A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” has been an American classic for 75 years. This novel centers around a poor young Irish girl and her family struggling to make it in Brooklyn. It’s loosely based on the author’s experiences growing up in New York. Listen to find out what middle schoolers think of this celebrated novel and what the author changed when she turned her real life into fiction.
Subject/Grade: Middle School
Listening Comprehension Questions:
What are the students’ perspectives on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”?
How does being poor affect the main character and her family?
Why is the main character’s relationship with her mother different from her relationship with her father?
What makes Aunt Sissy a unique, likable character?
How much of the book is fact and how much is fiction, according to the author’s daughter?
What was the author’s writing process for this book like?
Classroom Discussion Questions:
If you wrote a novel based on your life, what would you change and what would you keep the same? Explain your answer.
Would you lie to protect someone you loved, like Aunt Sissy? Why or why not?
adapt (v.) - to change your behavior so that it is easier to live in a particular place or situation
hardship (n.) - a situation in which life is difficult or unpleasant, often because you do not have enough money
spunky (adj.) - full of spirit, courage, and determination
lifestyle (n.) - the way a person lives or a group of people live
stillborn (adj.) - a baby that is dead when it is born
elaborate (v.) - to bring something (such as an idea or plan) to a more advanced or developed state
autobiography (adj.) - a biography (the story of a real person’s life) written by the person it is about
dramatize (v.) - to make a situation or event more serious, more important, or more exciting than it really is
**Activate student knowledge**: Open class by asking students if they have ever read or are familiar with “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” If they are, have them explain what this book is about. If not, tell them that it is a 1943 novel about a poor young girl and her family living in Brooklyn. Ask students to imagine what it might be like to live in Brooklyn at that time with very little money.
**Introduce the story**: In this audio story, you will hear a conversation between some middle schoolers about “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” then you’ll learn more about the author from her daughter. This book has been a classic for 75 years. Listen to find out why it’s so beloved and how much of it is actually based on the author’s real life.
**Active listening supports**: Choose one of the listening organizers below to support student understanding as they listen to the story. This is intended to guide students in taking notes to help them focus their listening.
T chart - “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and the Author’s Real Life
Directions: Take notes during the audio story. Include details you learn about the novel in the left column, and details you learn about the author’s real life in the right column. When you’ve finished taking notes, consider how the columns are similar and different.
Author’s Real Life
Flexible Chart - Characters in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”
Directions: Take notes during the audio story. Include details you learn about Francie, Francie’s Mother, Francie’s Father, and Aunt Sissy. When you’re done taking notes, consider how these characters all relate to each other.
**Reflect on the story**: Take time for student reflection on the audio story and discussion questions to check for understanding. Focus on how the author’s life affected the story she wrote in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Ask students to consider why she might have based the book on her real life rather than writing something completely different.
**Paired Text**: Use the article on “How Betty Smith Came to Write a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in Her Own Words” to pair with this audio story. Have the students compare the author’s statements about her work with her daughter’s statements about it and the middle schoolers’ perspectives. Ask students how learning more about the author in her own words changes the way they see the audio story and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
(Teachers can share or assign these to their students to help them get more information or clarity around the story)
Paired Text: “How Betty Smith Came to Write a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in Her Own Words,” https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/literary-musings/how-betty-smith-came-to-write-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn/
Article: “How Betty Smith’s ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ became a literary sensation,” https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/betty-smith-tree-grows-brooklyn-sensation-article-1.800961
Video: “North Carolina Books and Authors: Betty Smith,” https://archive.org/details/ncc_bettysmith_01_a
Article: “Why Mark Zuckerberg Should Read ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’” https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/why-mark-zuckerberg-should-read-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn