Learning Differently: 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.



Alternate Unit 5

4th Grade

Unit Summary

Please Note: This unit is moving to the archives in July 2024. If you already own the core text, you can continue to use the unit from the archives.

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 from 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. 

Additionally, this unit will begin to humanize things that are hurtful and help in continuing to strengthen 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, 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 the characters and plot. 

When discussing the text, students focus on critiquing and analyzing the reasoning of others, using what they learned from previous units on how to clarify and share their own thoughts and how to engage with the thinking of others to push the discussion to a deeper level.

Students have multiple opportunities to write literary analysis/opinion paragraphs, using what they learned from previous units about topic sentences, supporting details, and elaboration. The unit culminates with students solidifying what they learned about narrative writing in previous units and by analyzing the unit's core text to write a continuation of the novel. 

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Texts and Materials

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Core Materials

Supporting Materials


These assessments accompany this unit to help gauge student understanding of key unit content and skills.

Unit Prep

Intellectual Prep

Unit Launch

Before you teach this unit, unpack the texts, themes, and core standards through our guided intellectual preparation process. Each Unit Launch includes a series of short videos, targeted readings, and opportunities for action planning to ensure you're prepared to support every student.

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?

Reading Focus Areas

  • The point of view from which a story is told influences what a reader "sees" or "hears" in a story.

  • Authors vary the language they use to help readers connect with and understand characters in depth.

  • Analyzing character relationships helps a reader better understand a character and how they change and grow.

Writing Focus Areas

Opinion Writing

  • Group related ideas together to support the topic sentence or opinion.

  • Provide reasons that are supported by facts and details.

  • Provide a concluding statement or section.

Narrative Writing

  • Use relevant text details or background knowledge from the text to develop characters, ideas, or situations.

  • Brainstorm and draft a story with a logical sequence of events that unfolds naturally.

  • Use dialogue, concrete words and phrases, and sensory details to develop experiences.

  • Provide a sense of closure.

Speaking and Listening Focus Areas

  • Question and clarify to build understanding. Seek to clarify a particular point a peer makes by asking follow-up questions.

  • Build on and challenge a partner's ideas.

  • Synthesize to build deeper meaning. Synthesize everything from the discussion into a coherent statement at the end of the discussion.



desperate forbidden hyperactive intentionally inattentive jittery neurological press my buttons regulated sarcastically

Idiom/Cultural Reference

"blow a fuse"


-ful in-

To see all the vocabulary for Unit 5, view our 4th Grade Vocabulary Glossary.

Supporting All Students

In order to ensure that all students are able to access the texts and tasks in this unit, it is incredibly important to intellectually prepare to teach the unit prior to launching the unit. Use the intellectual preparation protocol and the Unit Launch to determine which support students will need. To learn more, visit the Supporting all Students teacher tool.

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 Learning for Justice. 
  • 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.

Lesson Map

Common Core Standards

Core Standards


Supporting Standards

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