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January 25, 2024

Teaching a Classic Novel: Is The Outsiders Still Relevant?

Amber Chandler discusses how educators can leverage the power of The Outsiders to connect today’s students to important issues.


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I won’t bury the lead here. I teach The Outsiders every year, and I will as long as I teach middle school. Despite my blog’s title, I don’t think the question is whether The Outsiders is relevant; instead, the better question is: How can we leverage the power of this classic novel to connect today’s students to important issues? Students can relate to the novel’s characters, despite the fact that it has been more than 57 years since it was published. Several years ago, after reading the first few chapters, I began class by asking students whether the Greasers were a gang. What about the Socs? The discussion that followed was one of those rare times when you just know you’ve got the kids in the palm of your hand with full student engagement. Everyone wanted to weigh in on the question, and it has shaped the way I teach the novel every year. I’m going to share a few of the ways that I’m going to capitalize on their interest this year. Make sure to follow me on X (it will always be Twitter to me) @MsAmberChandler, where I will post student work and how it’s going. 

Push and Pull Factors

I can’t imagine that you haven’t read The Outsiders; but if you haven’t, this is your spoiler alert. The Greasers rob gas stations, harass people, have rumbles, eventually engage in a knife fight, and there’s plenty of gun violence, not to mention a teen pregnancy as well. They were then, and they would be now, a gang. I teach in a nondiverse second-ring suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., and my students don’t have much firsthand knowledge of the violence that some others might. The National Gang Center has an excellent examination of gangs in the article “Review of Risk and Protective Factors for Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Gang Involvement.”  However, even more impactful, at least for my students, is the video “Why Youth Join Gangs.” The firsthand accounts of the “push” and “pull” factors that led to gang affiliation are amazingly parallel to the characters in The Outsiders. (My students are also studying “push” and “pull” factors in social studies, and this Share My Lesson resource, “Push and Pull Factors in Migration” is a great cross-curricular connection.) We spend a few days on this website and watching the video, stopping and starting for discussion. The next thing we do prior to reading the novel is do a close-read analysis of the short story, “On the Sidewalk Bleeding.” This bridges the gap between the real-life accounts of gang life and the fictional world. 

Students will be randomly divided into groups, and then will design a gang prevention program based on their knowledge from the National Gang Center website video, “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” and The Outsiders.

Social Emotional Connections

The Outsiders provides many opportunities for conversations about social and emotional learning. The novel, but specifically the characters, could even be analyzed through the lens of CASEL’s competencies. I’m going to take a new approach this year to our final conversation that will have a decidedly social emotional theme. Students will be randomly divided into groups, and then will design a gang prevention program based on their knowledge from the National Gang Center website video, “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” and The Outsiders. They are going to be given a few days to create a prevention program that combats the push and pull factors, and then they will create Google Slideshows, iMovies or a Canva project, which they will share with the class. I think these activities will leverage the power of this classic while helping students connect with the characters and each other. 

A New Twist

The final twist I have this year is for my honors classes. This is the first year my district has ever had an honors ELA program; I’m lucky enough to teach both sections, and I designed the scope and sequence. As I did, I was cognizant of the need to challenge these advanced students while also refusing to deprive them of reading The Outsiders. Instead, my honors students read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down (read the blog about this decision here) this past fall. They will be doing all of the activities mentioned here, but they will write an essay that will answer this question: Having read two books, written in different centuries, about gang violence, poverty and the life of teenagers, do you think that teenagers in gangs are fundamentally the same or not? You can see the whole assignment here

Clearly, I think that The Outsiders is still relevant. I’ve taught it for almost two decades, so you can check out other iterations of my plans here and here. I’ll continue to evolve my approach, and I’d love to hear how you teach either or both novels. Follow our journey @MsAmberChandler. 

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

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