The Contender

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Before you can be a champion,
you have to be a contender.

Alfred Brooks is scared. He's a highschool dropout and his grocery store job is leading nowhere. His best friend is sinking further and further into drug addiction. Some street kids are after him for something he didn't even do. So Alfred begins going to Donatelli's Gym, a boxing club in Harlem that has trained champions. There he learns it's the effort, not the win, that makes the man -- that last desperate struggle to get back on your feet when you thought you were down for the count.

Curriculet Details
56 Questions
53 Annotations
3 Quizzes

This free digital curriculum for 6th grade students contains interactive videos exploring point of view, theme, and conflict, as well as annotations describing characterization, flashback, and important inferences. Students will explore the theme of working hard to meet one's goal and self discovery. The Common Core aligned questions, answers and quizzes in this free online unit will increase student engagement in the book while supporting reading comprehension.

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A careful reader knows already that this novel has some type of third-person narrator. A third-person narrator is just an outside voice telling the story. A reader should recognize third-person when the writer uses pronouns like "he" and "she." There are three types of third- person. Watch the video below for a discussion of the different types of narrators, or point of view.  (This annotation contains a video)
This may be an indication of setting. If the characters are listening to a record, what time period might this be? 
Did you know that you can look up any word in the text of the book or the text of the questions and answers? Just click (or press on mobile devices) the word you want to define and hold until the blue text selector pops up. When you release, a define option will appear. Since it's so easy to look up words, make sure you use this feature frequently... Is there a word on this page you need to look up? 
What are Sonny, Hollis, and Major teasing Alfred about? 
These guys are calling Alfred, Uncle Alfred, because of an offensive name that African Americans may call other African Americans who are submissive to white people. In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American writer, wrote a very provocative novel titled Uncle Tom's Cabin. In it the character Uncle Tom is a slave who is extremely gentle and good. He remains a slave his whole life until he dies from a beating because he refuses to give up the whereabouts of two slave women who run away. Although Uncle Tom was considered the sympathetic hero of the novel, over the years many have criticized the character because Tom was so willing to serve and be abused by his masters. Today calling someone an Uncle Tom is considered very offensive.  (This annotation contains an image)
Explain what Hollis, Sonny, Major, and James want to do? 
Why is Alfred mad at himself? 
Alfred seems to care a lot about James. He wants to warn him about the burglar alarm. 
"The Man" is a slang term for the police. 
Which character does Alfred want to get away? 
In fiction, when the writer tells something that happened earlier, we call it a flashback. This particular flashback gave us some valuable background information. We know that James and Alfred have been friends since they were kids, and that they used to play in the very cave that Alfred is in now. 
Major, Sonny, and Hollis seem to be a bad influence on James and Alfred. Explain what you've learned about them so far that supports this inference. 
We just learned more background information about events that happened earlier. What literary device is this? 
What were Alfred's and James's plans for the future when they were younger? 


Use the Define feature on the word tenement. Where would you most likely find a tenement? 
This used to be a logo of a fairly expensive brand called Izod Lacoste. It's similar to Tommy Hilfiger or Hollister today. We can assume Alfred doesn't have many shirts like this. (This annotation contains an image)
Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson are both professional boxers. From the cover of the novel, you should already have guessed that this novel will have something to do with boxing. Look also at the title of this book. Do you know what a "contender" is? 
The protagonist of this novel is Alfred Brooks. So far, we only know what Alfred is thinking, so the point of view in this novel is third-person limited. 


Donatelli may become an important character, so pay attention to these first details about him. Already it seems he will be a teacher to Alfred. Maybe this message about fear is his first lesson. 
Physically, Donatelli seems to be strong--or once was, and tough. List three details that show Donatelli's physical features. 
The punching bag looks like this.  (This annotation contains an image)
This small bag is called a speed bag, and it looks like this.  (This annotation contains an image)
Why do you think Donatelli relays the image of being a contender, or training to be a boxer, as so hard and bleak?  


The man on the ladder is referring to "Uncle Tom" from the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that was mentioned earlier. Again, it is used as an insult from one African American to another. 
Sounds like these two want Alfred to join the fight for African American's civil rights. 
Lynn says angrily to Harold, "That's no way to get new..." Which word best finishes her sentence? 
This is a simile that shows that Aunt Pearl's voice is sweet and rich and smooth, like honey. A simile is a type of figurative language. Figurative language helps readers understand things, events, and people in unique ways. Watch this video to see how many types of figurative language you already know.  (This annotation contains a video)
Major and Hollis seem to be following Alfred around intimidating him. 
We can tell that Uncle Wilson is proud of his son, Jeff. We also know that making a good living and having a career is something Uncle Wilson values. 
Alfred, his aunt, and two cousins live in Harlem, New York. Harlem is a large, predominately African American neighborhood in the northern section of Manhattan. It has long been a cultural and business center for African Americans.  (This annotation contains an image)
Alfred's environment shows how poor he and his aunt are. List three details in this paragraph that show this. 
Why do you think the writer chose to jumble all of these words and short phrases together in this paragraph? 
What does this mean Alfred has decided to do? 


The tone of this paragraph is much different from the tone used to describe Alfred jogging prior to the police stopping him. What word below creates this more negative tone? 
One way an author develops the protagonist is through the actions and dialogue of other characters toward him. There are many different ways an author develops characters. Watch this video about characterization.  (This annotation contains a video)
This is an example of the writer characterizing Alfred. Which method below is the writer using? 
Why is there so much tension at the store? 
Quiz #1 


This word, and the way it is written, gives you an image similar to the sound a real speed bag makes. What type of literary device is this? 
This is what a boxing gym looks like.  (This annotation contains an image)
Which of the following is the best explanation of what the dentist just told Alfred? 
This means it's a new invention by Bud and he's just waiting for the patent. 
"Sparring" means to fight without hitting hard. It's used for training in boxing, so fighters can get practice with the motions without getting hurt. 
All three of these men are professional boxers. Cassius Clay is known to most by his changed name, Muhammad Ali.  (This annotation contains an image)
Do you think that Donatelli's gym is going to be a good place for Alfred? Cite details from the text to support your response. 


Madison Square Garden is a famous arena in New York City where all kinds of sports and entertainment performances are held.  (This annotation contains an image)
In boxing, there are weight classes in which boxers within the same weight range are matched up. There is no weight limit for heavyweight boxers. 
What type of figurative language is found in the highlighted text? 
This shows us that Bud, one of Donatelli's trainers, is very loyal to Donatelli. It also reveals that Willie is trying to pin this loss on Mr. Donatelli, when in fact it was his own fault. 
What does this explanation by Spoon show about Mr. Donatelli? 
Mr. Donnatelli's character is again being developed by another character in the story. List two details you just learned that demonstrate that Mr. Donnatelli is a good man. 
What is Alfred doing here? 


If Alfred is able to notice that Major has to try hard to be tough and act cool, then it shows he is getting stronger and more confident himself. 
This is an important scene because it shows us that Alfred is changing. He's gained more confidence in the last few days and is able to stand up to Major, Sonny, and Hollis. This may have something to do with the theme of this novel. Watch the video for an explanation of theme.  (This annotation contains a video)
What can you infer from the highlighted sentence? 


This is an interesting way to describe the birds chattering in the trees. What type of figurative language is this? 
What happened to Alfred's mother? 


You have to be in excellent physical shape to be a boxer. Boxing requires a lot of endurance. This shadowboxing for three minutes and one minute of rest is interval training and it builds endurance. 
A medicine ball is a weighted ball and it is thrown at you to help strengthen your upper body. Catching the ball and throwing it back both work on making you stronger and more explosive. (This annotation contains an image)
What is bothering Alfred? 
Remember, a cut man helps the boxer stop bleeding and repairs cuts so the boxer can continue fighting. 
This isn't what Alfred wants to hear. Do you think he should take Mr. Epstein's advice and forget about boxing? Think about what boxing could do for Alfred even if he doesn't make much money from it. 
Why is Willie Streeter feeling sullen? 
You should know by now that Major always means trouble for Alfred. This is further shown by Bud and Henry's negative reaction to him coming by the gym. Major is the __________________ of this novel. 
Do you think that Alfred is about to make a mistake?  


Why are they being so nice to Alfred? 
What is the main reason Alfred came to the clubroom tonight? 
Earlier, Hollis patted his jacket pocket and said he knew James would be coming by. Based on James's physical description, what do you think is going on with him? 


The highlighted text includes a direct comparison between the phone ringing and a rattlesnake buzzing. Which type of figurative language is this? 
What does Alfred forget to do? 
What do we know now about the car? 
Many people seem to be pulling Alfred in different directions. There's Donatelli, Major, Aunt Pearl, and the nationalist speakers. We can almost feel his inner turmoil over all of it. In fiction, the protagonist usually must overcome many obstacles throughout the story. Watch this video about conflict and see if you can determine which types of conflict Alfred has encountered.  (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is the best way to describe how Alfred is feeling now? 
What does Mr. Donatelli mean when he says, "You've got nothing to apologize to me for"? 
Quiz #2 


This shows that Donatelli rarely ever gives praise, so the slightest bit of approval means the world to Alfred. 
Is this a good lesson for Alfred? It seems like he's decided to not listen to anyone about who he is or should be, except himself. 
When Donatelli says, "It's time you were fitted for that custom-made mouthpiece," what can you infer this means? 


What do you think makes this day different from other days for Alfred? 
Polio is an infectious disease that affects the spinal chord. It can cause paralysis, often of the legs. Polio affected millions until a vaccine was developed in 1950. Henry got polio when he was a child before there was a vaccine. 
If Alfred is "pretending" to study the books, then what do you think is he really doing? 
One way that shows that Alfred is on the right path is the people he now chooses to be around. Henry, Mr. Donatelli, Bud, and Spoon all care about Alfred and encourage him to do positive things. 
Donatelli's dialogue and actions show that he is feeling 
Explain what Alfred is doing and why? 
He didn't really walk into "a ton of concrete." It was a punch, but to Alfred it was as hard as concrete. What type of figurative language is used in this sentence? 
A "yellow belly" is a coward. 
If there is no knockout during a boxing match, at the end of the required rounds if there is a tie, the judges make a decision of who won. 
Read the following poem by Elizabeth Padillo Olesen and answer the question that follows:"The Boxing Match"Two contenders on the ringjumping, hitting and smashing each otherwith gloves on, they fight likethe modern jaguars with the target of moneyand the grand title the ring can offer.As they punch each otherwith the sole goal of winning, they cease to look at each otherin the eye as friends in the lonely junglebut as enemies in the fight overwho is weaker and who has more the power.Never mind the blood that spills over! Never mind the fall of the other contender! The watching crowd sharesthe nature of the tigers, they, too, growl and cheerwhen the other is knocked down.Hurrah to the more powerful! The boxing match becomesthe jungle of humanscaring only for the strongand condemning the weak. Question: In this poem and in the novel, what does the crowd have in common? 


The Apollo Theater is in Harlem and has long been a music hall for African American performers.  (This annotation contains an image)
Which reason below is the best explanation for why Aunt Pearl is telling Alfred this story? 
Explain why you think this win "didn't even taste sweet" to Alfred. 


What does this phrase "...tapping away at his chin, his eyes, his mouth," mean? 
What does this show about Alfred? 
This paragraph describes inner conflict that Alfred is having. In your own words, explain what is bothering Alfred. 
What is Alfred doing in this sentence? 


Do you think what Uncle Wilson says here will bother Alfred? Why? 
What does Uncle Wilson always thinks about? 
Who do you think the huddled figure is? 
Alfred continues to improve himself. James, on the other hand, has fallen about as low as he can go. What do you predict Alfred will do with his future? What do you predict will happen to James? 


What is the best explanation of what is happening with Alfred? 
This is important. Do you recognize that this relates directly to the theme of the novel? 


This means Alfred has something he needs to prove to himself. What is it? 
Alfred and Henry have a bond now.  
In boxing, when a fighter is knocked down, the referee gets over him and counts to ten. This means the fighter has ten seconds to get up on his own. If he doesn't, the fight is over. 
List at least five words from this paragraph that help create the image of a violent fight. 
These words are all metaphors for what? 
Isn't this what Alfred wanted to prove and what Donatelli needed to see? Donatelli told him once that he needed to see how he fought when he got really hurt. Alfred is showing him now: he fights courageously. 
This is what Alfred needed to prove to himself. Even though he may lose, he has won his own personal fight. 
What is the best answer to explain what Donatelli means? What does Alfred know now? 


Where do you think James has gone? 
Through boxing and proving that he is indeed a contender, Alfred has discovered what he wants to do in life. 
Quiz #3