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The Stars Below Me

Mara is miserable in the city—until a friend helps her discover a whole new universe.

By Wendy Mass
From the March / April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify how Mara changes when she realizes that her new city surroundings, and a new friend, offer unexpected joys

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
Audio ()
Activities (8)
Quizzes (3)
Quizzes (3)
Quizzes (3)
Answer Key (1)
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Activities (8) Download All Activities
Quizzes (3)
Quizzes (3)
Quizzes (3)
Answer Key (1)
Can't-Miss Teaching Extras
The Stars Above Us

Mara’s interest in astronomy might have inspired your students to do their own star-gazing. Send them over to NASA’s Space Place, where they can learn about constellations, watch a video about exoplanets (like the one where Mara’s friend Eta might live), and more. For a deep-dive project-based learning adventure, be sure to check out the Research Kit with this issue! 

Advice for Kids on Moving

Mara faces a hurdle in adjusting to her move to the city—not unlike what many children go through when they move. For kids in a similar situation, check out this KidsHealth article, “What Kids Who Are Moving Should Do.”

What Mara Sees

At the end of the story, Mara looks out on the dazzling New York skyline. What makes up this spectacular view? Your students can discover fun facts about the city’s most famous—and tallest—buildings at the site Skyscrapers of New York City.

More About the Story

Skills

How a character changes, inference about character, sensory details, perspective, plot, author’s craft, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning/Purpose

In "The Stars Below Me," a girl is unhappy with her family’s move to New York City—until a new friend helps her to change her point of view. The story’s overall message is that a fresh perspective can make an experience that seemed daunting seem exhilarating instead. Readers will need to make inferences to fully understand the story.

Structure

The story is chronological and takes place mainly over the course of two days.

Language

The story includes a few challenging words, such as horizon, glumly, and pang. It also has rhetorical questions and other figures of speech.

Knowledge Demands 

The story refers to constellations, the rings of Saturn, craters on the moon, and some New York City landmarks. 

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)  

  • Prepare students for reading by having a brief discussion about how they think living in a city differs from living in the country or in a suburb. Ask: What would it be like to move from your area to a new setting?
  • Preview the questions in the margins. Point out the blank “Write your own question” bubble on page 13.
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box for the class.

Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary activity to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include constellation, baying, astronomy, squirrelly, and planetarium.

2. Close Reading

First Read: Get to Know the Text (20 minutes)

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio version as they follow along in their magazines. You might assign it as homework.

Second Read: Unpack the Text (30 minutes)

  • Read the story again as a class, pausing to discuss the close-reading questions in the margins. Answers follow.
  • Discuss the critical-thinking questions.

Answers to Close-Reading Questions

  • Knowledge Builder (p. 11) Looking at the stars is like looking into the past because we’re seeing the light they gave off millions of years ago. The night sky is a picture of where stars were long, long ago.
  • Character (p. 11) Mara doesn’t want to move because she has lived in the same place and known the same kids her whole life. She thinks New York City kids will be too cool and grown-up to be friends with a girl from the country. Answers will vary.
  • Inference About Character (p. 11) Mara seems like a smart girl who loves the outdoors and everything about space. But she considers herself “uncool” and isn’t confident that other kids will like her. Having an imaginary friend on a faraway star suggests that she is a dreamer and maybe doesn’t open up to people in real life.
  • Inference About Character (p. 12) Eta might be important to Mara because she’s always there—or at least the star where Mara imagines Eta to be is there. Eta might also be important because Mara can always picture her as a good friend and listener. Mara doesn’t have to negotiate a real friendship or worry whether Eta likes her.
  • Sensory Details (p. 12) The author contrasts the sounds of the city with the sounds of the country. She describes Mara’s hearing “animals baying at the moon” and roosters crowing in the country. In the city, Mara hears “rattling pipes, neighbors shutting doors, the wail of sirens.”
  • Perspective (p. 13) Chloe might be impressed that Mara is interested in astronomy; it’s new and different to her. Perhaps Chloe would like to look through Mara’s telescope. To Mara, Chloe’s words suggest she thinks Mara is a nerd, and no one else in the city likes astronomy.
  • Plot (p. 13) At this point, Mara and Chloe have a conversation that will eventually lead to a friendship. Mara’s skill at math becomes an advantage for her, and Chloe invites her over.
  • Perspective (p. 14) From the height of Chloe’s apartment, the city looks beautiful to Mara. She compares it to seeing the stars in the country, but from above. She is surprised and thrilled.
  • How a Character Changes (p. 14) Mara realizes that she can manage without saying goodnight to Eta every evening. Having a real friend she can get to know is better than having a far-off friend that she shapes in her imagination.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • At the beginning of the story, Mara says, “I don’t think I’m going to be very popular.” Do you think she would say the same at the end? Why or why not? (how a character changes) She probably would not say this. At the beginning, Mara assumes that city kids will look down on her for liking astronomy, math, and outdoor activities. But when she meets Chloe, she realizes that she can connect with a city kid. Chloe is not so different after all, and each girl has something to offer the other.
  • Compare the first paragraph of the story with the fifth paragraph on p. 14, starting “ ‘Over there . . .” In what ways are these paragraphs alike? Why do you think the author made them similar? (author’s craft) Both paragraphs include many details describing a special place. The author probably made them similar to show that both the country and the city can be magical, as Mara learns.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: How a Character Changes

  • Distribute our character activity and have students complete it in small groups. Then ask students to respond to the writing prompt on page 14.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Students might be confused by Mara’s friendship with Eta, an imaginary girl named after a star. To help them, read together the seventh paragraph on page 11 (starting with “On our last night at home . . .”). Point out the image of Cassiopeia in the corner, explaining that a star close to the middle is Eta. Review what Mara’s grandfather told her about it.

For Advanced Readers

Have students read Wendy Mass’s novel Every Soul a Star, which has topics and themes similar to “The Stars Below Me.” Find a book review template in our Activity Library and ask students to review the novel.

For ELL Students

Mara’s experience may reflect one that many English language learners have had: moving to a place that’s completely different and feeling unsure about fitting in. Invite students to share how they felt when they first came to the U.S., if they were old enough to remember it.

For Science

With its discussion of stars, planets, and constellations, this story provides a perfect connection with a science unit on space. Or let it inspire students to do their own research project on an astronomy topic.