Ms. Holmes is my dear friend and currently an 8th grade English teacher at a public school in New Jersey. Reading with Ms. Holmes is an occasional series in which I write about my experience reading along with her actual students (and keeping up with the homework too!) in addition to my own thoughts on the book itself.
Have you seen those lists of the most common books read in American high schools? Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby were likely at the top of the list. I’m not here to suggest these aren’t worthy, but rather add a book to the list: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which should be on middle school curricula everywhere.
Ponyboy is a greaser. He’s not part of a gang, precisely, but a group of young men from the “bad” part of town who look out for each other. The greasers have an ongoing spat with the Socs, the rich boys from the other side of town, who pick on them. When Ponyboy and Johnny get into trouble with the Socs – big trouble – their situation reveals friendships and loyalties, the heart of the novel.
The Outsiders is the sort of text, like Pixar movies, that engages children and adults alike. I had never read the novel in my youth, but reading it as an adult did not feel like reading a “kid’s book.” I was engaged by the plot and the main characters; yes, they’re kids, teenagers, but they grapple with who they want to be and who they are forced by their circumstances to be. Complicated, meaty stuff.
Another teacher said that this book makes avid readers out of eighth graders, boys, especially, who most of the time can’t be bothered. That makes a lot of sense: the novel’s main characters – Ponyboy and Johnny – are 14 and 16 respectively, roughly the same age as eighth graders. The stakes for their teenage identity issues are amplified by their environment, but they’re nevertheless extremely relatable. Even as an adult their moral dilemmas are gripping. The novel is written at an accessible reading level, fast-paced, engaging, and depicts beautifully realistic relationships between characters. Sometimes the imagery is a little heavy handed, but Hinton was only 16 when she wrote it, so we’ll give her a break on that score.
This brings me to Ms. Holmes’ approach to teaching The Outsiders to her eighth grade academic students. The school’s curriculum specifies that the goal of teaching this novel is to get students to work on analyzing characters and their relationships. From our first class, Ms. Holmes had me thinking about Ponyboy, Sodapop and Darry’s actions and what their actions suggested about their relationships. I was citing evidence and explaining it, writing structured paragraphs, thinking critically. Having class discussions was a little tricky for me – a class of one – and sometimes I had to put my Princeton English major away and think more like an eighth grader, but I not only loved reading The Outsiders, I loved being a student again.
The Outsiders is a wonderful novel. It transcends its time (the 60s) and its genre (YA lit). If I had picked it up on my own as an adult, it would have been a quick, easy, enjoyable read. Working on it in class with Ms. Holmes made me see just how rich and meaningful this book is, especially for middle schoolers.
Below you’ll find my two paragraphs and my final crest project I did for class.
Prompt: What character’s actions during the fire at the church were the most surprising?
In S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Johnny’s actions during the fire in the church are the most surprising. Ponyboy goes into the church to save the children inside. Johnny follows Ponyboy, even though Dally and others attempt to stop him. Inside the burning church, Ponyboy notices, “[Johnny] wasn’t scared either. That was the only time I can think of when I saw him without that defeated, suspicious look in his eyes. He looked like he was having the time of his life” (Hinton 92). Johnny’s actions are surprising because he is typically timid and suspicious, but in this scary situation he appears comfortable and confident. In conclusion, Johnny’s atypical behavior makes his actions in this scene the most surprising.
Prompt: Which character influenced Ponyboy the most?
(this one was a little too English-major-y )
In S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Johnny, through Gone with the Wind, had the biggest influence on Ponyboy. When they are hiding in the church, Johnny gets a copy of Gone with the Wind and Ponyboy read aloud from it to pass the time. At his death, Johnny gives Ponyboy their copy of the novel and it is through the framework of the novel that Ponyboy processes both Johnny’s and Dally’s deaths. He says, “I’d never get past the part where the Southern gentleman go riding into sure death because they are gallant … Don’t try to decide which one died gallant. Don’t remember” (Hinton 119-120). In this quotation, Ponyboy tells himself not to remember the death of both of his friends, but he does and he does in the context of dying “gallant,” an idea he gained from reading Gone with the Wind with Johnny. Because “gallant” and Gone with the Wind continue to be crucial to Ponyboy’s thinking, Johnny had the biggest influence on him.
The final project for the unit. Prompt: Make a crest which represents a character from The Outsiders. Write a TREXicon paragraph for one of either the colors or symbols in your crest.
In the crest for Cherry from S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, purple represents her sense of justice. After Bob’s death, Cherry begins telling the greasers information she learns about the Socs. Johnny and Dally are surprised that a Socs’ girl would do this, but as Dally says, “she said she felt that the whole mess was her fault … and that she’d keep up with what was comin’ off with the Socs in the rumble” (Hinton 66). This demonstrates Cherry’s sense of justice because informing is her way of making amends for the bad situation Johnny and Ponyboy are in, which she believes she precipitated. In other words, she wants to right a wrong, which is a very just thing to do. Cherry’s sense of justice is seen in how she responds to Bob’s death and therefore purple is an appropriate color to represent her.
Up next: Ariel by Sylvia Plath and whatever Ms. Holmes decides to read with her students after midterms?