarms. The next year saw even more fires spring up, mainly because the summer had been unusually dry...
[read the intervening paragraphs]
It was this gusting, swirling wind that drove the flames from the O’Learys’ barn into neighboring yards. To the east, a fence and shed of James Dalton’s went up in flames; to the west, a barn smoldered for a few minutes, then flared up into a thousand yellow-orange fingers. Dennis Rogan had heard Sullivan’s initial shouts about a fire and returned. He forced open the door to the O’Leary’s house and called for them to wake up.
[included is the map of the area destroyed by Saturday night’s fire]


1. Introduce the passage and students read independently.

Other than giving the brief definitions offered to words students would likely not be able to define from context (underlined in the text), avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson while students are reading the text silently. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Murphy’s prose. It is critical to cultivating independence and creating a culture of close reading that students initially grapple with rich texts like Murphy’s text without the aid of prefatory material, extensive notes, or even teacher explanations.


2. Read the passage out loud to the class as students follow along in the text.

Asking students to listen to The Great Fire exposes them a second time to the rhythms and meaning of Murphy’s language before they begin their own close reading of the passage. Speaking clearly and carefully will allow students to follow Murphy’s narrative, and reading out loud with students following along improves fluency while offering all students access to this complex text. Accurate and skillful modeling of the reading provides students who may be dysfluent with accurate pronunciations and syntactic patterns of English.






Text Under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

Fires were common in all cities back then, and Chicago was no exception. In 1863 there had been 186 reported fires in Chicago; the number had risen to 515 by 1868. Records for 1870 indicate that fire-fighting companies responded to nearly 600 alarms. The next year saw even more fires spring up, mainly because the summer had been unusually dry. Between July and October only a few scattered showers had taken place and these did not produce much water at all. Trees drooped in the unrelenting summer sun; grass and leaves dried out. By October, as many as six fires were breaking out every day. On Saturday the seventh, the night before the Great Fire, a blaze destroyed four blocks and took over sixteen hours to control. What made Sunday the eighth different and particularly dangerous was the steady wind blowing in from the southwest.




3. Ask the class to answer a small set of text-dependent guided questions and perform targeted tasks about the passage, with answers in the form of notes, annotations to the text, or more formal responses as appropriate.

As students move through these questions and reread Murphy’s The Great Fire, be sure to check for and reinforce their understanding of academic vocabulary in the corresponding text (which will be boldfaced the first time it appears in the text). At times, the questions themselves may focus on academic vocabulary.


(Q13) What pattern is starting to emerge when you look at how many fires break out each year from 1863 to 1870? What does this suggest about what people should have known in 1871?

The number of fires is growing at an alarming rate. The people in the city should have seen that with the number of fires growing so fast that the chances of a truly large fire were growing every day. Teachers might want to share the graph below with students to help them grasp the pattern between 1863 and 1871.


Sidebar: Today’s text contains numbers which students may ignore, particularly if they are inexperienced readers who fail to understand the importance of numbers to scientific and historical texts. In this case, a graph would allow them to quickly identify the pattern.





Text Under Discussion

Directions for Teachers/Guiding Questions For Students

It was this gusting, swirling wind that drove the flames from the O’Learys’ barn into neighboring yards. To the east, a fence and shed of James Dalton’s went up in flames; to the west, a barn smoldered for a few minutes, then flared up into a thousand yellow-orange fingers. Dennis Rogan had heard Sullivan’s initial shouts about a fire and returned. He forced open the door to the O’Learys’ house and called for them to wake up.
[included in the reading is the map above]


(Q14) The author previously had personified the fire, describing it as “struggling to break free” and “greet[ing] Sullivan”, and now as having “a thousand yellow-orange fingers.” What is the author’s purpose in using this language?

The author wants to suggest that the fire has a life of its own, and the people caught in the fire feel almost as if the fire is chasing them. The fire has become not just a physical force but an enemy to fight.



If students struggle, the teacher might ask more guided questions. What human trait or traits might the fire have? Or, for students who continue to struggle, the question could be this explicit: Does the fire have the personality of a human, the power of a human or the shape of a human? Why do you say that, what text supports your answer?
Ask students to note the spread of the fire from Saturday to Sunday.

The area destroyed from Saturday’s fire is already shaded on the map. On Sunday the fire spread east to Michigan Avenue and north to Fullerton Avenue, but not west of Jefferson Street or south of DeKoven. Ask students to mark the extent of the Great Fire on the map using a highlighter or colored pencil.


(Q15) Looking at the map and reading the text, what conditions and geographic limitations prevented the fire from spreading farther than it did? What could have made this fire even worse?

The wind coming from the southwest pushed the fire toward Lake Michigan, so south and west were largely protected by the winds, and the fire was stopped on the east by the lake itself. If the wind had changed direction and pushed the fire west, there wouldn’t have been a lake to help contain the flames.


(Q16) Despite the fact that it was in the middle of the fire, Lincoln Park never burned. Using the map and reading the text, what inferences can you draw as to reasons why it might not have burned?

The city burned because streets and houses were pushed close together. Looking at the map, few streets exist in the park. The park also would have lacked the houses and sheds that made the rest of the city burn so quickly.



Rationale for Day Three Activities - shifting to the final writing assignment:
Students have now gone through the text multiple times. Now they all share the same background information required for writing, and no students are privileged due to having richer background knowledge. Guided practice in learning to read and use a map is provided above for the same reason. When students are asked to write in reference to a text before they have a firm understanding of it, less fluent readers are at a disadvantage. Under those conditions, inadequate written responses may reflect a lack of reading skills rather than any deficiency in writing skills. But it would be almost impossible for a teacher to diagnose what is causing the problem. Students who have moved through this piece and then move on to the writing activities that follow here should have a firm grasp on the text and the ideas the author intended to communicate.



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