Gary Hanna
Blood, Smoke, and Freedom

Joseph Plumb Martin was still a boy when he became an American soldier. Could he survive his first battle?

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March / April 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will build knowledge about the American Revolution by reading a narrative nonfiction article about a young soldier in the Battle of Brooklyn.

Lexile: 780L, 660L
Guided Reading Level: V
DRA Level: 50
Featured Skill: Building Knowledge
Topics: History,

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More About the Story


building knowledge, vocabulary, text features, mood, key details, cause and effect, main idea, interpreting text, synthesizing, inference, explanatory writing

Complexity Factors


“Blood, Smoke, and Freedom" tells the story of one young person’s experience in the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. It layers in background on American colonists and causes of the war, as well as its outcome.


The text is mainly chronological. It includes narrative and informational passages, plus a sidebar and a map.


The article includes some challenging academic and domain-specific vocabulary. It features sensory details and includes some similes. 

Knowledge Demands 

Some knowledge of the colonial period will be helpful for comprehension but is not required.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Watch a Video (30 minutes)

Take your students on a virtual field trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. In this free video presentation, Lauren Tarshis escorts your students behind the scenes of this exciting new museum to learn more about Joseph Plumb Martin and other young people who were part of America’s fight for independence. Go directly to /beyondthebattlefield.

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (30 minutes)

  • Direct students to examine the illustration, headline, and subhead on pages 4-5. Invite them to share what they already know about the American Revolution. As a class, read the sidebar on pages 6-7, “If You Lived in 1776.”
  • Show the vocabulary slideshow to introduce domain-specific vocabulary about the American Revolution. Follow up with the vocabulary activity. Highlighted words: wilderness, colonies, territory, slaves, musket, memoir, regiment, ferried

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Close-Reading Questions

  • In the first section, how does the author create a mood, or feeling, of fear and desperation? (mood)
    The author describes the terrifying scene of war that Joseph faced. The sentences “Cannon explosions shook the ground” and “Smoke filled the air” create a feeling of fear. The author says that Joseph was “trying to stay alive” and “Americans were doomed,” which helps readers imagine how desperate Joseph felt.
  • Based on “A New World,” what did people risk in the 1600s to get to America? Why? (key details)
    People took dangerous journeys across the Atlantic, encountering storms, diseases, rats, and rotten food. Many died. But people took the risk so they could escape the strict rules and old ideas of their former countries. They had more freedom in America.
  • Reread “Trouble Brewing.” How did the arrival of Europeans in America affect Native Americans? What happened to Africans? (cause and effect) Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died from diseases brought by Europeans, fights over land, or starvation. Africans were brought to America in chains to become slaves for white people.
  • What does “Trouble Brewing” refer to? (main idea)
    It refers to the anger Americans felt toward England and its king, George III, who ruled the colonies. Americans wanted more say over their laws and lives. The anger boiled over into war.
  • Why does the author say that Joseph and 20,000 others who had joined the army were not really soldiers yet? (interpreting text)
    Joseph and the others had no training in fighting a war. They had worked ordinary jobs before joining the army; many didn’t know how to march or shoot a gun.
  • Which details in “Major Attack” show that the British army was likely to win the Battle of Brooklyn? (key details)
    British soldiers were known and feared worldwide. The British army had 32,000 soldiers camped in Staten Island, ready to fight. They had 400 ships, 73 packed with cannons. They planned an attack with 15,000 soldiers against the few thousand American soldiers in Brooklyn.
  • In “Secret Escape,” what sad fate did some American soldiers meet in the Battle of Brooklyn? (key details)
    Many soldiers were killed. Some drowned while trying to flee the battle. Others were captured and held on prison ships, where many died of starvation or disease.
  • Reread “Eight Long Years.” What was General Washington’s bold plan? What happened as a result? (key details)
    His bold plan was to sneak the soldiers out of the Brooklyn forts and ferry them across the river by boat to safety. The forts were then empty when the British attacked. The Americans lost that battle, but they could keep fighting, and they eventually won the war.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • How did Joseph’s view of fighting in the war change over time? (synthesizing)
    At first, Joseph longed to be a soldier and was certain America would win. After fighting, however, he saw how horrifying war was, and he realized that the British army was a fearsome enemy. Still, he always remained proud that he had helped America win its freedom.
  • Based on what happened in the Battle of Brooklyn, why would it seem unlikely that America would win the war? What can you infer happened over the next seven years? (inference)
    The American army was inexperienced and overpowered, so it lost the Battle of Brooklyn. It would seem unlikely that this army could then win a war. But it did! You can infer that the soldiers’ fighting skills improved. Also, based on Washington’s plan, you can infer that the Americans used smart strategies to win.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Building Knowledge

  • A number of the activities supporting this article, including summarizing and text evidence, will help students build knowledge about the American Revolution and what led to it. After students complete the activities, have them respond to the writing prompt.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Working with small groups using the lower-Lexile version, have students look at the map of the Battle of Brooklyn on pages 8-9. As you read the last three sections, have students trace the movements of both armies with their fingers on the map to help them visualize what happened.

For Advanced Readers

The author uses three similes in this article. Challenge students to find and underline them. Have them work in pairs and discuss what each one means, then write three of their own similes to describe Joseph’s experiences in the war.

For ELL Students

Have students listen to the lower-Lexile audio version of this article. Encourage them to listen more than once to sections that are difficult to understand. Then pose questions from our “Questions for ELL Students.”

For Guided Reading

Read this article with your guided-reading groups. Pause at the end of each section and ask students to look back at the section header. Prompt them to explain how each section header relates to or sums up what they just read.