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Silver Dollar Dreams

How will Alex ever earn his orange belt in karate? With a lot of practice—and some dreaming too.

By Nan Marino

Learning Objective: Students will analyze the character of Alex, a young boy who learns that achieving his goal requires first believing in himself.

Lexile: 600L-700L
Guided Reading Level: R
DRA Level: 40


As you read, think about what Alex’s thoughts, words, and actions tell you about what he’s like.


My Grandpa Nick says everyone needs a dream. He says they keep your insides oiled. Even toddlers have dreams, Alex,” he tells me while we’re walking down the city street after our Saturday lunch of pepperoni pizza. “That’s what makes them take those first steps away from their mamas.”

Then he asks me about my dreams and tells me that being 10 is no excuse for not having any.

I have two. The first is to find the treasure that my great-uncle Jimmy lost. Grandpa helps me with that one. It seems that Uncle Jimmy buried his life savings, including a bag of money and seven silver spoons, and then forgot where he put it. Before Uncle Jimmy passed away, he whispered to Grandpa that he thought it was hidden in an alleyway in my New York City neighborhood of Astoria, Queens.

There’s more concrete than dirt here, so you’d think it would be easy to find. My dad thinks it accidentally got tossed into the garbage, but Grandpa and I won’t give up. We scour the streets every chance we get. Last week we searched near a candy store. I came home with a bag of gummy bears, three chocolate bars, and a monster of a stomachache. But no treasure.

Since Grandpa Nick knows all about my first dream, I tell him about the second. After all, I’m not the type of kid who disappoints his grandpa. I tell him that I want to earn my orange belt in karate. “It’s not really much of a dream,” I say, while people bustle by and the elevated train rumbles overhead. “It’s not like a buried treasure dream.

A buried treasure dream is going for a black belt. That’s the highest rank in martial arts. According to Sensei Foster, my karate teacher, only 1 in 800 make it to that level. An orange belt means you’re no longer a beginner, but it also means you have far to go. Since I’ve been studying for two years now, I should have been an orange belt a long time ago. It’s hardly a dream at all.

“Wanting an orange belt is nothing to be ashamed of, Alex. Not all dreams are buried treasure dreams.” Grandpa Nick rests his hand on his cane. “What you’ve got is a good, respectable little dream. A silver dollar dream. Nothing wrong with that.”

What I didn’t tell Grandpa was that I had more of a chance of finding Uncle Jimmy’s treasure, and the ghost of Uncle Jimmy himself, than I had of reaching my silver dollar dream.

Everyone who goes for an orange belt has to break a board—with his bare hands. Boards are hard and solid. Even the thought of hitting one makes my fingers numb. 

A group of kids on skateboards weaves through the crowded street. I grab onto Grandpa’s arm to keep him steady while they speed by.   

“Your punches and kicks are good,” Grandpa Nick says. But this is the same man who tells me that I should be on American Idol every time I play the air guitar. 

When he leans on his cane to rest again, I worry that we won’t make it home by dinnertime. “Mom and Dad are waiting,” I say to hurry him up.

“Remember, there’s nothing wrong with a little dream. Have enough of them, and they can turn into something big.” Grandpa reaches into his pocket and tosses me a coin. “A silver dollar for your silver dollar dream.”

That Tuesday, Mom drops me off at the karate school. I bow at the door of the dojo and take off my shoes before I step into the room. After I say hello to Sensei Foster, I search for my friend Jocelyn.

I find her in the corner of the dojo, practicing her kataShe moves from a kick to a punch back to a kick with a single motion. “Are you going for your orange belt?” she asks. “The test is tomorrow.”

I shrug.

“All you have to do is break a board. Sensei says you’re ready.”

I shrug again.

Jocelyn puts her arm around me and whispers. “The secret is to pretend the board isn’t there. That’s what I do.”

Pretend the board isn’t there? That’s like trying to pretend that Superman is a wimp. Some things can’t be done.

Before I can ask Jocelyn any questions, Sensei Foster starts the class. 

We bow. Then Sensei tells us it’s time to practice board breaking.

“The purpose of the break is to prove that you’ve mastered a technique,” he explains, but the rest of his words get drowned out by my worries. All I can do is stand there and wonder how I let a little sliver of a dream get this big.

One by one, the students face the sensei. I close my eyes to listen to the sound that each board makes when it breaks. Sometimes it’s a sharp, quick snap, and other times it’s a long crackle, like someone poured the milk onto a giant bowl of Rice Krispies.

When it’s Jocelyn’s turn, I open my eyes to watch. After her board shatters, she gives me a wink. Not hard. See.

Sure, for Jocelyn, it’s not hard. 

Sensei calls my name. “Come on, Alex. Your turn.”

I worry that the sweat on my hands will drip onto my gi, so I check my uniform for wet spots before I jump up to the front of the class. Sensei holds the board firm. “Focus. Don’t aim at it. Aim through it. See past it.”

But all I can see is the board in front of me, and all I can think about are the many useful things that are made from wood. 

Sturdy things.

Hard things.

Like baseball bats.

And chairs.




Hard-to-break things.

I close my eyes, which is probably not the karate technique that Sensei Foster had in mind, and I strike.

A sharp sting runs through my hand. The board stays solid and whole. The class sighs. I try to hide my pain. No one is laughing, which is a good thing. But some of the students look away. That’s worse. Pity. 

Jocelyn mouths the words “try again” the same moment that Sensei Foster says them out loud. 

Instead, I rub my hand and bow out. “There’s another promotion test in a few weeks,” Sensei Foster says as he pats my shoulder. “I hope you’ll try again.”

When I reach my apartment, Mom is sitting in the kitchen. Grandpa, who is usually in the living room waiting for me, is not around.

“I have some bad news,” she says. “Grandpa Nick took a fall today. Your dad is with him at the hospital.”

I reach for the silver dollar in my back pocket and hold it tight.

 “Is he OK?”

Mom nods. “Bad sprain. It’s going to take him a while to recover.”

Later that night, Grandpa comes home. Instead of his cane, he uses a metal walker. It squeaks with every step.    

For the next few weeks, Grandpa doesn’t leave our apartment. There are no pizza lunches. No trips to get candy. No scouring the streets for Uncle Jimmy’s treasure. 

“When is he going to be off that thing?” I ask my dad one morning while Grandpa Nick is still in bed. 

“His leg is probably healed enough for him to be off it now,” says Dad. “But he’s still shaky. This is hard for him.”

I hate the squeak. And the way Grandpa Nick stares at the TV and never once asks about my dreams. I miss the old Grandpa. After school, I go to Jocelyn’s house, where she helps me with my punches and I pretend that pillows are boards. 

“If only Sensei Foster would let me take a pillow bashing test, I’d have that orange belt for sure,” I say as we walk to karate class. 

“Pillow. Board. What’s the difference?” asks Jocelyn. “You’ll break it this time.”

What is the difference, I wonder. Suddenly that little coin in my pocket feels very heavy. “I will break it,” I whisper. “My punches and kicks are good.”

Later that afternoon, I rush home. The first thing I do is ask Grandpa about his dreams.

When he tells me he’s not sure, I tell him that being 75 is a poor excuse for not having any. And I bring him his cane and hand him back his silver dollar. “It’s a little dream, Grandpa. To take one step on your cane. But put enough of these silver dollar dreams together and you might have a treasure.”

Then I take the broken board from my knapsack and add, “Wait till I tell you what happened in karate class today.” 

This article was originally published in the December/January 2020  issue.    

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Activities (6)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

This  Korean team displays an impressive mastery of Tae Kwon Do, a form of martial arts from Korea. Watch from 12:52 to 15:52 to see awe-inspiring board breaking.

Encourage students to reflect on their own dreams and goals with these hands-on activities from Scholastic Teachers based on the book Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom, and Wishes by Susan V. Bosak.

Did you know that there’s actually a lot of physics involved in karate? This article from HowStuffWorks explains the science behind this martial art.

Karate is just one kind of martial art. Read about other martial arts from this Wonderopolis article.

More About the Story


vocabulary, figurative language, problem and solution, cause and effect, inference, plot, author’s craft, theme, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

In this story, “silver dollar” dreams are small dreams that can add up to great riches. When the main character reaches a small goal in karate, he realizes that his injured grandfather can do the same with his recovery.


The story is chronological. It’s told in the present tense and from the first-person point of view. The reader must make some inferences to connect ideas in the story. 


The story includes some challenging academic vocabulary, such as scour and technique, as well as figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

Some familiarity with karate will be helpful.   

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)  

  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box.
  • Preview the questions in the margins of the story with students. Draw their attention to the last bubble in which students will write their own questions.

Vocabulary (10 minutes)

  • Distribute our vocabulary Skill Builder to preview five words. Students will also be able to add other unfamiliar words from the story.
  • Vocabulary words include scour, bustle, elevated, respectable, and promotion.

2. Close Reading

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

  • Have students read the story independently or listen to the audio as they follow along.

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

  • Figurative Language (p. 11) Grandpa Nick means that having dreams is an important part of being human. They give you a reason to keep growing, learning, and achieving things in life.
  • Character (p. 11) This line shows how dedicated Grandpa Nick and Alex are to looking for Uncle Jimmy’s buried treasure. More important, it shows how close Grandpa Nick and Alex are and how much fun they have spending time together.
  • Figurative Language (p. 12) A “buried treasure dream” is a big dream that may take a lot of time and effort to achieve. Some buried treasure dreams, like finding Uncle Jimmy’s money, may be unlikely to ever happen. Alex is saying that earning his orange belt is not a big, grand dream but rather a smaller goal.
  • Identifying a Problem (p. 12) Alex has been unable to break a wooden board in karate class, a skill he must demonstrate to earn his orange belt. He sees it as an impossible challenge for himself because he’s scared to hit the board hard enough to break it.
  • Figurative Language (p. 13) Alex uses the simile to say that he finds Jocelyn’s suggestion silly. For him, pretending that the karate board isn’t there seems as impossible as believing that Superman is actually weak and cowardly.
  • Cause and Effect (p. 13) Alex is thinking about how strong and hard various wooden items are, and he sees the karate board as yet another example of a sturdy wood object. As a result, he is unable to break the board, hurting his hand instead.
  • Inference (p. 13) Alex probably doesn’t want to be pitied because it confirms his belief that something is wrong with him, that he is too weak to break his board—unlike all the other karate students who have already earned their orange belts.
  • Inference (p. 14) The silver dollar is a gift from Grandpa Nick. Alex reaches for it when he gets the news about Grandpa Nick’s fall because it reminds him of his grandfather and their connection. He holds it tight because he’s feeling anxious and concerned for Grandpa Nick’s well-being.
  • Plot (p. 14) This is the turning point because Alex finally realizes he has the ability to break the karate board after all. By thinking of the task as impossible, it had become so. But by understanding that hitting a board requires the same skill as hitting a pillow, he now is more confident that he can do it.
  • Write Your Own Question (p. 14) Students will probably write a question similar to: What do you think happened in Alex’s karate class? or How does Alex change by the end of the story?

Critical-Thinking Question

  • Reread the last three paragraphs of the story. Why does the author include the line “I tell him that being 75 is a poor excuse for not having any,” referring to dreams? (author’s craft) The author includes this line to echo what Grandpa Nick tells Alex near the beginning of the story, “that being 10 is no excuse for not having any.” At that time, Grandpa Nick was encouraging Alex to identify and work toward his goals. Now, Alex is encouraging his grandfather to work toward the goal of walking again without using a walker, one step at a time.
  • It’s not enough for Alex to practice his karate punches. To have success, he also has to change the way he thinks about breaking the board. What important idea do you think the author wants you to learn from this? (theme) The author probably wants readers to learn that sometimes it’s necessary to change the way you think about something to overcome an obstacle. Specifically, you often need to believe in yourself and your ability to achieve something in order to actually do it.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Character

  • Distribute our character Skill Builder and have students complete it in small groups. They will then be prepared to respond to the writing prompt.
Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Work with students to identify character traits for Alex. Ask students to brainstorm words that describe him, making a list together. Help the group choose traits from the list and find where in the story each trait is demonstrated.

For Advanced Readers

Have students read “Amira’s Song” from our May/ June 2018 issue. It’s another story about a young person struggling to follow a dream. Then ask them to write an essay comparing the characters of Alex and Amira.

For ELL Students

To help English language learners practice fluency, read the story aloud with them in a group. Assign each student a character’s lines to read while you read the narration. Pause as necessary to discuss anything they don’t understand.

For Social-Emotional Learning

Ask students to write a paragraph explaining the importance of having both “hidden treasure” and “silver dollar” dreams and to describe some of their own dreams from each category. As a class or in small groups, invite volunteers to talk about what they wrote.