The Outsiders is an ideal book for the ELA classroom. Don’t you agree? The novel, about a teenage boy who questions the divisions – social, political, economical – of the society he’s trapped in, is wildly engaging for students. The voice is gripping, real, honest. Probably because the book was actually written by a teenager dealing with truly difficult experiences.
Like so many of our students.
Though the book is at a relatively easy reading level, it’s a great option for hooking kids who have defined themselves as non-readers. And it’s quite the platform for discussing things that matter to our kids – the ways they define themselves, the raging social divisions going on around them, the complexities of being a teenager.
If you’re lucky enough to get to add it to your curriculum, it lends itself to SO MANY wonderful creative activities! Here are ten to make your unit planning easy peasy. Sprinkle these in between your discussions and you’ll be set for a fabulous unit. And don’t miss the free final project, integrating STEM + ELA, at the end of the post.
#1 The Open Mind
When you’re looking to get students thinking deeply about characters, consider an activity I call “The Open Mind.” Either assign students a character, or let them choose one they are most interested in. Then ask them to go inside that character’s head, creating a page of sketchnotes that go deep with the relationships, crucial life events, dreams, and developments relating to that character. Ask them to include several quotations.
This activity makes a great warm-up for discussion. Once everyone has had ten or fifteen minutes to think deeply about a character, kick off the conversation with a question about a character. See where things go from there.
#2 Global Conflict Research
It’s easy to relate conflicts around the world to the one between the Socs and the Greasers. So many people are born into societies with divisions that predate their existence. Ask students to connect the conflict in the novel to a conflict going on around the world.
Get them started on their research with the Council on Foreign Relations’ “Global Conflict Tracker” online. Have them share what they find in short presentations to the class, and see if you can inspire a discussion on how Ponyboy’s words and ideas in The Outsiders could relate to helping build bridges in these conflict areas.
One-pagers are a great way to help students think critically about the major messages of the novel. With one-pagers, students create a page of visual sketchnotes representing key ideas from a text. There are so many ways to do one-pagers, but I suggest you give your classes a clear guide that helps students who don’t see themselves as artists succeed just as confidently as those that do. Just sign up below for my free packet of four one-pager templates with complete directions. Thousands of teachers have tried these templates this year and the feedback has been marvelous, so I think you’re going to love this activity.
#4 Reader’s Theater
So many scenes in The Outsiders cry out for a bit of dramatic acting. The book is stuffed with lively dialogue. Let students break into small groups and write a short script based on a section you’ve just read. Or let them choose any scene from what you’ve read so far to bring to life. Reader’s theater is especially fun if you have a small box or shelf full of props and a few costume pieces in your classroom.
I created what I called my “theater corner” in my first year of teaching, and I am always amazed by how much teenagers love getting a little dressed up. The back of your closet, a few rummage sales, or your local Goodwill will give you what you need to get started, and you can build up your options over the years.
#5 Writing Prompts
If you’re looking to sprinkle in some analytical writing, either informally in class, or through more formal in-class essay topics or paper prompts, here are some options to try:
Option #1: Consider Ponyboy as a character. How has he changed? How has he stayed the same? What is important to him? What role does he play in the society he writes about?
Option #2: Consider the style. What makes S.E. Hinton different from other writers? How do her choices help to make her story powerful? What are some of the patterns you notice about the way she writes?
Option #3: Consider the symbols. What are some of the most important symbols in the book so far? What do they represent? How is their importance demonstrated?
#6 Social Media Statements, #breaktheboundaries
The Outsiders predates social media. But in some ways, it is a natural springboard to talk about how teenagers represent themselves there, and whether we, as a society, are using our “connectedness” to connect, or to divide. Ask students to consider Ponyboy’s willingness to build a bridge between the greasers and the socs, despite all that happens to him. Ponyboy himself, and his story, help to connect people. As he says, we all see “the same sunset.”
Choose a social media platform and ask students to create a post they could share on that platform that would tell part of their own story honestly. That would help to break down division as it erased misunderstanding. It could be an Instagram photo and caption, a Facebook post or video, a series of Tweets. The point is that the statement would be true and honest about the creator, sharing a piece of their identity so that someone else, somewhere else, could understand them a little better.
Consider sharing something about yourself in an example post before asking students to take the leap. And respect their privacy, only inviting sharing if it feels right and not displaying their work without permission.
If I was jumping into this exercise today, I would share with my students the experiences I’ve had in my family with mental illness. What it was like to have my mom and my brother struggle with depression, and what the reality of mental illness is like versus what the stereotypes are. I would try to build a bridge, like Ponyboy, to help bring people together across one particular divide – misunderstanding of mental illness.
#7 Peacemakers Presentations
Ponyboy is a peacemaker. Despite all that he has been through, he builds bridges. One great extension activity would be to have students research other peacemakers, creating a wall of peace in your classroom with visual displays on great leaders of peace throughout history.
Suggest people like:
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Aung San Suu Kyi
#8 “This I Believe” Essay for Ponyboy
You know how I feel about PBS’ “This I Believe” curriculum (LOVE). Writing personal belief essays is a great activity with any class, but it also functions well as an activity for a literary character. Ponyboy has a strong mind of his own, and his beliefs get clearer and clearer as the book progresses. Asking him to write a “This I Believe” essay in the style of the PBS radio series, focusing in on one crucial belief with lots of specific, detailed anecdotes and examples to support the power of that belief, would be a great activity for an Outsiders unit.
#9 Bring in a Touch of Transcendentalism
Ponyboy walks his own road. It’s not too hard to connect his story to the transcendentalist movement. I especially like to bring in one quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ask students to consider the meaning of this quotation, and how the different characters in the book stack up to it. Who is willing to let their views change when confronted with new ideas and circumstances? Who grows instead of stagnating? What characters cling to their consistency and small-mindedness?
#10 Create the App Final Project
Particularly if you’ve already experimented with the critical thinking required for One-Pagers and This I Believe essays, you may wish to do a creative final project for the novel rather than an essay. Build a bridge to the ever-popular themes of STEM by launching your students into an app creation project. Have them imagine they are Ponyboy, creating an App that would help real people break down the barriers between them. You can download this final project completely free here.
I hope you’ve found a few ideas to help round out your next unit on The Outsiders.