Stay Gold, Ponyboy: A Guide to The Outsiders

How to use thematic focus, social context, and creative visuals to teach S. E. Hinton's timeless classic.

By Elijah Ammen


Book cover of "The Outsiders"

The Outsiders is one of those books that will change the lives of its readers. In a world of sparkly vampires and too many shades of grey, it's good to read a book that confronts the struggles of adolescence in a meaningful way that is just as relevant now as it was in the sixties. The Outsiders, at its core, is a story of growing up and choosing to make a stand for what’s right. S. E. Hinton persuades us to be our best selves—but without heavy-handed moralizing or white-washed pleasantries. It’s the honesty and realism that lets kids (and adults) empathize and relate to the characters—because they are reflections of ourselves.

Major Themes

There are dozens of ways you could go with this text, depending on your standards and pacing. However, if you have limited time, this book lends itself to a few standards in particular. The overarching Common Core standard would be:

  • RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Because there are five major characters, and a plethora of secondary characters, this novel is a mosaic of interpersonal interaction. Character arcs, particularly for Ponyboy (the narrator), are necessary to understand how the characters grow and change in response to conflict. Conflict, both internal and external, drive the plot of the story. The rival socio-economic classes—the Greasers and the Socials—are the catalyst for the conflict, while Ponyboy’s internal struggle of identity is why he writes the story to begin with.

S. E. Hinton also gives a great amount of description of her characters—which makes this an ideal text for teaching direct and indirect characterization. Your classes can track the physical descriptions of the characters, as well as how the actions characterize each of the boys in the story.

Social Context

Elvis, the Beatles, Robert Redford, Will Rogers. It’s easy to forget that the younger generations don’t know these names that S. E. Hinton throws around with familiarity. In addition, it’s hard for some to imagine a time as technology-limited as the sixties. Concepts like records, drive-in movies, and black and white televisions are outside their realm of experience.

The civil unrest in the sixties is also an unspoken backdrop to this story. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Space Race—even the British Invasion—are all cultural phenomenon that readers don’t need to know to read The Outsiders, but it helps with insights, and builds interdisciplinary connections.

Finally, the story of the author herself is fascinating. S. E. Hinton wrote this book from personal experience when she was sixteen and in high school. Her publishers chose to use her initials because of the feared backlash of a girl writing from the perspective of a boy about a group of boys. This information grounds the story in reality and helps us understand the passion that went into Hinton’s writing.

Creative Visuals

It would be easy enough to pop in the excellent 1983 Francis Ford Coppola adaptation of The Outsiders (starring a bevy of famous actors before they became leading men). However, while clips are definitely useful in helping students visualize key scenes, watching the entire movie is not the most creative or productive use of instructional time.

Have students act out portions of the novel in the style of Reader’s Theater. Assign roles, have a narrator and characters, and have your class practice and perform to the rest of the class. For those who are artistically inclined, have them storyboard parts of the story and create a gallery for the other classmates to walk through. (For resources on storyboarding and comic book projects, check out this article.) Better yet, give your class options in order to differentiate according to their multiple intelligences. Allow the readers to express a meaningful part of the story in the medium they feel most comfortable.

Literature Circles

I could wax eloquent about literature circles, but better people have done that here, here, and here.

Suffice to say that letting go of control is scary, but can be incredibly effective, especially with the emotionally powerful content of this book. Allow the freedom for your kids to open up and share their reactions and insights to this fantastic novel.

Lessons and Unit Plans on The Outsiders:  

Unit Plan

This unit plan on the novel outlines main theme, learning objectives, and specific activities directly correlated to the text.

Anticipation Guide

This resource includes a pre and post test as an anticipation guide and reflection for the novel.

Essay Prompts

While some of these essay prompts are lacking in rigor or academic alignment, it is a good catalyst for thinking about reflective writing for your classes.