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  • A. Witte, Lesson Plan 1 for Biss, "Time and Distance Overcome"

Name: Adam Witte

Topic/Title: “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss

Grade/Class: Advanced Placement Language and Composition

Lesson: One---55 minutes

Common Core Standards:

Writing (grades 9-10):

1.   Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

1.a. Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence

1.b. Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly, supplying evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns

Speaking and Listening (grades 9-10):

1.   Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9--10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

1.c.      Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

Iowa Common Core Standards:

Speaking and Listening (grades 9-10):

IA.7.  Debate an issue from either side.

Instructional goals:

  • Activate prior knowledge of subject of the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss.
  • Engage students in topic by inviting connection between subject of the essay and the lives of students.
  • Introduce students to the themes of the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss prior to reading the essay.

Learning objectives:  Students will:

  • Identify an author’s opinion.
  • Anticipate reasons to defend and challenge that author’s opinion.
  • Debate in small- and large-group settings the reader’s response to this statement.
  • Reflect on discussion and explain how the discussion affected their own opinions

Warm-up (10-15 minutes):

  1. When students arrive to class, explain to the students that the next essay they will read deals, in part, with the history of the telephone in the United States---a teacher could even elicit whether students know anything about that history, such as who invented the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, though some believe Elisha Gray is the true inventor), when the first telephone was first invented (1876), and when the first cell phone was invented (the theory was developed in 1947, but the first cell call was not placed until 1973 by Martin Cooper of Motorola; legend has it that Cooper’s call was to rival scientist Joel Engle at AT&T to announce that Cooper had been the first to succeed), and/or invite students to share whether they carry cell phones (of course they do) and how old they were when they first has a phone in their pocket.  This discussion is not specifically germane to the essay they will study, but it is a topic about which my students care deeply, and a teacher could use that passion for their phones to drive the lesson forward.
  2. Pass out the “Telephone Exit Slip” to each student (See attached worksheet at the bottom of this plan).  This will be collected at the end of the period, but students will use it throughout the period.  The “Exit Slip” focuses on the Thomas Edison quote from page 3 of the essay: “[The telephone] annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.”
  3. Ask students to consider this quote, and to summarize, in their own words, what Edison means in this quote.  This is deceptively simple, given it is such a short sentence, so some prompting might be necessary:
    1. Do we know what annihilate means?
    2. How does the telephone destroy (the traditional) senses of time (or how long it takes to do something) and space (geographical distance)?
    3. What might Edison mean by the phrase “human family”?  (perhaps more than the basic nuclear family unit some student might first leap to)
    4. What might the phrase “in closer touch” mean?  Physically?  Emotionally?  Culturally?
  4. Ask for student volunteers to share the idea that Edison was going for here, and collect a few of those on the board for reference.

Practice (20-30 minutes):

  1. Ask students to spend five to ten minutes on the next two questions on the exit slip: “Provide one reason or example that would SUPPORT Edison’s claim.” and “Provide one reason or example that would REFUTE Edison’s claim.”  Remind the kids: even if you are immediately inclined to agree with one side or the other, the BEST argumentation happens when you can predict the opposition’s point of view and refute it.
  2. Put students into groups of three or four to begin the discussion.  Ask students to share their ideas---both for and against Edison’s claim and to choose the two or three most compelling arguments for or against Edison’s claim to share with the entire class.  Encourage students to ask one another questions about their ideas and examples, and to offer gentle challenges to those ideas and questions; the most compelling ideas to be shared with the whole class could be a revision of their individual work based on the discussion they have in small group.  Allow five to ten minutes for this sharing. (though it could go longer)
  3. Ask students to report to the whole class from their group by explaining what were the most compelling ideas or examples that came from their small-group discussion.  Each group should provide at least one idea to the large-group discussion, so encourage the groups to have a “back up” example or idea in case their primary idea is voiced before their group has a chance to report.  Allow five to ten minutes for this sharing (though it could go longer)
  4. Ask students to consider the last question on their exit slip: “Reflect on your ideas and the discussion you just had.  Then write a brief paragraph in which you explain whether you are more likely to AGREE or DISAGREE with Edison’s claim, and WHY.  Use examples or evidence from your reading, observations, or experience to support your reasoning.”  Ask for any clarification on the task, including what is meant by supporting their opinions with evidence.  Remind students that you will be collecting their “Exit Slips” before they leave the room, and that their ideas should written in complete sentences.

Cool-down (10-15 minutes):

  1. Give students the remainder of the period to complete their “Exit Slips” (some might go all the way to the bell; I generally encourage this so long as they give it to me before they leave the room).
  2. As the students are writing, pass out the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss and ask students to read this text for the next class period.
  3. If it feels like the majority of the class is finished before the bell to end the period rings, invite the students to “vote” by show of hands as to whether they agree or disagree with Edison’s claim.  Encourage students to provide any support, evidence, examples, or logic behind their decision.


The small- and large-group discussions will provide a kind of assessment: students will reveal by their explanations whether they are able to understand Edison’s idea and respond to it effectively.  Instructor uses anecdotal records and/or makes mental notes during discussion to track student understandings of Edison’s claim and the possible arguments for and against that claim.

In addition, the collected “Telephone Exit Slip” can be read by the teacher to gain insight into whether individual students were able to:

  • Identify the opinion expressed in Edison’s quote.
  • Articulate arguments for and against Edison’s opinion.
  • Express a position in relation to Edison’s opinion.
  • Support their position with evidence from their observation, experience, or reading.

Though this is in no way a finished essay, it would provide students the opportunity to practice (and for the instructor to measure the student’s mastery of) the essential skills required of good argumentation.  Teachers might choose to evaluate this writing for points in the grade book (the exit slip does contain a rubric that defines levels of achievement which could easily be used to assign point value for the assignment; see below), but I think it makes better sense as a formative assessment---a check of skills along the way in preparation for larger, more complex tasks in the future (the rubric as pure formative assessment to track progress without assigning point value for the grade book).

The text of the exit slip appears in the space below. These exit slips have been designed to be a half-sheet of paper, with space on both sides to record ideas and analysis, but could be a single side of a full page.  To do a half-sheet, take the first half of the material (note the mark that identifies where this is) and paste it twice into a document.  You may have to mess with the margins, but two copies of the first part should fit on a single side.  Repeat this with the information contained in the second half.  Print those two pages, then use the Xerox machine to make two-sided copies of this exit slip---you’ll need half as many copies as you have students.  Finally, using a paper-cutter in the workroom, cut the exit slips in half so that you have two, two-sided exit slips produced from each single sheet of paper.  If these directions are confusing, the exit slip could easily be produced as a whole sheet of paper for each student; conservation was the motivation of the half-sheet.

The content of the exit slip is as follows:

Student Name: ________________




Telephone Exit Slip

               In 1922, Thomas Edison famously said:

“[The telephone] annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.”

In the space below, consider Edison’s quote and explain, in your own words, what he means.  You might consider what Edison meant by “annihilating time and space” and/or how the “human family” was “brought in closer touch”.


Now that we have a working understanding of what Edison meant, we can consider our response to his opinion.  In the space below, write at least one reason why a person might agree with Edison’s opinion of the telephone:


Now, in the space below, write at least one reason why Edison’s claim about how the telephone has “annihilated time and space” or how it’s “brought the human family in closer touch” is inaccurate or mistaken.  Remember: even if you ultimately agree with Edison’s ideas, you should be able to predict what a counter-argument might be:


If printing double-sided, this is the midway point,  Two copies of the text above on the front and two copies of the text below on the back, print double-sided, and use a paper-cutter to slice each page into two half-sheets, each with info on each side.


After reflecting on the reading and discussion, write a paragraph to explain whether you are more likely to AGREE or DISAGREE with Edison’s idea, and WHY.  Use examples or evidence from your reading, observations, or experience to support your idea.


Section One: Effective Writing

Does Not Meet Requirements

Lacks Many

Approaching the

Meets Analytical

Exceeds the Requirements

Paragraph contains no clear opinion, and the evidence and/or explanation sup-porting the student’s ideas is missing.  Writing is inef-fective because the author does not employ sentences (only bulleted points or single words) and/or con-sistent errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation ob-scure the ideas they contain.

Paragraph contains an opinion, the stated opinion is confusing or unclear.  Evidence and explanation to support that opinion is vague and does not significantly help to clarify ideas. Writing is lacking because sentences suffer from fragments, run-ons, or incorrect construction so often they are very difficult to follow and/or frequent mistakes in mechanics present a substantial barrier to understanding.

Paragraph contains an opinion, but the example evidence used to support that opinion is vague, and/or the explanation of how that example supports their idea is very basic or missing entirely.  Writing may be somewhat lacking because the sentence structure is flawed and takes effort to follow and/or mechanical errors slightly distract from the reading.

Paragraph contains the student’s opinion, but the example or evidence used as support is vague, and/or the explanation of how that example supports their idea is incomplete or too generic.  Writing is easy to understand, though some revision could improve its flow.  Occasional mechanical errors do not distract from the meaning of the text.

Paragraph contains the student’s opinion, a specific example or piece of evidence to support that opinion, and an explanation of how that example supports their idea.  The writing is fluid and easy to follow with near-perfect mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation).

Section Two: Effective Speaking and Listening

Does Not Meet Requirements

Lacks Many

Approaching the Requirements

Meets Analytical

Exceeds the Requirements

Student pays no attention and/or is disrespectful to opinions of others.

Student is often distracted from the conversation and/or does not contribute to discussion.

Student is mostly focused and listens well, but offers minimal contribution to discussion.

Student is focused and listens attentively with rare lapses while occasionally contributing.

Student is focused, listens attentively, and frequently contributes.

This is the end of the exit slip.


  • “Telephone Exit Slip” handout---copies for each student in class.
  • “Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss---copies for each student in class. (to be handed out at the end of class)

Next step:

Students will read the essay “Time and Distance Overcome” as homework in preparation for class the following day.  Give reading goal:  what will ask them about when they come to class next day.

Teachers could choose to pick out a handful of good student responses from the “Telephone Exit Slip” to share with the students at the beginning of class the next day.  This would serve two purposes:

  1. Provide a model of effective argument brainstorming, including clear thesis and evidence.
  2. Allow students who do not choose to speak in class an opportunity to “be heard” by having their written responses read aloud, making them part of the conversation and the classroom community.
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1 Comment

  1. Nancy Hayes' comment: This first lesson in Adam Witte's series of lesson plans devoted to Eula Biss' "Time and Distance Overcome" invites students to consider Thomas Edison's view of the telephone as a technology that brings humanity closer together.  The lesson allows students to develop a stance toward this technology which will both further and complicate their reading of Biss' essay, which presents the history of telephone technology in light of the telephone pole's use during the early decades of the twentieth century in the practice of lynching.  The lesson corresponds with Common Core standards for writing, speaking, and listening in grades 9-10.