Patsi B. Trollinger, Writer

Book Activities for Perfect Timing: How Isaac Murphy
Became One of the World's Greatest Jockeys

Perfect Timing

Perfect Timing
Picture book biography, Grades 2-6

The action-packed story of Isaac Murphy's life includes a surprising amount of information that touches on history, geography, and mathematics, as well as personal and individual growth. Creative educators (including Linda Woodward, Sue Mielke, and Lynn Erwin, who developed some of the following activities for their libraries and classrooms) have found many ways to use the book to support their educational goals. If you can suggest other ideas, contact me.

At the bottom of this page, you'll find a brief list of selected Common Core State Standards linked to these activities.

Questions for classroom discussion

  • Why did Isaac try to ride a horse named Volcano even though it was dangerous?
  • Looking at Isaac's entire life, would you say that he was lucky or unlucky?
  • Why is Isaac remembered today even though he has been dead more than 100 years?
  • Why did the author choose the title Perfect Timing? Can you find three reasons?


Make the news
Pretend that you are a reporter assigned to write a brief news story about the race between Salvator and Tenny. Think about the facts you want to include and how your story might have a beginning, middle, and ending. Write the story.

Create an 1880s horseracing map
There were no automobiles or airplanes for Isaac Murphy to use back in the 1880s, yet he competed at racetracks in many different states. He usually traveled by train. Copy a map of the United States and place a star at each location where Isaac raced. Here's a list of the states and cities where he was especially successful: Kentucky (Lexington, Louisville, and Covington); Maryland (Baltimore); Michigan (Detroit); Missouri (Kansas City and St. Louis); New Jersey (Monmouth); New York (Bronx, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Saratoga); Ohio (Cincinnati); Tennessee (Nashville); and Washington, D.C.

Share your rules for living
Many people admired Isaac Murphy because he had three rules for living: No cheating, no swearing, and no gambling. Write at least three rules you follow in your own life, and explain how they have helped you.

Horse around with some Thoroughbred math
Thoroughbred horses look impressive because they are quite tall. The average height is stated in reference books as "sixteen hands." That's because people who deal with horses and ponies have their own unit of measurement: a "hand," which is equal to about four inches. Make a "hand" ruler from a piece of cardboard that is four inches long and measure objects in your classroom in "hands." Use your knowledge of math to convert these measurements to inches. Compare your results by re-measuring with a standard ruler.

Host the Kentucky Derby
Divide your classroom into teams, and let each team sponsor one horse in a puppet-show version of the Kentucky Derby. Each team should decide on the color and design for the racing silks to be worn by its jockey and create a name for its horse according to the rules of the American Jockey Club. (Rules to remember: Your horse's name can have no more than 18 letters, spaces, and punctuation marks. You would need special permission to use the name of a famous person. You cannot re-use the name of a famous horse. You cannot use curse words or words with a bad meaning.) Create a puppet of your horse and jockey by making a cardboard cutout picture that is attached to the top of a ruler. Decide how to create a puppet-show racetrack and how to stage your race.

Educators kit
To see more options for classroom activities and supplemental information about the life and times of Isaac Murphy, you may download a free Educators Kit. This 20-page PDF document includes curriculum links, pre-reading and post-reading guides, writing prompts, and bonus information about horse racing. Many of the lesson plans and activity sheets were contributed by veteran teachers who have used Perfect Timing in their classrooms.

A sampling of relevant Common Core State Standards

Anchor Standards
- CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says; make logical inferences; cite evidence to support conclusions.
- CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text.
- CCRA.R.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop over the course of a text.

English Language Arts and Social Studies
- W.4.3 Write narratives using effective technique, details, and sequence.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
SL.4.5 Create an audio recording or visual display to enhance the theme of a presentation.

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