Guest blogger Alicia Urie shares her passion for teaching The Outsiders and why providing alternative assignments for books like these will never be as rich nor rewarding for students as the classic book itself.
This is my eighth year teaching 6th grade. For the last six of the eight, I have taught The Outsiders. Regardless of the fact that it was written over 40 years ago, my students continue to find this book exciting! The kids cling to the protagonist, Ponyboy, as we are led through his life, thoughts, and emotions. The old themes within the pages of this book still exist: loyalty among peers, living life on the edge, finding similarities in the differences, and the age-old issues of conformity vs. nonconformity.
Last year, though, a parent sent me an email, cc-ing my principal, threatening to go the school board if I didn’t give her daughter an alternate reading assignment. My first thought? No problem. Here ya go. But as I handed the student her alternate assignment, my heart secretly ached. In that moment I felt that she was missing a huge opportunity: to find a deeper connection to herself and her classmates through the content of this book.
I was also perplexed by the request. The mother insisted that the book’s violence, from the very beginning, made her daughter cry, and, therefore, had labeled the book “inappropriate” in her mind.
My confusion came not in the mother’s concern to shelter her daughter from reading something violent, but in this mother’s need to shelter her daughter from a good piece of literature. The bottom line, the words I wanted to scream (and I did in my car on my way home from school that day): good writing will make you cry.
Good writing will also make you understand the world. It will also help give you a lens to human experiences you wouldn’t otherwise have; but most importantly, good writing will change you. It will shift your perspective. It will make you an engaged participant in society.
Good writing will make you cry. It will shift your perspective. It will make you an engaged participant in society.
I teach this book because it is the one that gets students wanting to reenact scenes, dress up as greasers, think about slang and how language has changed in our culture.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as a teacher as hearing them speak Outsider’s lingo as I walk through the halls. For the two weeks we spend on this book each year, I feel the entire 6th grade class become a little bit “greaser.”
“Check it out,” Carter exclaimed, “I’m a greaser already!” He held up his black Converse and flipped the hood on his sweatshirt.
When kids come visit three years after being in my class, they often ask, “Do you still do that genre project with The Outsiders?” How could I not?
There are sixth grade “girl cults ” now reading The Hunger Games and Divergent that contain violence of a different kind; a struggle to live, to have a place in the world that doesn’t really exist. The little sister dies for no reason; kids kill each other; the heroine gets killed off . These dystopian books hold themes of heroism and destruction. But these are also stories that expose adolescents to violence — worlds that are destructive, selfish, and relentless. This material is dense and, quite frankly, belongs in the hands of mature readers. Why do they read it? They read them because they are well written, because there is something in there — usually a strong heroine — that they can relate to . . . they read them because, as Astor says, “They feel kind of honest.”
Perhaps we should consider the themes of The Outsiders. Two social groups: the socs and the greasers fight, and the through the fighting–the upheaval, the disarray, the injustice–the groups realize that they are actually not that different.
S.E. Hinton first published The Outsidersin 1967 — she was eighteen. She wrote this book directly from her teenage perspective. Not only do we get her accounts of two different social classes that fight to ultimately find peace and understanding, but we also get a lesson in history of the 1960s. What do we forget history so often and instead try to recreate a future that will most likely never exist instead?
The themes of friendship, loyalty, and trust are not only engaging to all students but also relevant and integrated. Classroom discussions turn from the book into social groups within the school — which, in turn, informs the way students think and act within their own social setting and environment. My struggling readers, in fact, seem to be the ones that take the most away — it’s 12 chapters of lessons that are not forgotten.
When students find authentic connections to one another through reading, acting, and dialogue, and further those connections to a period in history — I would like to say I have done my job.
So, I would say to my concerned parents in the future, “Mom, let’s not shelter your daughter from accessing the tools she will need to have a voice in this world. Let’s give her a text that she can use as a lense for viewing this human existence. Let’s allow her to feel and think and become part of all of it. By reading The Outsiders she can learn unforgettable themes. And guess what? The world doesn’t even have to end.”
Alicia Urie teaches 6th grade Language Arts and Reading at Monarch K-8 in Louisville, CO. Her mission: to turn all students into life long readers and writers. She is passionate about teaching and love the art of connecting writing to her students in ways that align with Common Core, and integrating technology as a tool to enhance all learning. She enjoys hosting a middle school Photo Club as Yearbook Club as well as working as an advocate for student voice in her school. She is a member of the Denver Writing Project and CLAS.