Virtual Mailbag: Yes, I do.

Posted on November 14, 2009Filed Under Presenting the Book, Reading Aloud, Rerun, The Outsiders | 4 Comments

Over there in the comments, Christine (thanks for the nice words) asks if I really read the whole of The Outsiders to the kids. Ummm, yeah. That’s sort of one of my shticks. Well, more like a hook. As in the fishing metaphor. The Outsiders is the hook I use to draw reluctant 7th graders into English and reading and actual discussions and such, and make them like it. In 16 years of teaching this book, I have yet to meet a 7th grader who doesn’t love it.

But if you give it to them and let them go on their own, they will devour it in hours, and while they will still love it, they will miss two-thirds of what the book has to offer. And if you do the whole “popcorn” reading thing…well, no offense, but let me just say that I HATE THAT! The kids have to hear the rhythms and the feel of the dialogue and the writing, and I think one of the big problems kids have with reading comprehension is that many of them read so slowly that they lose the overall meaning. (More on this later.)  So unless you have a class full of ace oral readers, I think the kids get cheated if they have to listen to stumbling readers. (I have other ways to work on oral reading skills, like the 120 Seconds assignment.) Plus, one of the best ways for them to improve their reading is to follow along while a good reader models how the words are supposed to sound and flow. And since I’ve read this book so many times, it’s become fairly easy to read aloud AND occasionally scan the room with one eye for “spacers,” whom I can then call back to attention: “You’re drifting there Manny.” With this book it’s easy to tell that they’re all with you when you can hear the pages all turn at once.

I stop reading to them right after the rumble, where Dally and Pony have just arrived at the hospital to see Johnny, after Dally gets the cop the escort them. I love the break in the tension when Dally hisses “sucker” after the cop agrees to escort them. The kids all crack up. Then I tell them that they’re on their own until chapter eleven. I tell them straight out that I stopped reading that part years ago because I just couldn’t any more.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

“I knew it. Johnny dies.”

“You think that’s it?”

They’re ready for Johnny. There are some sniffles as they silently read the end of chapter nine. But some years there are outright sobs when Dally gets it. They just aren’t ready for that. And even after 80-some readings, it still gets to me too.

Last August, when I started this here blog thang, I wrote about this. Here we go, from 8/31/08…

I have been teaching The Outsiders ever since I started teaching junior high. The only “required” novel when I got to my school in 1993 was Tom Sawyer. The “approved” novels were shtuff like A Day no Pigs Would Die and Where the Red Fern Grows. Ummm, no offense, but I couldn’t cope. (Actually, I kinda liked ADNPWD – a bit.) I was rummaging around in the old English department storage room, and came across a class set of The Outsiders. Paydirt! Way better than Summer of the Monkeys.

But it was only a class set. So, not knowing what else to do at the time, I decided we would read the whole thing as a class, in class.

It has worked out beautifully. In fact, if I could only make one recommendation about teaching the novel, it would be this: don’t let them take it home! Hide all the copies in the school library. Tell the parents not to let them buy it or rent the cheesy movie. Read the whole thing in class! And read most of it to them.
By the time we hit “I was wrong” at the end of chapter 3, most of them are begging to read more every time they come in the door. You could hear a pin drop during the scene in the park in chapter 4. Even the “ADHD” kids are rapt. In fact, this year, we’re only up to page 6 or 8 at this point (depending upon the class), and I already have those professing their undying love.

And using The Outsiders, you can teach just about every literary device and whatnot that the standards want: foreshadowing (”I know better now,” “…not over his dead body…”), irony (omg, take your pick), 1st person vs 3rd person narration (I always stop when Pony passes out in chapter 4, and remind them “what are the disadvantages of a first person narrator?), flat vs 3d characters, metaphor, the list goes on… S.E. Hinton was in high school, and the writing leaves most of this stuff pretty close to the surface, so to speak; easy for 7th graders to pick up. Reading it aloud allows me to demo how they should be reading to themselves (like when they do KBAR) and the novel offers easy to understand examples of almost everything we want to teach them in English.
Plus, if you let them take it home, they kill it in a night, and want to move on, missing most of what I want to use the novel to teach them. I usually stretch it out over 4-6 weeks…it’s a beautiful thing to hear 7th graders beg to read.

150th post! Woohoo!


4 Responses to “Virtual Mailbag: Yes, I do.”

  1. Megan on November 16th, 2009 5:07 am

    Hi Mr Coward,
    I check your website daily and am always psyched for a new entry to appear. I am curious, how do you feel about reading and writing workshop?


  2. mrC on November 17th, 2009 7:17 pm

    You’re so nice. Thanks a lot. Re: reading and writing workshop. Doesn’t that involve having the kids in groups? 😉 I actually have a post coming up about this sort of thing sometime soon. I don’t do a lot of workshoppy things, because in my room, I’m a control freak. “This is not a democracy. This is a benevolent dictatorship.” I do some writing grouping, but not much reading grouping at all. Is that bad?

  3. Sara on November 18th, 2009 4:27 pm

    Mr. Coward,

    I love your blog. I’m also a seventh grade English teacher and began the year with The Outsiders. I can’t agree with you more on the “oral reading” issue. When I have my students reading a novel as a class, I prefer to either A) read the book orally while the kids follow along or B) Play a recorded version while they read along. They BEG to read in class with these methods.

    I had a teacher criticize/question me on this, and I use the same rationale that you pointed out: Having them read along with a proficient, effective reader is much more educationally productive than having them read along with a stumbling, nervous classmate. I also do something similar to your “KBAR” where the kids are reading independently, and I find that the combination of in-class reading led by myself and personal reading on their own increases their literacy by leaps and bounds.

    Thanks again for the great blog…your posts are a bright spot in my week!

    Sara from Ohio

  4. mrC on November 18th, 2009 9:50 pm

    Thanks so much for the kudos. I’m always glad to see someone else who gets it about reading to the kids. And, as you say, when you get a double bonus of them liking it AND actual academic benefits, well… I like my popcorn old-school: oil-popped on the stove, with butter and salt.

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