The Magical World of Isaac

The story of a remarkable boy and the school where he thrives

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March / April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will find the main idea that two articles share about people with intellectual disabilities.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
National Down Syndrome Society

As a class, you and your students can find more information about Down syndrome at this website, which has a special “Q & A for Kids” section.

The First Special Olympics Athletes

Take a trip with your students to the first Special Olympics, more than 50 years ago in Chicago. This short video from ESPN includes footage from the 1968 games and interviews with the first athletes today.

Meet Two Changemakers

Special Olympics recognizes schools that are committed to inclusion and meet a series of standards as Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools. Watch this video to see how Sidney and Britney, two students from Maui, are becoming leaders in their school.

More About the Story


Main Idea, synthesizing, vocabulary, summarizing, key details, compare and contrast, inference, evaluating, narrative and explanatory writing

Complexity Factors


The main article explains how the community at an elementary school helped a boy with Down syndrome thrive. The paring gives information on the history and mission of Special Olympics. 


The first text is nonlinear and includes present-tense and past-tense passages. It provides information about Isaac Friedman, a boy with an intellectual disability; changing attitudes about intellectual disabilities; and the author’s own family’s experience with Down syndrome. The second text is informational.


Both articles include some challenging vocabulary (e.g. guidance, ignorance, prejudice). 

Knowledge Demands 

Some prior knowledge of intellectual disabilities will aid comprehension.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (20 minutes)

  • As a class, look at the photo, headline, and subhead on pages 16-17. Ask: What might be magical (or special) about Isaac’s world? Look at the same text features on page 20. Discuss: How could watching a sports competition change your mind about something? How might these two articles be related?
  • Invite a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 17.
  • Distribute the vocabulary activity to introduce challenging words in the text. Highlighted words: ignorance, intellectual disabilities, neglected, potential, mission, guidance, intent

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Read the articles as a class or in small groups. Then have groups answer the close-reading and critical-thinking questions.

“The Magical World of Isaac"

Close-Reading Questions

  • In the opening section, the author describes a playground game as “unusual.” Explain what was happening in the game and why it was unusual. (summarizing) The kids were playing soccer, but instead of trying to score goals, they were kicking the ball to one child, Isaac Friedman. They were doing this so that Isaac could kick the ball, which makes him happy. It’s unusual that the children were focused on making sure Isaac was having fun instead of focusing on winning or on their own fun.
  • What is Down syndrome (DS)? How does it affect people who have it? (key details) Down syndrome is a condition some people are born with, which causes them to learn more slowly. It can also cause physical problems, such as weak muscles and problems with digestion.
  • What did people commonly believe about those with DS before the 1970s? Compare these attitudes with the way Bobby’s family treated him. (compare and contrast) Before the 1970s, many thought that people with DS couldn’t learn and should be sent away to live in hospitals, forgotten by their families. Bobby’s family refused to do that. Instead, Bobby’s parents cared for him at home, where they loved and supported him. Today, Bobby shares a home with four other men with DS.
  • Reread the section “Isaac’s Magic.” How did the teachers and students at New Richmond Elementary help Isaac? How did he help them? (main idea) The teachers and students supported and encouraged Isaac to help him thrive at school. Teachers worked closely with Isaac on his learning, and the other kids were kind and loving toward him. Isaac has a special quality about him that “makes people feel peaceful and loved.” Because of this, people want to be around him.

"A Very Special Olympics"

Close-Reading Questions

  • What is the main idea of “A Very Special Olympics”? (main idea) The main idea is that Special Olympics has succeeded in changing ideas about people with intellectual disabilities. The participants have “helped weaken decades of prejudice” by showing what they’re capable of.
  • Who started Special Olympics? Why? (key details) Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Special Olympics 50 years ago. She wanted to change how people with intellectual disabilities, like her sister Rosemary, were viewed and treated.
  • How many people volunteer for Special Olympics? Why might someone want to be a part of this program? (inference) More than a million people from all over the world volunteer, including doctors, coaches, and pop stars. Volunteers probably enjoy helping the athletes improve their skills and watching them have fun at competitions. The volunteers might also want the world to see how capable and amazing people with intellectual disabilities can be.

Critical-Thinking Question

  • What do both articles say about the potential of people with DS and other intellectual disabilities? (main idea/synthesizing) With the right support and encouragement, people with intellectual disabilities have the potential to learn and thrive—as Isaac, Bobby, and the Special Olympics athletes have shown. Both articles describe how this was not a commonly held idea in the past.
  • Based on what you read, what role do you think other people can play in the success of those with disabilities? (synthesizing) Like Isaac’s classmates, teachers, and “the I team,” others can help people with disabilities succeed by being patient and accepting, and by realizing that people with disabilities can succeed. Eunice Kennedy Shriver set an example by creating events in which people with intellectual disabilities can have fun, learn sports, compete, and succeed, and in which other people can help make the events happen.
  • Did reading these articles change your view of people with disabilities in any way? Explain. (evaluating) Answers will vary.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Main Idea

Have students complete our main idea/ synthesizing activity, then respond to the writing prompt on page 20.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Put students in pairs to reread the first article. Have one person underline details that show how Isaac’s personality and efforts help him succeed at school, while the other focuses on how others help Isaac flourish. (Remind them to read the photo captions too.) Then have them share what they underlined and work on the writing prompt as a team.

For Advanced Readers

Have students go to to learn more about Special Olympics, like its history or which sports are represented in the World Games—or to meet one of the Special Olympics athletes. Invite students to choose a topic to research. Ask them to present what they learned to the rest of the class.

For ELL Students

Some terms, such as shine a spotlight and deep prejudice, may be difficult for ELLs. Read the articles together slowly, inviting students to place sticky notes next to terms they have trouble with. Then discuss the meanings of the flagged items as a group.

For Guided Reading

Work with individual groups on one section at a time, focusing on identifying the key events or details in each section. As you work with groups, have other students answer some or all of the close-reading and critical-thinking questions.