Teacher and Parent Resources
for Over the Wall by John H. Ritter
Discussion Questions for Over the Wall
1. In the first part of the story we see Tyler fly into a white-hot rage when things don't go his way in the game. What does he tell himself about these incidents that justifies his fury? What effect does that have on his ability to deal with it? Coach Trioli offers him two explanations for his tendency to lose control when angry. What are they? Does Tyler think Coach is right? What could be some other sources for the roots of his anger?
2. When Louie plays his Blood Hawk Bomber video game, Tyler describes it as "perfect training for the military" because it "tested your reflexes and treated the enemy like targets instead of like people." Later he tells Breena that "the enemy is always some nonhuman nobody." Ask your grandparents or teacher about the names that the Germans and Japanese were called in World War II. Why were these people dehumanized? When Tyler comes to see the boy he has called "Dumbo" as a person with a real name and a family, how do his feelings change?
3. Breena believes in slogans like "It takes a lot more courage to step back from a fight than to step into one." How does Tyler react to this idea at first? How does he feel about it later, as he tries to control his anger? Coach Trioli tells Tyler that his Vietnam experience taught him that "fighting is like giving up." But Tony says, "We gotta stand up for ourselves." Discuss whether one, both, or neither of these two positions is right, and why.
4. Tyler knows that 58,000 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War, but he is shocked when Breena tells him that three million Vietnamese, most of them noncombatants, also died in that conflict. Louie, on the other hand, says, "Great! That means we won!" Is war like a game for which you keep score? Research the number of Americans who have died thus far in the Iraq war and the number of Iraqi dead, including civilians. Which figures are easier to find? Why do you think this is so?
5. Contrast the two bird symbols in the book: the dove on the windowsill and the hawk in Louie's video game. What does each represent? What symbolic vision about his father does Tyler have for a future time when he will publicly excel in baseball? Is this realistic? How does it affect his attitude toward the game? What better way to help his father does he learn in the end?
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.
Applying the Socratic Method to Over the Wall
"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.
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.
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 Over the Wall, 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.
- 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
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:
Over the Wall:
- Discuss the significance of the book's title.
- Examine Tyler's relationship with his parents and Louie and Breena's relationship with their folks. Note any similarities or differences. (A T-chart works well as a graphic organizer.)
- Compare Luke, from Choosing Up Sides, to Tyler in Over the Wall.
- In both novels, Ritter includes a strong, yet gentle, female protagonist. Why?
- Tyler's life revolves around baseball. He lives for baseball. What is the significance of the game to the story line?
- In Chapter 19, Ritter introduces "Dog-man." Discuss the significance of this character: What purpose(s) does he serve in the story? What message(s) does he deliver to readers? Who does he remind you of? Why? How do you feel about "Dog-man"?
- Discuss possible themes found in this novel. Narrow your focus to three. Examine your thinking as you eliminated themes.
- What purpose(s) does Carmine serve in Tyler's life?
- Both Luke in Choosing Up Sides and Tyler in Over the Wall grow toward adulthood in these novels. Compare one or both of them to another protagonist in another novel.
- How might Tyler's "journey" from San Diego to New York be similar to Russel's "journey" in Gary Paulsen's Dogsong or Charlotte Doyle's "journey" in Avi's True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle? Or, to another protagonist's "journey"?
- What "walls" have other characters scaled in other novels? What "walls" have you scaled? Your family? Our society? Our world?
- Why did John H. Ritter write Over the Wall?
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
Over the Wall
Reading for understanding is a complex skill that requires learned strategies. John H. Ritter's novel Over the Wall (2000) 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.
The "Take/Make Notes" and the illustrated graphic organizer serve as a form of outlining for the traditional five-paragraph response to literature essay.
Lesson Plans contributed by Patricia K. Ladd, Correia Middle School, Ocean Beach, California.
© 2000. Permission granted for classroom use.