Escape From Alcatraz
Your students will be captivated by this tale of an unbelievable prison break.
Students will read a nonfiction story about prisoners who escaped from Alcatraz. The story will build knowledge and academic vocabulary, and has a special emphasis on text evidence.
Social studies: historical events, geography
Sequencing, text evidence, text features, summarizing, vocabulary, close reading, key details, inference, figurative language
This article and lesson support the following standards:
Common Core anchor standards: R.1, R.2, R.4, R.7, W.2, W.3, SL.1, SL.2, L.4, L.5, L.6
TEKS: 3.2, 3.4, 3.13, 3.18, 3.20, 3.29, 3.30
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Watch a Video/Preview Text Features
• This story is accompanied by a Video Read-Aloud, in which Executive Editor Kara Corridan narrates the article as gripping photos and footage help students visualize what’s happening. Consider showing the video as a “first read.”
• Have students open their magazines to pages 4-5 and look at the headline, subhead, and labels (“Big Read,” “Nonfiction feature”). Ask: What do the labels tell you? How do the arrows help you understand what the story will be about? (The arrows point to the criminals, the prison, and the main headline.)
• Point out the Pause and Think boxes starting on page 6, which aim to check basic comprehension. Explain that these questions will help the students better understand the story. (Students will delve into higher-level questions with the close-reading questions.)
• Direct students to the photo on page 6. Help them understand that prisoners were put on heavily guarded train cars that were then loaded onto a boat.
• Ask students to look at the photos on pages 7 and 8. Using the information in the captions, discuss how much effort went into the escape plans.
Introduce Academic Vocabulary
(15 minutes, activity sheet online)
• We have highlighted in bold the words that may be challenging and defined them at the bottom of the column in which they appear. Preview these words by projecting or distributing our vocabulary activity and completing it together as a class.
• Highlighted words: cells, inmates, wriggled, federal, wardens, landmark
Set a Purpose for Reading
• Call on a volunteer to read the Think and Read box on page 4 for the class.
Reading and Unpacking the Text
• First read: Read the story as a class. At the end of each section, use the Pause and Think questions to quickly check comprehension.
• Second read: Distribute some or all of the close-reading questions and preview them together. After the class answers the questions, discuss the answers together. Then discuss the critical-thinking question.
(30 minutes, activity sheet online)
• In the first section, the author describes three parts of the prisoners’ escape plan. What were they? (text evidence) The prisoners had to use tiny tools to create holes in their cells. Then they had to crawl through the hole and up the pipes behind their cells. That’s where they set up a secret workshop.
• In “The Crazy Escape,” how many prisoners were supposed to escape? Why didn’t they all go? (key details) Four prisoners were supposed to escape. Allen West couldn’t get out of his cell, so he stayed behind.
• In “Ready for Troublemakers,” Alcatraz is described as “a perfect place for a prison” because it’s on an island one and a half miles from shore. What makes this perfect? (inference) Since the prison is on an island, it is almost impossible to escape since prisoners would have to swim more than a mile.
• “Daring Escapes” says that two prisoners may have been “swept out to sea.” What does this mean? (figurative language) It means they were carried out to sea quickly, as if a broom were sweeping them.
• “Life in Prison” describes life in Alcatraz as difficult. What made it difficult? (text evidence) The prisoners made a lot of noise. They weren’t allowed to read newspapers or listen to certain radio shows. They had to wake up early. The lights were turned off at 9:30.
(10 minutes, activity sheet online)
• What do you think happened to Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin? Support your answer with text evidence. (text evidence) Students may say that they drowned: This is what experts decided, and a body was found in the bay. Also, the freezing water would’ve made it hard to survive. Or they may have gotten away, since no one could figure out who that body belonged to, and some people have said that they’ve seen the prisoners.
• Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Think and Write box at the bottom of page 9.
• Have students work in pairs to underline details that they would include in their letters. Regroup as a class to discuss which ones are most important.
• Brainstorm the first event for the entry.
• Have students write their letters in class or as homework.
Your students might be interested to learn that not only criminals lived on Alcatraz. Over the years, many children have called the island home. This book, The Children of Alcatraz: Growing Up on the Rock tells their stories in a fascinating way.
Here’s a fun fact: Alcatraz is named for the pelicans that lived there before humans built on it. Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (which means Island of the Pelicans).
An island of firsts
Alcatraz was home to the first lighthouse on the West coast of the United States! It was built in 1854, but replaced with a taller lighthouse in 1909.
When Alcatraz opened as a prison, everyone thought that it would be impossible for any inmates to escape and swim the 1.5 miles to shore. However, they were proved wrong when a prisoner named John Paul Scott escaped and swam to shore in 1962—the same year of the escape detailed in our article! However, he was so exhausted when he reached the shore that he collapsed and was caught by police. Today, hundreds of people swim the distance every year for the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon!
Could they still be alive?
Some people are convinced that the escapees are still alive! Hear from them in this video from “Inside Edition” that’s sure to spark a debate amongst your students! (Note: There’s a mild swear at the 1-minute mark, which you’ll probably want to quickly mute.)