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How To Implement Project-Based Learning in Just Mercy Unit Plan

Project-based learning can be implemented with any meaningful text or topic that you choose! In the Just Mercy unit plan, students will engage in research around a real issue and connect the ideas in the book to the world around them.

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Overview of Just Mercy Unit Plan 

This just might be your most impactful unit yet. In recent years, Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy has appeared on more secondary English reading lists – for good reason! 

Just Mercy is the powerful true narrative of lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, as he relentlessly fought for the rights of some of the most marginalized in the US legal system. The book details his work to exonerate Walter McMillian from wrongful conviction and  Stevenson’s fight for lasting change in the ongoing work of equity and justice.

The unit plan includes a reading schedule with periodic discussion group meetings for students to process and reflect on the events and topics. 

The unit will span approximately 3-4 weeks, or 20 class periods, depending on the differentiated needs of your learners. Midway through the unit, students will brainstorm and begin to flesh out the propelling ideas for their project-based learning assignments. (Check out the free download at the end of this post!) 

Students will continue to progress through the book and supplement their understanding with articles, film clips, and interviews all while conducting research for their project. The unit will come to a close with the completion of student-choice products and a culminating gallery walk with time to reflect on their work.

What are the Benefits of Project-Based Learning?

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach that allows for student inquiry and autonomy in applying concepts presented within the classroom. Project options are unlimited and typically co-designed by students and instructors. You can find over 15 project ideas in the provided teacher notes to help spark ideas!

Explanation of what project-based learning is and how it allows for inquiry and autonomy for students.

Although PBL is not new, ongoing research continues to prove the benefits of utilizing this method with students compared to traditional “sit and get” routines. Edutopia discusses these positive results as advocates for PBL “argue that it fosters a sense of purpose in young learners, pushes them to think critically, and prepares them for modern careers that prize skills like collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity.”

Project-based learning enables students to:

  • visualize or conceptualize an authentic audience which leads to intrinsic meaning in their work
  • synthesize learning from multiple sources and perspectives leading to higher levels of critical thinking
  • gain foundational problem-solving skills for future learning and professional environments
  • exercise autonomy in both the process and products of their learning leading to authentic engagement in the content 

Bullet list of what project based learning allows students to do including having an authentic audience and synthesize information

The Impact of Project-Based Learning in the Just Mercy Unit Plan

Pairing project-based learning with Just Mercy in the secondary classroom will have a tremendous impact on student learning. Not only will it promote deep comprehensive reading of the text, but students will connect to issues beyond the classroom and be exposed to many opportunities for empathy-building.

You’ll have many opportunities for reinforcing skills such as character analysis, close reading for evidence, and argumentative writing prompts for discussion. In addition, project-based learning enables students to deeply connect to ideas in the text as they choose topics to research further and problems to address.

Steps to Implement Project-Based Learning with Just Mercy Book

The English Teacher Vault includes a comprehensive pacing guide that shows just how to lay the foundation for the project. 

We also include guided reading and supplemental media which will help students gain background knowledge of issues such as mass incarceration and social injustice. With a structured outline and rubric for the project, you’ll have all the resources you need for a powerful unit!

Step 1: Laying the Foundation for the Just Mercy Unit

Spend the first 3 days of the unit plan introducing the book with pre-reading activities and discussion. We’ve got a FREE DOWNLOAD for the anticipation guide for Just Mercy, which you can grab here.

Then, guide students in the annotation process and set up a reading schedule. 

Be sure to allow plenty of time for Day 3’s lesson. This lesson builds background on mass incarceration in the United States today. This knowledge will be key in igniting student inquiry leading up to their individual projects.

Free PBL download for Just Mercy at the bottom of this post.

Step 2: Assign Book Discussion Groups and Set Expectations

On Day 4, and each subsequent week, students will meet to discuss several chapters of reading. They’ll come with intentional, guided questions. Take time to set good expectations for speaking, listening, and note taking among group members.

Step 3: Focus on Close-Reading

On Days 4 through 12, students will be completing most of the heavy lifting regarding chapter reading. Time to engage in comprehension activities is essential! Guide students in evaluating textual evidence and tracking the details of the unique stories in the book.

Each week, varied opportunities for comprehension checks are built into the in-class activities.

Step 4: Introduce Project-Based Learning 

On Day 9, introduce the project (free download at the bottom of this post!) that will continue until the end of the unit. Utilize instructions for structured brainstorming and suggestions for check-ins with each student. Students will begin research with several work periods built into the unit.

The project is based on student choice in narrowing down a topic and creating a product with a solution to a current real-world issue. 

Step 5: Stick to the Rubric!

One of the challenges of PBL is the “open-endedness” that exists with multiple ideas, processes, and products all occurring in the same class setting. As a teacher, it can get overwhelming keeping a consistent grading scale and keeping up with all the variations of work!

This is where the rubric comes in. In the Just Mercy unit plan, you’ll find an all-purpose rubric for project-based learning. Introducing this rubric along with the project up-front will set clear expectations and help students check the criteria along the way. Join the English Teacher Vault for instant access to the rubric and the whole unit. 

Step 6: Check In Throughout the Just Mercy Unit

The Just Mercy Unit Plan is designed with flexibility and in-class work time is built into the pacing guide. Doesn’t every teacher need more time to circulate and provide individual feedback to students? We’ve got you covered!

Set up these class work days with the included “work day expectations” presentations and help students establish accountability for open-ended tasks on these days. Utilize these work periods to meet with every student and check in on various portions of the project – whether brainstorming, scaffolding research, or refining presentations.

Note: Just Mercy is a weighty yet powerful book for any high school student. It’s important to also take time to check in with students about how they are internally processing the information and pay attention to social-emotional needs that arise.

Step 7: Prepare for Final Project Presentations

Finally, inform students of key deadlines as they near the end of their research and begin to develop their products.  Use the pacing guide to direct the final steps in closing the unit with impactful opportunities for students to engage in classmates’ work. In the English Teacher Vault, you’ll also find specific teacher notes for guiding students in self-reflection at the close of the unit.

Free Download for Just Mercy Project-Based Learning Assignment

In the free download for the project-based learning assignment, students will learn about the parameters of the project and see some practical examples of what products could look like. The project outline also provides space for students to define their steps for each stage of their learning and goals for in-class work periods.

Allow students to take full, hands-on ownership of this project and be amazed at the results!

Click below for the free download for this project-based learning assignment for Just Mercy. Get the rubric and editable version of all the resources when you join The English Teacher Vault.

Project-based learning assignment (PDF) or click here for the google version.

Lesson Plan For PBL assignment (PDF) or click here for the google version.

More Resources for Secondary English Teachers

In the English Teacher Vault, units include everything you need to guide students in engaged learning and mastery of skills. Every unit is designed by teachers for teachers!

The Just Mercy unit plan provides a comprehensive curriculum plan with Bryan Stevenson’s memoir as the guiding text. Access the whole unit for 7 days with a $1 trial – click here to try it today!

Get access to all the lessons.

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