When I learned I’d most likely be teaching The Outsiders this year, I was a little skeptical. Only vaguely remembering the book from when I read it, I was totally judging the book by its publication date and the dust on its cover. Truth be told, I was wondering how in the world I’d sell my tough-to-please 8th graders a story about a kid named Ponyboy in 1960s Oklahoma. But I resolved to reread the book with an open mind and just see. Maybe I would teach it, maybe I wouldn’t.
It took me just a few pages to remember how much I loved Ponyboy as a narrator and just why this story continues to resonate with teenagers decades later. The Outsiders has that unique written-by-a-teenager magic that I wish I could bottle up and sprinkle on everything in my classroom library. And while I don’t ever want to be a teenager again, remembering what it felt like was pretty powerful. It made me want to teach this book and do it justice, too. So I got to work planning engaging lessons and activities that would extract all the juicy goodness from this timeless classic. And the rest was history: I planned and taught a unit that would stay gold for my students, half a century after this book was published.
Together, we empathized with Ponyboy’s struggles, explored the idea of identity, learned from Ponyboy’s curiosity and empathy, admired sunsets, brainstormed how to overcome stereotypes, mourned the death of Johnny, and cherished the “gold” in our lives. Oh yeah, and we hit all of the big standards and skills, too!
The Outsiders is pretty powerful, but if you’ve been teaching it for years, you’re teaching it for the first time, or you’re just not feeling your lesson plans, you might want to add a little dash of “gold” to keep it fresh. Whether that’s a unique, kinesthetic lesson, a new nonfiction pairing to spark some brilliant connections, or a creative twist on your typical comprehension questions, I’ve got you covered with fresh, new lesson ideas.
If you’re ready to revitalize your unit on The Outsiders and make the novel even more engaging and relevant for your students, here are 10 of my favorite activities.
PRE-READING LEARNING STATIONS
Learning stations are my favorite strategy for hooking my students before reading and building essential background knowledge, and The Outsiders is no exception! In fact, I think a good hook activity is even more important with a book like this so students aren’t judging it by its cover and/or setting. No offense, but 1960s Oklahoma has never been on my students’ reading radars. But do you know what will register on their radars? The ridiculous-sounding slang! So I take advantage of that and use it to reel readers in through a well-designed set of learning stations. Not only do these stations spark students’ curiosity before they read a single page, but they also equip students with the pre-reading information they need to start the book strong.
Here’s what my learning stations for The Outsiders look like:
- Students preview and discuss essential questions with an anticipation guide
- Students “meet” Ponyboy and make inferences from provided excerpts
- Students sample some of the fun 1960s slang in The Outsiders
- Students learn about the coming-of-age genre and make connections
- Students preview the Greaser vs. Soc conflict
Click HERE to see a video of these stations in action in my 8th-grade classroom! As you can see, these station tasks engage students and help the class start the novel with a strong foundation. These print/digital pre-reading learning stations are available separately or bundled with other resources for The Outsiders HERE.
For more information about pre-reading activities and creating your own learning stations, check out the following blog posts:
- 5 Engaging Ideas for Pre-Reading Activities
- 10 Reasons to Implement Learning Stations
- How to Create Engaging Learning Stations
- How to Facilitate Successful Learning Stations
- 10 Ideas for Virtual Learning Stations
CHARACTER REPORT CARDS
It can be challenging for students to keep all the characters straight at the beginning of The Outsiders. To help students dig into the most important characters in a unique, memorable way, try assigning Character Report Cards. This activity is exactly what it sounds like: students “grade” characters on different categories, like intelligence and loyalty, and then cite examples/evidence to support the grades. This lesson is a great way to spark discussions about the moral complexity of the characters and their relationships with each other. Students love the chance to be the teacher and assign “grades” to the characters. You’ll be surprised at just how willingly they will cite textual evidence to support a failing grade! (Rarely do middle schoolers cite evidence without complaining…)
After you do this activity, you can connect it to stereotypes and labels! Essentially, you are asking students to judge characters based on the little information they have after a few chapters. As students continue to read the novel, encourage them to return to the report cards and reevaluate the grades they gave each character.
CHARACTERIZATION & FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE QUESTION TRAIL
As I mentioned, digging into characterization at the beginning of The Outsiders is crucial. But instead of assigning worksheets, keep the momentum strong with an engaging question trail over the characters and the figurative language SE Hinton uses to describe them. If you’re unfamiliar with the wonderful question trail strategy, it’s a unique, kinesthetic activity that gets students up and moving around the classroom on a quest to complete a “trail” of multiple-choice questions.
During this lesson, different questions are posted around the room. Each question answer (A, B, C, D) sends students to a different question “on the trail,” so if students answer each question correctly, they complete a full circuit. But if students answer a question incorrectly, they’ll end up at a question they’ve already been to, which is their cue to backtrack and problem-solve. This means that question trails give both teachers and students clear, immediate feedback. It’s engaging and effective…a win-win! If this question trail idea sounds a bit complicated, I promise you it’s easier in person. And it’s easiest when you can use an already-organized and student-ready trail, like this one for Chapters 1-3 of The Outsiders. You can find this resource available separately or in my unit bundle for the book.
For more information on question trails:
- Click HERE to watch a quick video on this lesson
- Click HERE to learn about how to create your own question trail
- Click HERE to check out a blank question trail template for any text, skill, or subject
BOB’S DEATH: BLAME CHART
The murder of Bob the Soc propels the plot of The Outsiders, so it’s important to pause and process after this key event. One creative way to get students critically thinking about this scene is through a “Blame Chart,” where students analyze the different sources of conflict that lead to Bob’s death. Obviously, Johnny is physically responsible for Bob’s death, but any good reader knows there are multiple factors playing into the murder. Students always have strong opinions on whether the murder was self-defense and enjoy discussing their pie charts after this activity. This lesson is also a great way to spark predictions for future chapters and discuss how everything goes back to the Greaser vs. Soc conflict.
PONYBOY’S CHANGING PERSPECTIVE ACTIVITY
Studies have shown that drawing can help with memory and comprehension, so I always like to incorporate a little room for creativity and sketching during my novel units. (Stick figures are welcome!) Since The Outsiders is a coming-of-age novel that follows Ponyboy as his perspective changes, it only makes sense to challenge students with the task of pinpointing his perspective shifts. To do this, ask students to consider what impacts Ponyboy’s perspective the most. Then, give students a graphic organizer with space for them to visually represent the moments that impact Ponyboy’s perspective the most. This activity sparks some incredible discussion, and it’s interesting to see how students approach it. Some end up focusing on events that impact Ponyboy, while others focus on relationships with other characters.
This activity is great because it gets students thinking about the most important characters and parts of the plot that ultimately contribute to the themes of the novel. The more you discuss throughout the text, the easier it will be for students to analyze the development of themes at the end of the book!
FUNERAL FOR JOHNNY: EULOGIES & ELEGIES
I’ve been doing character funerals ever since my days of teaching The Great Gatsby in high school (RIP, old sport), and they’re always one of the most memorable lessons of the unit! It feels cruel to keep on reading, business as usual, after a character passes away, so it only makes sense to put the novel on pause and host a funeral.
This is exactly what we do after Johnny passes away at the end of Chapter 9 of The Outsiders. Before the funeral, students write eulogies or elegies from the point of view of Ponyboy or Dally. During the funeral, I pass out funeral “programs” (to sneak in some learning) and students can volunteer to dramatically read aloud their eulogies and elegies during our class service. This lesson is also a great time to return to the “Nothing Gold Can Stay” poem and start thinking more about the themes of the novel.
RELEVANT NONFICTION PAIRINGS
When it comes to The Outsiders, the possibilities for nonfiction pairings are endless! There is simply so much you can discuss when it comes to this book: stereotypes, empathy, identity, grief, group behavior, and more! I’ve rounded up multiple texts that you can pair with The Outsiders, and you can find lessons for each in my unit bundle. Here are a few of my favorites:
- “The Danger of A Single Story” TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We watch this before reading the book, but you could play it at any point during the novel for some great connections to stereotypes and Ponyboy’s perspective.
- “How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes” mini-podcast episode from NPR: This is quick but powerful, so I highly recommend giving it a listen and using it in your classroom. This story illustrates the power of relationships and interpersonal curiosity when it comes to overcoming stereotypes.
- “How to Be More Empathetic” guide from WebMD: This article is perfect for helping students recognize the strategies Ponyboy is using to gain empathy for Socs like Bob and Randy. It works well after Ponyboy sees Bob’s picture in the yearbook and finally sees him as a fellow human being.
So you’ve finished the book…now what? With a book so rich in life lessons like The Outsiders, the post-reading phase of your unit can be overwhelming. How do you do a book like this justice? How can you help students understand the enduring themes and appreciate the story as a whole? There’s so much you can discuss, but before you try to host that magical whole class discussion, soft-launch it with speed discussion! This strategy will get every student engaged at the same time and help readers think through important questions before a whole-class discussion.
During this activity, students discuss different questions with different peers during different rotations of discussion. In each “round” of discussions, students rotate to a new peer and discuss a new question. This means that by the end of class, students will have interacted with at least a dozen peers and discussed a dozen questions (or more, depending on your class periods). It all adds up to a lot of low-risk discussion practice
Speed discussion is always an engaging, effective lesson, but it’s especially helpful as a review before a literary analysis essay, final test, project, or Socratic Seminar. It gets students thinking about the big ideas, themes, and the So what? after reading!
BOOK COVER GALLERY WALK
One perk of The Outsiders’ 1967 publication date is the fact that so many different covers of the book have circulated since then. And a plethora of book covers makes for the perfect lesson: a book cover gallery walk! To do this lesson, pull some book covers from Google Images, print them out, and hang them around your classroom. You can frame your gallery walk with any question/s you’d like, but I like to structure it with my favorite open-ended question: “What do you notice?” You can see the graphic organizer I give students below. This activity sparks such powerful discussions and helps students better understand the theme, symbolism, and author’s purpose!
Anytime I teach a novel with a film adaptation, I’m all about showing that movie in class–not just for fun, but to engage students in meaningful film analysis. Teaching students how to analyze a movie is an engaging, accessible way to scaffold the challenging skill of literary analysis. With thoughtfully crafted questions, helpful modeling, and a strategic approach, students can analyze a movie just like they’d analyze a text. By switching out your comprehension-based “viewing guides” for thoughtful film analysis worksheets, you will prompt much more critical thinking and spark rich discussions about the text and film adaptation.
In addition to asking students to compare/contrast the text and the film, try asking them why they think the film directors made certain changes and how these changes affect the audience. These kinds of questions spark more thoughtful insight and engaging discussions.
The Outsiders is especially perfect for this because you can show the extended “full novel” version but ask questions about scenes that were deleted from the original version. This will prompt students to think about how scenes impact the story and its themes. For print/digital worksheets with these types of questions, check out my film analysis worksheets available separately or in my unit bundle.
I hope these lesson ideas help you bring new life to this classic. For more engaging activities and resources for teaching The Outsiders, check out this unit bundle full of print/digital learning stations, quickwrites, creative activities, vocabulary resources, and more.
To see some of this unit in action, check out these Instagram posts for more info:
- How I Launched Our Unit on The Outsiders
- Pre-Reading Learning Stations
- The Outsiders: Reading Schedule
- Engaging Activities for Chapters 1-4 of The Outsiders
- Character Report Cards
- Characterization/Figurative Language Question Trail
- Engaging Activities for Chapters 5-9 of The Outsiders
- Engaging Activities for Chapters 10-12 of The Outsiders
- The Outsiders: Novel Unit