Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

Students read, discuss and write about the novel Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, focusing on how the author develops characters and relationships, and giving them a glimpse into the life of a child with ADHD.

Unit Summary

In this unit students meet Joey Pigza, a loving boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in the core text Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. The novel, written in Joey’s point of view, gives readers a glimpse into Joey’s mind and shows what the life of a child with ADHD can be like. The novel is heartbreaking at times and vividly shows how much of a struggle it is for someone with ADHD to behave and do the right thing when they cannot get their body to listen. Over the course of the novel, students see firsthand how having ADHD not only influences the way Joey feels about himself but also the way that others interact with him, both positively and negatively. It is our hope that this unit will begin to raise awareness and understanding of ADHD and how to cope with it, both in and out of the classroom. It is also our hope that this unit will begin to humanize things that are hurtful and help in continuing to strengthen our students’ understanding of empathy and the importance of being empathetic towards others. It is important to note that this book is fictional and told by an often-unreliable narrator. Therefore, in order to ensure that students get the correct impression and understanding of ADHD, special education, and the role of medication, discussions will need to be included throughout the entire unit that challenge and elaborate on what Joey shares in the text. Without these conversations, students could leave the unit with misunderstandings that could potentially reinforce the stereotypes and stigma assigned to people with ADHD and other disorders.

This novel allows students to genuinely connect with a character and fully immerse themselves in the mind of a character. Therefore, the main focus of this unit is on deeply understanding character, character relationships, and how relationships can both positively and negatively impact the way a character views himself or herself. The author, Jack Gantos, includes a lot of incredibly powerful descriptive and figurative language to help readers connect with Joey. Therefore, another focus of this unit is on analyzing the author’s use of figurative language and description, and noticing how it deepens a reader’s understanding of characters and plot. 

Subscribe to Fishtank Plus to unlock access to additional resources for this unit, including:

  • Unit Launch
  • Enhanced Lesson Plans
  • Essential Task Guides
  • Student Handout Editor
  • Google Classroom Integration
  • Vocabulary Package
  • Fluency Package
  • Data Analysis Package

Unit Launch

Prepare to teach this unit with videos and short readings that cover:

  • Key standards
  • Essential questions
  • Text complexity
  • Monitoring student progress

Texts and Materials

Core Materials

Supporting Materials

See Text Selection Rationale

Unit Prep

Essential Questions


  • How does the way others view us impact the way we view ourselves?
  • What is empathy? Why is it important to be empathetic towards others?
  • What is ADHD? How does having ADHD influence a person’s life?

Fluency Focus Areas

  • Self-corrects when reading difficult words and sentences structures. 
  • Reads smoothly and with accuracy. 
  • Uses proper intonation to show interpretation of the passage. 
  • Reads with a rate appropriate to task and purpose

The fluency focus of this unit is on reviewing all previously taught fluency strategies. Use data from previous fluency check-points and the demands of the text to determine which fluency supports to include in the unit. 

Teachers should plan to do fluency checkpoints at several points throughout a unit. Have students grade themselves or a friend on the Reading Fluency Rubric. If a student scores a 2 or lower on any of the sections, we offer some ideas for additional fluency instruction and support in our Fluency Assessment Package.

At the end of each unit, teachers should assess each student using the unit’s fluency assessment found in the Fluency Assessment Package. This assessment is quick. Teachers should plan to pull students one-on-one to do this while the rest of the class is independently reading or writing.

Writing Focus Areas


Sentence-Level Focus Areas

  • Write complete sentences using a variety of constructions 

There are no new sentence focus areas in this unit. During this unit students will practice responding to daily Target Task questions using a variety of sentence constructions. ​​​​​

Paragraph-Level Focus Areas

  • Create outlines for multiple paragraph essays 
  • Draft an introductory topic sentence
  • Draft a concluding sentence 

At this point it is assumed that students are able to outline and write strong single-paragraphs. Building on their understanding of single paragraph structure, students begin outlining multiple paragraph essays. The focus of this unit is on learning how to break a prompt into multiple paragraphs and creating an outline that matches. In Unit 6 students will focus on drafting multiple paragraph essays. ​​​​​​

Narrative Writing Focus Areas

  • Develop a logical sequence of events
  • Use dialogue and description to develop experiences
  • Use concrete words and phrases
  • Use sensory details 
  • Vary sentence type and punctuation 
  • Provide a sense of closure

This unit serves as a chance for students to practice and solidify their understanding of all previously taught narrative writing strategies. In addition to practicing all of the strategies they’ve already learned, students learn how to use various sentence types and punctuation to develop experiences and emotions. ​​​​​​

Related Teacher Tools:

Speaking and Listening Focus Areas

  • Questioning and clarifying to build understanding. Students seek to clarify a particular point a student makes by asking follow up questions. 
  • Build on and challenge partner's ideas. Students challenge the thinking of their peers.
  • Synthesizing to build deeper meaning. Students synthesize everything they heard into a coherent statement at the end of the discussion 

The main focus of this unit is getting students to critique and analyze the reasoning of others. At this point, students should be able to clarify and explain their own thoughts using ideas and vocabulary from the text. They should also be able to engage with the thinking of others by building on, paraphrasing, and asking clarifying questions. Now students will work on engaging with others at a much deeper level. 

Instead of just building on to a partner’s idea, students should begin to challenge his or her thinking. To do so, students may focus on a particular idea or example, and then explain why they disagree. Or, multiple students should be pushed to analyze and critique a particular problem or line of thought. The idea is that students are able to use discussion strategies to go deep into a particular point or idea. 

Finally, students should be able to synthesize key ideas from the discussion. The synthesis should hit on the key takeaways and learning of the discussion. This is to ensure that students walk away from the discussion with new or deeper understandings of the topic.

Guidance on teacher moves to support these discussion focuses can be found in our Guide to Academic Discourse (below).



Below are all of the unit vocabulary words. Prior to teaching the unit, we recommend teachers decide which words to prioritize. We also recommend that teachers decide which affixes to prioritize. See our teacher tool Prepping Unit Vocabulary (below) for more guidance on which words to pick as priority words.


ADHD abandoned desperate dreadful eerie fixed mindset forbidden frightful gag growth mindset hitch hyperactive inattentive infamous intentionally jittery mandatory mock neurological perilous press my buttons regulated sarcastically temporary

Idiom/Cultural Reference

"blow a fuse"


-ful in-

Content Knowledge and Connections


Notes for Teachers


  • Prepare for conversations around the role of special education and how the goal of special education is to help enable students to reach their fullest potential. These conversations are incredibly important because Joey’s perception of special education is unreliable and not an accurate representation of special education. Special education is NOT a punishment, and students need to be guided in realizing that over the course of the novel while also unpacking why Joey may perceive it as a punishment.
  • Prepare for conversations around the use of medicine in treating ADHD and other conditions. It is important for students to understand that medicine alone was not the solution for Joey. Medicine worked in combination with a lot of other lifestyle and mindset shifts. To learn more about the stigmas associated with ADHD and ADHD treatment, read Peeling Back the Labels from Teaching Tolerance. 
  • There are other topics or actions in this text that could be considered hurtful. The goal is to humanize things that are hurtful and help students develop the self-awareness and understanding of why they should not treat others the way that Joey or others in the text sometimes do. When planning lessons, notice spots that could be perceived as hurtful and plan teaching points to support students’ development.


These assessments accompany this unit to help gauge student understanding of key unit content and skills. Additional progress monitoring suggestions are included throughout the unit.

With Fishtank Plus, you can download the Fluency Package for this unit, which includes a unit-specific fluency assessment passage and additional tools to help monitor and support students’ reading fluency. Download Sample

Lesson Map


  • “About ADHD”


Explain what ADHD is and how having ADHD can influence a person’s life.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 1


Describe how the author characterizes Joey and how the author develops the characterization.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 2


Describe how Joey’s mom and grandma deal with his condition and how their actions affect Joey’s behavior. 


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 3


Describe how Mrs. Maxy deals with Joey’s condition and how her actions affect Joey’s behavior.

5Essential Task

  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 4


Describe how Joey’s visit to the special education class affects his attitude about himself and if that was the school’s intention.






Write a multiple paragraph essay to answer a unit essential question.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 5


Explain what Joey thinks is “normal” and if there really is such a thing as “normal.”


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 6



Explain if Joey and Mrs. Maxy have the same perspective about what happened on the field trip and why.



  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 1-6





Analyze and compare Joey and Mrs. Maxy’s perspectives and what they both need in order to change their perspectives.



  • Joey Pigza




Write a multiple paragraph essay to show understanding of a text.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 7


Explain what Joey’s response to the scissors incident reveals about him as a character.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 8


Explain how Joey’s mom deals with his suspension and how her actions affect Joey’s behavior and thoughts.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 9


Predict if Joey will be able to follow Mom’s advice at his new school and if his luck has really changed.

14Essential Task

  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 10


Explain how Mr. Ed deals with Joey’s condition and how his actions affect Joey’s behavior and views about himself.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 11


Explain how all the advice Joey gets makes him feel about himself.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 12


Explain how Joey’s mom earned her forgiveness and proved she can be a good parent.


  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 13


Explain why Joey’s mom doesn’t think that Joey should meet his dad and if she is right.

18Essential Task

  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 14-15



Explain how Joey changed and what he learned about himself and life.


Discussion & Writing

  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 1-15






Analyze what the author is trying to teach and the themes of the story by stating a claim and writing a well-structured essay to support the claim.



  • Joey Pigza — Ch. 1-15




Analyze and debate unit-essential questions by stating a claim and then using evidence from the entire text and unit to support the claim.








Write a multiple paragraph essay to show understanding of a text.




4 days

Narrative Writing

  • Joey Pigza


Write the next chapter of the book by using dialogue, description, concrete words and phrases, and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely.

Common Core Standards

Language Standards
  • L.4.1 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

  • L.4.1.e — Form and use prepositional phrases.

  • L.4.2 — Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

  • L.4.3 — Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.

Reading Standards for Literature
  • RL.4.2 — Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

  • RL.4.3 — Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character's thoughts, words, or actions).

  • RL.4.6 — Compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first- and third-person narrations.

Speaking and Listening Standards
  • SL.4.1 — Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • SL.4.3 — Identify the reasons and evidence a speaker provides to support particular points.

Writing Standards
  • W.4.1 — Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information

  • W.4.1.a — Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer's purpose.

  • W.4.1.d — Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.

  • W.4.2.d — Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

  • W.4.3 — Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.

  • W.4.3.a — Orient the reader by establishing a situationand introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.

  • W.4.3.b — Use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.

  • W.4.3.e — Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.

Sprial Standards