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Choosing Up Sides bookcover

The Story behind the Story



Teacher and Parent Resources

Notorious Lefties



Teacher and Parent Resources
for Choosing Up Sides by John H. Ritter

Discussion Questions for Choosing Up Sides

1. The metaphor of the river comes into the story in many ways, beginning with the name of Luke's church. He says he is content with wherever they live, "long's we had the river by." Why is this? How is the river part of his relationship with Uncle Micah? With his father? What does the river finally come to mean to him in terms of his inner struggles?

2. The rabbit caught in the snare is another striking metaphor in this story. Trace how it becomes a turning point for Luke's attitudes toward his father, a beginning point for his independence, and then a description of his own condition. How does the symbol of the muskrat's leg also vividly illustrate his feelings?

3. What does Luke learn about the negative picture of left-handedness throughout history? Why do you think people saw this normal human variation in this way? In baseball, on the other hand, a player who hits or pitches lefty is seen as especially valuable. Why? Ask the lefties in your group if they have had problems and/or advantages due to their hand preference. How does this historical prejudice that right is better than left compare to other pairs of ideas that have been the source of discrimination—white and black, or male and female, for instance?

4. "Uncle Micah was a walrus," says Luke, about his uncle's outward appearance. How does this describe him? Later, when they are fishing, Luke uses the quiet of the situation to notice some other things about his uncle's looks and behavior. What more do these details tell you about the kind of person Uncle Micah is? What does Luke get from him that is missing in his relationship with his father? What animal would you use to describe Pa? According to Luke, "Say what you will about Pa, but I believe all he really cared about was what was best for me." Do you think this is true? What broader meaning about his son does Luke's handedness come to represent to his Pa?

5. At the Yankees vs. the Dodgers game, Uncle Micah explains the basics of baseball in three sentences. What would you add to that, to give someone a complete guide to the rules? This story takes place in 1921, when baseball was a relatively new game. Check out its history: when and by whom was it invented? Annabeth is eager for Luke to play baseball because she can't. When did women begin to be allowed to take part in the sport?

These questions were prepared by Patty Campbell, a critic, librarian, writer, editor, and teacher in the field of young adult literature, and winner of the Grolier Award from the American Library Association and the ALAN Award
from the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Use of Metaphors in Choosing Up Sides

In CHOOSING UP SIDES, John H. Ritter uses several metaphors throughout. In fact, the author employs a metaphor to describe his novels when he says, "My books are pyramids." By that, he means, "You can take my stories at face value or you can dig under the surface and find other levels of meaning, like secret chambers and passageways that lead to other thoughts and ideas buried within."

John goes on to say that, "Metaphors are nothing but literary puns. That's the way I use them, anyhowas words and ideas with more than one meaning. The river, for example, was an easy one, and I consciously chose it to represent a highway, a flow of ideas between Luke and Uncle Micah, among other things. But the apple metaphor, on the other hand (no pun intended), caught me completely off guard. I didn't realize the full extent of its role in the story until after the book was published and a few reviewers pointed it out."

So take a moment to look under the surface of CHOOSING UP SIDES and explore as many meanings and uses you can find for the following metaphorical words and phrases:

  • River
  • Apple
  • Cat/Lynx/Panther
  • Rabbit/Bunny
  • Poetry
  • Fishing
  • Riverboats
  • Left-handed
  • Broken Bones/"The rottenness of the bones."
  • Rope
  • Snare/Trap
  • "Oh, Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done."
  • "Put off the old man, put on the new."
  • Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School. © 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.

Into, Through, and Beyond Choosing Up Sides

John H. Ritter, like many authors, draws from his own experience and knowledge when he writes his stories. Likewise, students find it helpful to draw upon their experiences in order to completely understand a text and to ultimately come up with their own conclusions about it. The following lesson plans will help you guide your students through Choosing Up Sides from before page one to beyond the last words.

The "Into" activities will provide a necessary schema toward a basic understanding of the issues involved in the novel. "Through" activities are designed for work in conjunction with reading the text, to further enhance understanding. "Beyond" activities will lead the students to appreciate the overall themes and ideas in the novel.


1. John H. Ritter has said that baseball can be viewed as a metaphor for life. That is, there is a likeness or similarity between the game of baseball and various aspects of life. See if you can immerse yourself into the world of baseball. Listen carefully to an audio-taped portion of a major league baseball game. In your mind, see the players, sit in the stands, walk across the grassy field. After the game is over, write about your baseball adventure.

2. Share your writings with your classmates, then discuss what parts of the game reminded you of decisions, challenges, or circumstances in your own life. For example, has life ever thrown you a curve? Have you ever relied on someone else to come through for you? Have you ever had to make a split-second decision or judgment under pressure like an umpire must do?


1. Luke Bledsoe has the amazing opportunity to see Babe Ruth play baseball. Imagine that you are Luke and that the Babe has asked to meet the "rising young star" that you are. Create a conversation between Luke and Babe Ruth.

2. Uncle Micah is a sports writer. To better understand this kind of writing, read through the sports section of a newspaper. Once you get a sense of how sportswriters replay the events to their readers, write your own sports column about Luke on the day he pitched against Skinny Lappman.

3. At the end of Choosing Up Sides, Luke Bledsoe carries a mountain of thoughts with him as he prepares to confront Pa and leave Crown Falls. Imagine you are Luke. Imagine that you are sitting on the riverbank writing in your journal, sorting out your thoughts, just before you go down to confront Pa. What would you write?

4. Imagine that you've decided to write a letter to Luke at this same point. Imagine that he would read your letter right before he goes down to the river to talk to Pa. What advice would you give Luke? What would you want him to remember as he talked to his father? What should Luke try to accomplish in his talk? Is there anything you'd warn him not to do?


1. A year has passed since the accident in the river, and the Bledsoe family has had to make a number of adjustments. Step into their home and life, and create a journal entry for Ma, for Chastity, and for Luke. What is life like for them now? Focus on their thoughts, their dreams, and their possible concerns. What have they learned about the consequences of prejudice? About being true to one's self? About accepting others who are different?

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School. © 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.

Creating Whitmanesque Poetry from Choosing Up Sides

To the Teacher:

Ritter's use of Walt Whitman's epic poem, "Oh Captain! My Captain!" in Choosing Up Sides is brilliant. The poem serves as a powerful metaphor for the multiple conflicts depicted in the novel.

I placed a copy of Whitman's poem on the overhead projector. As students accessed prior knowledge of their 5th grade study of the Civil War, I jotted down words and phrases alongside Whitman's stanzas. We simply "interpreted" the poem in terms of its historical references.

The graphic below shows my notes right on the overhead sheet. The jotted comments reflect student responses to our whole-class discussion as we analyzed the possible meanings of the poem.Overhead of O Captain poem with student input

Once students' memories were refreshed regarding some of the issues surrounding this country's Civil War and text-to-world connections were made, I asked them to consider why John H. Ritter chose to include this particular poem in his novel—text-to-text connections. After all, Ritter could have selected any poem for Luke to recite.

Responses included the following suggestions:

  • Just as the North was fighting for the freedom of the slaves from the South, Luke was fighting for freedom from his tyrannical father, Ezekiel.
  • Just as Abraham Lincoln is "the Captain" in Whitman's poem who navigates his worn-torn country through the atrocities of war, "the Captain" in Ritter's Choosing Up Sides could be: Annabeth, Uncle Micah, Skinny Lappman, or others.
  • Just as Lincoln and the country's "fearful trip" ended with the abolition of slavery, so did Luke's painful journey towards self-discovery end with his own autonomy from authoritative figures.
  • Just as Lincoln, as captain, ended up "fallen cold and dead" in Whitman's poem, loss is a significant theme in Ritter's book. Luke and his family are left mourning Ezekiel; Annabeth realizes Luke will leave her life; and Luke loses his childhood innocence—his "old self."

It's important that students understand that Whitman's poem is a metaphor. By making connections between the poem and its subject, Abraham Lincoln, students can then analyze the conflicts in Ritter's novel, metaphorically.

Following our whole-class analysis and discussion, students wrote "Friendly Letters" to John H. Ritter addressing their own connections between Whitman's poem and Choosing Up Sides.

They were now ready to write their own "Whitman-like" poems focusing on characters and conflicts in Ritter's novel. I introduced them to Whitman's poetic style, his AABB rhyming pattern and his refrains. As a class, we wrote one stanza and refrain as a warm-up before assigning independent work.

To the Student:

You have just finished listening to our Read Aloud of John H. Ritter's first novel, Choosing Up Sides. As I read, you took notes in your Writer's Notebook listing facts and details from each chapter and making reflective comments at the end of each read. As a class, we also brainstormed possible themes in Ritter's novel and his use of literary techniques, such as: similes, metaphors, foreshadowing, and characterization.

Following our discussion of Walt Whitman's poem, "Oh Captain! My Captain!" we had a stimulating whole-class Socratic dialogue regarding Ritter's inclusion of this piece in his novel. We pondered Ritter's reasons for having Luke, the main character, memorize this poem and any correlations between the poem and the conflicts presented in the novel. You had wonderful ideas, and you expressed your ideas to John H. Ritter in the form of a "Friendly Letter."

Now, you are to write your own poem, Whitman style, focusing on either the plot or character development in Choosing Up Sides. Just as Whitman's poem is a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln, your poem will be a metaphor for one character in Ritter's novel or a template for expressing some of the conflicts revealed in the plot.

Your poem, a response to literature, will be assessed according to the following:

Followed the structural style of Whitman's poem: (30 points) _____
Clearly identifies either one character or conflict from Ritter's novel: (70 points) _____
Total: (100 points) _____

Few, if any, spelling errors: (25 points) _____
Few, if any, grammatical errors: (25 points) _____
Total: (50 points) _____

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School. © 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.

Applying the Socratic Method to Choosing Up Sides

"The unexamined life is not worth living." (Socrates)


The Socratic method of teaching is based on Socrates' theory that it is more important to enable students to think for themselves than to merely fill their heads with "right" answers. Therefore, he regularly engaged his pupils in dialogues by responding to their questions with questions, instead of answers. This process encourages divergent thinking rather than convergent.

Students are given opportunities to "examine" a common piece of text, whether it is in the form of a novel, poem, art print, or piece of music. After "reading" the common text "like a love letter," open-ended questions are posed.

Open-ended questions allow students to think critically, analyze multiple meanings in text, and express ideas with clarity and confidence. After all, a certain degree of emotional safety is felt by participants when they understand that this format is based on dialogue and not discussion/debate.

Dialogue is exploratory and involves the suspension of biases and prejudices. Discussion/debate is a transfer of information designed to win an argument and bring closure. Americans are great at discussion/debate. We do not dialogue well. However, once teachers and students learn to dialogue, they find that the ability to ask meaningful questions that stimulate thoughtful interchanges of ideas is more important than "the answer."

Participants in a Socratic Seminar respond to one another with respect by carefully listening instead of interrupting. Students are encouraged to "paraphrase" essential elements of another's ideas before responding, either in support of or in disagreement. Members of the dialogue look each other in the eyes and use each other's names. This simple act of socialization reinforces appropriate behaviors and promotes team building.

Classroom Management

The size of a participating group is extremely important to the overall success of a Socratic Seminar. Groups smaller than eight to ten may suffer from too few points of view, whereas groups larger than 15 may become unmanageable and non-productive. Therefore, an "ideal" seminar size ranges from about eight to 15 participants.

"Classrooms don't come in this 'ideal' size", you yell! I know. I hope the following suggestions work towards your success in conducting seminars with groups as large as 35. Experiment with several techniques, adapt the format to your own individual needs, and "hang in there."

Utilize Another Warm Body

Divide your group into manageable parts. Ask an aide, volunteer, student teacher, para-professional or parent to work with students on a particular assignment while you conduct a seminar with a small group. Perhaps one-half of your class might visit the library while the other one-half is engaged in a seminar. After a designated period of time, you and the "other warm body" switch groups.

Concentric Circles

Divide your group in half and arrange them in an inner and outer circle. All participants have access to the "text"; however, only those in the inner circle are active participants (verbally). Those in the outer circle are "silent" participants. They may respond to the dialogue of the inner circle by taking notes and writing down thoughts and comments. Younger participants may be assigned to keep track of their inner circle "buddy" by tallying his/her comments. These activities help those in the outer circle to remain focused.

Mid-way through the seminar, those in the inner and outer circles change places.

Token (A Fun Way to Control Those Who Tend to Dominate)

Distribute an equal number of tokens (plastic poker chips, pennies, etc.) to each participant. Five tokens per person works well. Inform participants that they are to place one token aside for each comment they make. Essentially, members are paying for the privilege of contributing verbally to the dialogue. Once they have "spent their tokens," participants must remain as active listeners until the facilitator invites everyone to start again with five tokens.

Students tend to become more reflective once they realize their comments are worth a price. And, facilitators can visually see and make note of reticent participants. However, Socratic Seminars are not designed to force members to verbally contribute. Students will contribute when they are ready. Meanwhile, they are learning while engaged as active listeners. Therefore, please reassure participants that they do not have to "spend" all, or any, of their tokens.

Pre and Post Activities


  • Read the "text" aloud
  • Discuss vocabulary
  • Have participants re-read the "text" independently
  • Brainstorm themes relevant to the text
  • Brainstorm character traits of key figures in the text
  • Ask participants to create their own open-ended questions

Pre-seminar voting activity:

Before engaging in a Socratic Seminar, you might generate an open-ended question that allows participants to cast a vote. This opportunity to "take a stand" serves the purpose of quickly "reeling in" students by asking them to focus on a question which is ironically more convergent than divergent. For example, when thinking of John H. Ritter's novel Choosing Up Sides, participants could respond to the following:

1. Which character would you most enjoy as a friend?

2. Which character would you support as president of your student body?

3. Vote for the most honest character.

4. Elect a character to honor for showing the most growth throughout the story.

Following the seminar, allow participants to again cast a vote. Have participants compare their pre and post votes. Allow for "accountable talk." Frequently, students discover a shift in their own thinking as a result of engaging in the process of listening to multiple perspectives.

Post Activities:

  • Ask participants to share what they learned and/or observed.
  • Allow participants to discuss feelings regarding the process.
  • Brainstorm themes relevant to the "text." Compare them to the pre-activity.
  • Allow students to participate in an art activity.
  • Assign a writing activity:
    1. Letter to the Editor
    2. Friendly Letter to character in "text"
    3. Compare/Contrast Essay
    4. Poetry
    5. Reflection

Ritter's novels are worthy of deep reflection. The Socratic Seminar format allows students to examine his use of symbols, images and recurring motifs in order to increase their overall comprehension of plot. The following open-ended questions should provide for rich dialogues in the classroom:

Choosing Up Sides:

  • What possible meanings does the title suggest?
  • Why did John H. Ritter select Walt Whitman's poem for his story?
  • List the characters in the novel. Can you identify each one as either "good" or "bad"? Why? (T-charts work well as graphic organizers for this question.)
  • Brainstorm themes found in this book. Narrow the focus to three. Explain your thinking as you eliminated themes in order to select only three.
  • In an interview, Ritter admits that Ezekiel is his favorite character. React to this statement. Who is your favorite character? Why?
  • Ritter writes about Luke: "See, there were certain days in life when things just turned, and you knew they'd never be the same again. The day I'd thrown the ball had been a turning day." (p. 17) Connect this statement to "turning days" in other novels.
  • Why do you believe Luke's pa allowed him to spend a day with his Uncle Micah? (Ch. 9) What motivated Ezekiel?
  • What does Luke mean when he says: "I could not stand the thought of me ever causing any living creature to be caught between two worlds." (p. 102)
  • Why did Skinny teach Luke to throw a curve ball after Luke had struck him out in front of his peers?
  • What does Luke mean when he says: ""A tree snare went off and whacked me,' I told him (shop owner), which was not so much a lie as a parable, I figured." (p. 143)
  • Luke admits that, "All I ever wanted in my life was to be normal." (p. 135) Yet, he feels that his actions are always backwards, which is normal for him. What does Luke mean by wanting to be "normal"?
  • By the end of the story, Luke tells Annabeth that: "I'm different." She says: "You are. . .You truly are." (p. 165) Explain the significance of this conversation. Do you agree that Luke is different? Explain your answer.
  • If you could choose two characters to spend time with, who would they be and why?
  • Why did John H. Ritter write Choosing Up Sides?

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School, Ocean Beach, California. © 2000.
Permission granted for classroom use.

Moving from Literal Interpretations to Critical Analysis
of Choosing Up Sides

Reading for understanding is a complex skill that requires learned strategies. John H. Ritter's novel Choosing Up Sides (1998) can certainly be "read" by anyone having achieved a minimum of an upper-elementary reading status. However, his books are full of metaphorical connections that require sophisticated analysis in order for readers to fully comprehend the multiple layers in his novels.

"Take Notes/Make Notes"

As a means to increase comprehension, I require students to use the following form of note-taking as they read:

Using literature logs, or journals, students "Take Notes" on the left-hand side of their paper. These entries should be done chapter-by-chapter. Notes consist of concrete details, also referred to as CD, which are facts and examples from the text. Direct and indirect quotations are also concrete details.

Students "Make Notes" by recording their responses to the concrete evidence. These responses, or commentary, also referred to as CM, are ideas that come to the reader after reflecting on the facts of the text. Commentary is recorded on the right-hand side of the paper, opposite their concrete details. As readers "Make Notes", they use higher-order thinking skills and form opinions, comments, insights, interpretations, inferences, and evaluations to specific events that actually occurred in the text.

This particular form of note taking serves the following purposes:

  • To reinforce concrete details vs. abstract thinking (commentary)
  • To aid in reading comprehension, particularly sequential events
  • To encourage readers' to become personally involved with text by writing opinions, etc.
  • To use as a springboard for future assignments, (i.e., illustrated graphic organizers and response to literature essays)

Suggestion: While students draft their "Take/Make Notes" independently, I encourage the use of shared responses in Literature Circle groups. I also regularly allow for whole class discussions of responses and reward effort with genuine praise. As needed, I challenge students to "dig deeper."

In addition to note-taking, and as a precursor to drafting a formal response to literature essay, I introduce students to several forms of graphic organizers (based on ideas presented by Fran Claggett in her book Drawing Your Own Conclusions: Graphic Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Thinking, 1992). Two favorites with students and teachers were designed by me (see below for "Quotes and Symbols" template or "Similes and Metaphors" template) to meet the following instructional objectives:

  • Students will be able to identify multiple themes within a text
  • Students will be able to differentiate between the following conflicts and find contextual evidence for each: character vs. character, character vs. self, character vs. society, and character vs. nature
  • Students will be able to identify examples of similes, metaphors, foreshadowing, and character development from the text; students will draft commentary that directly supports concrete details from the text
  • Students will be able to graphically organize and illustrate all of the above data

Adaptations to these templates are easily made to fit the needs of particular assignments and desires of creative students. Final products, created on 12" by 18" construction paper, provide stunning visual evidence of comprehension and literary concepts.

Quotes and Symbols template

Similes and Metaphors template

Using the Graphic Organizer as a
Precursor to a Response to Literature Essay

The "Take/Make Notes" and the illustrated graphic organizer serve as a form of outlining for the traditional five-paragraph response to literature essay. For example, one of my students determined that "love" is a significant theme in Ritter's Choosing Up Sides. She created and illustrated several vignettes representing this theme. These drawings became part of the inner circle of the organizer.

Next, she searched her notes for concrete details describing her chosen illustrations. She both paraphrased one incident and supplied a direct quote for another.

Then, she reread her "Make Notes" pertaining to these scenes and used her initial thoughts as impetus for even more reflective comments.

The borders of her graphic organizer were filled with examples of similes, metaphors, direct and indirect quotes, and symbols taken from Choosing Up Sides.

She now had a basic outline from which to draft one body paragraph to her essay. Caroline writes:

"Ritter portrays the theme of love through several characters in his book. For example, Annabeth, a friend from school, comes to know the Bledsoe household as she helps out Luke's mother after Ezekiel has died. When Annabeth learns that Luke has been injured, she goes to visit him and finds him lying in bed in his small room. He is healing from a broken arm and is in acute pain. He is also bearing a great burden of regret as he was unable to save his father's life from drowning, because ironically his father had broken Luke's arm so badly. Luke and Annabeth begin to talk openly about themselves and about Luke's relationship with his father. As Luke is expressing his guilt, Annabeth leans down and kisses him affectionately. While Luke is unable to trust his peers at school, he is able to trust Annabeth and feel emotionally close and open with her. He feels confident enough to be himself with Annabeth, unlike his relationship with his teammates, such as Skinny, with whom he is not so sure of himself and remains careful and reticent."

The two sections, above and below, illustrate this student's personal interpretations, or comments, relating to the above concrete details. Her statements show evidence of analysis beyond a mere literal interpretation, or summarization.

Caroline concludes this body paragraph by giving another example to support the theme of "love."

"Another example of love in this novel is Luke's love for Uncle Micah. Uncle Micah is Luke's maternal uncle. Even though Uncle Micah has a tendency to get drunk, chase women, and go to parties and saloons at all hours, Luke admires him. According to Ezekiel, Uncle Micah is '...wild as a witch dog.' (p. 2) However, he is also independent, kind and supportive of Luke. Luke's fondness for his uncle shows that he may actually identify with Micah, particularly because he also is left handed. Since Uncle Micah is quite the opposite of Ezekiel in personality, Luke appears to feel accepted by him in the positive way he longs to relate to his father."

Notice that Caroline's first sentence is a topic sentence followed by concrete details supporting the theme of love. She "weaves" fact and opinion throughout the paragraph and includes direct quotes from Ritter's novel. Her concluding sentence is entirely opinion related to the theme. Her success in writing a cogent paragraph is related to her previous experiences with note taking and the organization of ideas graphically.

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School, Ocean Beach, California.
© 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.

Cartooning Around: A Left Brain/Right Brain Activity for Choosing Up Sides by John H. Ritter

Choosing Up Sides is a multi-faceted novel, which incorporates elements of the humanities, including literature, language, and social-science. In this lesson, students utilize those aspects with the study of editorial or political cartoons.

Daily newspapers include political cartoons about current topics. Pick a few for your students to peruse and examine. Discuss how the artist shows opinion through symbols, words, and style. Then have your students come up with themes or issues from Choosing Up Sides which may be illustrated in cartoon form. Create the cartoons, and then talk about the symbols and issues used.

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School. © 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.

Buried Treasures: Exploring Symbolism through Poster Design for Choosing Up Sides by John H. Ritter

John H. Ritter has noted that his novels are "pyramids" with layers and passages which lead to deeper "treasures" within.

For this lesson, students work in small groups to explore metaphorical symbolism that may lead to a deeper understanding of the text.

Using either characters, themes, or both, ask your students to discuss the metaphors they detect in Choosing Up Sides. Have them create a group poster and then present their ideas to the rest of the class. Please encourage your students to look for their own metaphorical symbols (which may or may not have been intended by the author).

1a. From the novel, choose a symbol that you think depicts Luke, Pa, or any other character. Discuss how that symbol fits that character's personality, actions, and thoughts.

1b. Or, pick a symbol from the novel which represents one or several different themes running through the story. For example, peer pressure or being baited (tempted) to do something which may be dangerous or not allowed. Also, the feeling of being trapped.

2. Search through Choosing Up Sides to find at least three passages in which you can see some sort of connection between the symbol you've chosen and the person or theme you're examining. Be sure to write down what pages the passages come from.

3. Write an explanation that shows how each passage proves your metaphor.

4. Create an original poem with your group members using the metaphor idea.

5. Make a poster using your poem and illustrate your poster with your metaphorical symbol.

6. Present your findings to the class.

Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School. © 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.


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