Making Life Better on Skid Row

By Phyllis Santiago, December 29, 2008

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

Eight 80 minute classes


Skid Row is an area in Los Angeles that is home to about 1,200 homeless citizens including some with serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, and people with mental illnesses.

The students will read The Soloist by Steve Lopez, conduct research, and work collaboratively to come to a better understanding of the problems faced by the hard to place homeless population. The story follows the unlikely relationship between Steve Lopez, a writer for the LA Times, and Nathaniel Ayers, a 50-year old homeless man with schizophrenia and a magnificent musical talent.

National Standards

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process Standard 5 : Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process Standard 6 : Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts Standard 7 : Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts Standard 8 : Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes Civics Standard 26 : Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights Standard 28 : Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals Working with Others   Standard 2 : Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning Standard 3 : Works well with diverse individuals and in diverse situations Standard 5 : Applies basic trouble-shooting and problem-solving techniques Technology Standard 2 : Knows the characteristics and uses of computer software programs Behavioral Studies Standard 4 : Understands conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.4 Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6 Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.9 Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Anchor Standards for Writing:

Text Types and Purposes1:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.5 Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.3 Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Knowledge of Language:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.



Explain the problems and causes of homelessness. Research issues related to homlessness and mental illness. Learn the layout of Skid Row to understand how people live there. Collobrate with partners to design a solution for Skid Row. Research the material and locations needed. Present their research and ideas for change to the class.  


Access to a Computer Lab Reading The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music or L.A. Times Articles by Steve Lopez Amazon-Book access Movie Trailer-release date March 2009 Articles Maps Other sites found by the students


chart paper pencils markers color pencils rulers writing paper blue/black pen


Skid Row Schizophrenia Paranoid Shelters Homeless Annual Budget Dilapadated Housing/Buildings Development Decay Indifference Call to Conscience


Students will have read Chapter 1-12 before beginning the project.  This is roughly the half-way mark. DAY 1-Identify the Problem 1. Recap Nathaniel's circumstances.  Where is he?  How did he get there?  What are his problems? 2. Popcorn reading: Chapter 13 (pages 123-132) of The Soloist or Articles from the LA Times on Skid Row 3. Ask the students to visualize Skid Row.  What does it look like? Sound Like? Smell Like?  Would you feel safe there?  Why or Why not?  Is there a Skid Row in our town? 4. Ask if they believe the Mayor's promise to Steve Lopez-to take on the "challenge" of Skid Row. 5. In groups of 4 discuss why the Mayor became involved. 6. Discuss will any of these help the hard core homeless, like Nathaniel?  What will? 7. HW Complete a Problem/Solution Outline Problem/Solution Outline Explain the problem in your own words.  Include who, what, when, where, why, how.  Write in full sentences and fully explain what you mean. Come up with 3 possible solutions to the problem and 3 corresponding desired outcomes. Solutions                                         Outcomes 1.                                                1. 2.                                                2. 3.                                                3. DAY 2-Brainstorm & Share 1. Take out Problem/Solution Outline 2. In groups of 4 share each solution, one by one. 3. Select the top four in each group to share with the class. 4. Write on chart paper. 5. As a class decide which ideas are long-term solutions and which are short-term? 6. Brainstorm ideas for ways the Mayor can fix the problem.  What will it take? ($$, laws, caring) Write on the white board.  All Ideas are welcome, be as creative as possible, be sure to explore all ways to fix probelms. 7. Discuss: Will any have an immediate impact on the 1,200 homeless? 8. Explain the "Challenge"  Research the problems of Skid Row, plan a design that will have an immediate effect on the hard to place homeless.  Present your design to the class. HW: Bring in two articles on Skid Row or homelessness.  Be prepared to explain them to your group.  Make sure it's valuable and informational. DAY 3 Investigate/Research for More Information: Make sure you have really identified the problem. 1. Take out homework.  Share what you found about Skid Row.  Write down eight questions you now have or any information you think you need. 2. Divide the questions for research. 3. Go to the computer lab and work on your questions and gather information-noting all sites.  Look at articles, maps, pictures, videos, and boundaries. HW:Continue research at home or in the lab after school. DAY 4- Generate Possible Solutions-Brianstorm, collaborate, sketch, write and model your ideas. 1. Take out all work. 2. Communicate your ideas.  What seems to be the immediate needs of the homeless?  Use chart paper to take notes. 5. Brainstorm for solutions to your identified problem.  Explain it in narrative form, sketch its components, make models and discuss it. 5. Have fun.  Communicate with one another-explain your ideas step-by-step to your group. HW: Continue your work. DAY 5-Select the ideas you feel are most workable and will have an immediate impact on Skid Row 1. Talk about your brainstormed ideas from yesterday. 2. What will work the best and have a wide reaching efffect on Skid Row's homeless population? 3. Everyone lays of their work, everyone then walks around the room and takes a look at the ideas of others. Ask questions of other group members.  Think about how designs are similar and how they are different. 4. Back in groups, identifying the specific problem you will address and the specific solution(s) you collectively decide would work best. HW: In two paragraphs, explain why you feel this selection was made and why it's important. DAY 6-Implement the Solution 1. Disucss how you will deliver your desgin to the class.  Divide work duties. 2. You will present your ideas to the class in a 6 min presentation. 3. Organize all resources needed.  Everyone must have a role. 4. Every presentation should have a model (s), diagram(s) or sketch(es), an explanatory narrative, and a powerpoint with graphics. 5. Go to the computer lab. HW: As assigned by the group to prepare for presentation. Time may be extended a day if needed. DAY  7-Present Designs 1. Each group will have six minutes to present their designs. 2. Feedback forms will be completed by the class/audience. 3. Feedback will be: -3 questions I have about the design -what I liked about the design -what I think could be made better -open comment DAY 8-Reevaluate 1. Groups get their feedback forms and must answer any ten questions of their choosing in writing. 2. Group Evaluation/Reflection The group will also be asked to reconsider their design based on what they've heard or read to make their ideas more solid.   What could make this better? If they had unlimited time and resources what would they have done differently?  What was the most difficult part of the process? 3. How would they prepare for gallery showing of work? (hang designs in the common space of our school for a showing)


Check-ins everyday. Teacher will observe and talk with each group everyday about their progress. Presentation of project should have a narrative report, a model, sketch, and a 10-15 slide powerpoint. Self-evaluation: One-two page essay on what each person learned during the challenge.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Can these services be duplicated in other cities? Investiagte mental illness, addiction, and homelessness in our city. Start a blog on the issues and to discuss the project & book.

Teacher Reflection

Teacher reflection questions: Were all the directions clear? Did my students really get to the heart of the problem? A greater reflection to be done in the spring when I teach the lessons.
  1. This is a powerful, real, and relevant topic that has a lot of potential for personal growth for the students. It requires them to look at their own attitudes and beliefs about homelessness, which can be eye opening for many. A homework assignment you can give the students during day 1 or 2, is to have them interview people in their life about the topic of homelessness, its causes, and possible solutions. They can reflect on these interviews when they are trying to solve the problem of Skid Row, due to the fact that they will need to take into account the larger community because they will be impacted as well. At the end of the lesson, the students can reflect on how well they did with addressing the needs of all parties involved.

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