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Here is how to add an informational text to appease the Common Core State Standards without throwing out literature. Find an exceptionally well-written piece of non fiction and use that informational text as a centerpiece for a thematic unit.

Here is my example: On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into Washington DC’s 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River. There had been a heavy snowstorm which had closed National Airport earlier that day. Improper de-icing procedures were credited as a major reason for the crash; 78 people were killed, four of these fatalities were motorists from the bridge who had been caught in the traffic jam caused by the storm. Only five people were rescued from the icy waters, and their rescue was broadcast live during the evening news. A news media crew, stuck in traffic only a few hundred yards away from the plane crash, filmed one rescuer’s memorable plunge to pull a flight attendant  from the icy water. I remember; I watched that happen live on the evening news.

Twelve days later Roger Rosenblatt’s piece The Man in the Water appeared in TIME magazine (January 25, 1982). His opening paragraph starts with an ordinary sentence, “As disasters go, this one was terrible but not unique, certainly not among the worst on the roster of U.S. air crashes” He continues to comment on the setting, “There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting another and disrupting both.” But then, there is a shift; Rosenblatt suddenly shifts into the kind of figurative imagery usually reserved for poetry:

“Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a single slap of metal on metal. The jets from Washington National Airport that normally swoop around the presidential monuments like famished gulls were, for the moment, emblemized by the one that fell; so there was that detail. And there was the aesthetic clash as well—blue-and-green Air Florida, the name a flying garden, sunk down among gray chunks in a black river.”

Rosenblatt’s purpose was not to comment of the disaster itself, but rather to focus on the actions of one individual who rescued other crash survivors floundering amid the frozen chunks of ice and crash debris floating in the Potomac. This individual Rosenblatt christened “The Man in the Water.”

“Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant moustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and flotation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers.”

Rosenblatt called attention to the other resuers in this disaster including, Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor, a park-police helicopter team and Lenny Skutnik who jumped from shore to drag flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to shore. But it is the “Man in the Water” that Rosenblatt immortalizes in the essay:

“When the helicopter came back for him, the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.”

I use this essay, which is anthologized in an English literature textbook, as the thematic centerpiece for the senior elective Hero or Monster. The essay sets up the essential question: What makes a hero?

There are other resources to use with this text. A National Geographic Video Plane Crash in the Potomac (credit – Discovery/ National Geographic channel Seconds From Disaster)

After reading this essay and watching the video, student are charged to consider what makes a hero in literature. The required reading for the thematic unit will including selections from the Iliad, James Thurber’s short story The Greatest Man in the World, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and an independent reading book. Students will also read about the monomyth or hero’s journey and trace the journey of a hero in a book of their choice.

While Rosenblatt’s essay never identifies the man in the water, forensic experts determined that his name was Arland Dean Williams Jr. Of course, by not naming the man in the water, Rosenblatt suggests anyone can be a hero,and concludes in a memorable last line, “He was the best we can do.” Similarly, if informational texts are required in the Common Core State Standards, than including an essay of this caliber for our students is also the best we can do.