Small Steps
Louis Sachar

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Reading Activities

Reading Strategies

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  • Foreshadowing
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Foreshadowing” 23 Sept. 2008
    Before reading Small Steps, ask students to not read a description of it or the inside cover so that it will be as new to them as possible. Then, after reading up to chapter 3, have a mini-lesson about foreshadowing. Remind students that foreshadowing refers to when an author drops clues early on as to what is to follow later. Have students make a list of clues and details from the reading that may hint at what is to come. Then, have them get in groups of 3-4 and make realistic predictions about things to come in the novel based on possible foreshadowing. They don’t need to be elaborate predictions, though they may be if the students desire and have fun with it. Have students share their predictions with the class. Discuss how authors use foreshadowing to give clues about the future, but also employ it to keep audiences reading and guessing.
  • Trusting Teenagers?
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Trusting Teenagers?” 19 Sept. 2008.
    One of the subtle themes in the book concerns a teenager’s (often rocky) relationship with his/her parents. Theodore (Armpit) is having a hard time feeling like his parents trust him. One time, for example, Theodore’s dad makes him take a urine drug test even though he has never in his life done drugs. This is humiliating to him and further proof that his parents don’t believe he is a good kid. Have your students read Meghan Vivo’s “Five Steps to Rebuilding Trust between Parents and Teens” for some background information about the delicate issue of trust between parents and teenagers. Then have half of your students write about a time in their lives when they felt like their parents didn’t trust them or respect them. Have the other half of your students write about a hypothetical situation where they as parents might need to suspend trust and instead be suspicious of their teenagers’ activities. Then, have a time for students to share what they wrote. Have a class discussion about the parent/teenager trust, taking into the account that unfortunately, not all teenagers can be trusted and that sometimes parents may need to intrude.
    • Note to Teachers: In order to find the article referenced (of which you can make copies for your students), go to the following website:

Then, click on the first link.

  • Moral Decisions
    Teachers at Random. 2004. Random House Incorporated. 20 Sept. 2008 <>.
    Before students read "Small Steps," I want them to have some understanding about the difficulty in making important moral decisions despite their knowledge of right and wrong. Have students write in their journals about a time when they were faced with temptation and had to make a big decision concerning what they knew to be right and what they considered doing against their better judgment. Encourage them to share the outcome and their feelings on it. Consider the effect that peer pressure, especially from close friends, has on making choices.
  • Subtle Racism and Descrimination
    Teachers at Random. 2004. Random House Incorporated. 20 Sept. 2008 <>.
    Armpit is Black and subsequently has many prejudices against him. However, most of them are very subtle, but still offensive. There are no hate crimes committed in the book, but people still make judgments based on skin color. Have a class discussion about overt racism vs. covert racism. Then, have your kids thinks about others prejudices besides racism. Have them write in their journals about a time when they or someone they knew was discriminated against not blatantly, but subtly and covertly. Examples may include poorly concealed discrimination because of age, race, religion, gender, hair-color, accents, or education.
  • Love conquers all?
    Wilkinson, Katherine. "Love conquers all?" 20 Sept. 2008.
    This activity will prepare the students to examine the romantic relationship between Theodore (Armpit) and Kaira. Have students make a list of the archetypal couples throughout literature, film, and history who are on different levels, whether socially, religiously, racially, or financially. Characters may include Estella and Pip from "Great Expectations," "Romeo and Juliet," Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice," Allie and Noah from "The Notebook," and Gatsby and Daisy from "The Great Gatsby." Have a class discussion about if love/romance can truly surpass these boundaries and obstacles. The idea that "love conquers all" is great, but can it really hold up in real life? Ask students if they would feel comfortable dating/marrying someone significantly richer or poorer than them or someone who didn't share their same religious beliefs. How much alike and how much different must a man and woman be to have a committed, serious relationship? What are some of the problems that arise from dating someone different than you in one of these ways? This discussion is not to make the point that people shouldn't date out of their class/caste/religion/social class/race, it is just meant to realistically explore the challenges and benefits that can accompany it.
  • Character Inferences
    Gould, Mike. Blackbirds Teacher Guide. 2005. 28 Sept. 2008.
Work on having students make inferences about characters. Use the introduction to X-Ray to find out what the author is implying about him even before we really meet him. Have students consider his introductory paragraphs (the following) when he drives up to Armpit’s work:

A rusted Honda Civic drove noisily down the street and parked across from the mayor’s house. Armpit had finished digging his trench and was attaching PVC pipe. The mayor had gone inside. The driver-side door had been bashed in, and it would cost more to fix than the car was worth. The driver had to work his way over the stick shift and then exit on the passenger side. The personalized license plate read: X RAY “Armpit!” X-Ray shouted as he crossed the street. “Armpit!”

	Have students make educational guesses about X-Ray.  Inferences may include that he is a reckless driver from the bashed in door, he is cheap or poor due to the fact that his car remains unfixed, and that his car is old and broken down.  Students can do a similar activity when they are first introduced to Kaira.  For example, her love of her pillow and stuffed animals as well as her desire to eat ice cream after every concert is perhaps an indication that she is childish.
  • "What's in a Name?"
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “What’s in a name?” 26 Sept. 2008.
    About halfway through the book, or at least until all the main characters are introduced, have a class discussion about the importance of names in the novel. For example, Kaira has a stage name, Armpit has a horrible and unwanted nickname, X-Ray has a name to keep his criminal identity a secret, and El Genius’s moniker is used sarcastically. Discuss how the author, or maybe the characters,use names to describe a character. At this point, you could make connections to other literature in which the names of characters are significant. Some examples include Shakespeare (Benvolio in “Romeo and Juliet,” who’s name means good-will) and Miss Havisham in Dickens, who’s name implies that materialism is no good (have-is-sham). Have students write in their journal about their own name, whether it’s a nickname, a family name, or the origin of it. Encourage them to include details about how their names affect them of not. Make a real life application and consider in class discussion whether or not names help define people
  • "Armpit's Women"
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Armpit’s Women” 27 Sept. 2008.
    5) Discuss Armpit’s different relationships with the 3 girls in the book (Kaira, Ginny, and Tatiana). Talk about the three different ways that each girl affects him. For example, Ginny calms him down, evident by the line, “It wasn’t Camp Green Lake that released him from his anger. It was coming home and meeting Ginny.” (p. 117) Tatiana frustrates him and makes him nervous and unsure about himself, especially when she acts upset after he describes the concert. Kaira fascinates him and makes him confident in himself when she becomes affectionate toward him. Have students divide up and assume an identity of one of these three girls. Have them write a letter to Armpit (something that Kaira actually does in the novel) discussing their true feelings about him. This activity will help students realize how one character is portrayed and perceived in different ways by others.
  • Imagery
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Imagery” 24 Sept. 2008.
    This lesson will help students focus on imagery in “Small Steps” and hopefully in literature in general. There are several points in the book where a very vivid is image painted. One is when Armpit takes his neighbor Ginny for a walk every afternoon. Point out to your students how vivid of an image this is: a small, sixty pound white girl with cerebral palsy walking with her arm in the arm of a large, black boy who is always sweating bullets. Have your students recognize that one thing that makes this image so memorable is the contrast in it between Armpit and Ginny. Have students come up with and then write a small paragraph about a hypothetical scene in the novel that really paints a picture of what is happening. For example, a student might write about the excitement and chaos of one of Kaira’s concert, making sure to describe the outfits, lights, dancers, and crowd.
  • Celebrity- Good or Bad?
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Celebrity- Good or Bad?” 18 Sept. 2008.
    3) I want students to have some sort of background to introduce them to the character of Kaira DeLeon. Have students draw upon their current knowledge of Hollywood and have a discussion about the downside of celebrity, particularly child and teenage celebrity. Then, have them read along to the lyrics of Waylon Jennings’s song, “The Dark Side of Fame” while listening to it. There is even a subtle reference in “Small Steps” to teenage exploitation as Kaira’s sleazy manager/step-father makes comments like, “Keep shaking that sexy booty!” For this activity, students will make a list of 5-7 of the perks of fame. After this is completed, students will look back at their list and write at least one way each of these perks can be turned into something negative. For example, a student might write that being famous brings lots of money, then write about problems associated with money such as people only wanting you for your money or about the messiness of dividing financial assets in the sad case of divorce. Students will then be assigned to write a letter trying to persuade a mother to not let her child get into show-business because of some listed and discussed. The letter should be about 8 sentences. This assignment will help students work on their argumentative techniques by addressing counter-arguments. For example, a student may write something like, “Although a child star may get to travel the world, they will be denied of normal childhood experiences.” This lesson will both demonstrate the danger of celebrity as well as help students write persuasively. **Note to Teachers: Lyrics for "The Dark Side of Fame" can be found by going to the following address:

The actual song will need to be bought from Itunes or provided from an alternate source.

  • Descriptive Vocabulary
    Noden, Harry. “Image Grammar.” Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context.
    Read aloud selected sentences from Chapter 16 as students read along. Comment on their nice description. Now, have students close their books. Put up very simple sentences on the overhead projector. The first one is:

“He breathed. The whole city was cool. In Texas, it was always really hot.”

Ask students to comment on this and see if they think this is a very interesting or descriptive sentence (they shouldn’t think so). Then, show them the original sentence:

	He took a deep breath of fresh ocean air.  It was like the whole city was air-conditioned.  There was also a freshness in the air that he didn’t get in Texas, where it seemed that the same hot and humid air stayed in one place all summer long, becoming more stale and stagnant by the minute.  

Do this activity a few more times with other sentences to have the students really see how much detail and descriptive vocabulary make a difference. Have students get into their set groups. Give them worksheets with very simple, non-descript sentences. An example might be:

    The girl was sad.  She was crying.  She wanted to go home.

	Have them work as classmates to revise these sentences to make them better anyway they see fit.  They can combine sentences, change vocabulary, and add detail.  An example of a possible revision of the last sentence would be:
	The girl was distraught.  Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, and she was desperate for home.

Have students share their sentences. Talk as a class about how much better the revised sentences are. Let them know that just like Louis Sachar uses these great details, they too can use strong details, particularly in their writing their personal narratives about either a very pleasant or a very unpleasant memory. Emphasize that it is much more interesting for the reader when the author is descriptive instead of just telling it simply. For next time, have students bring back their personal narratives with revisions. Instruct them to use more sensory detail and descriptive vocabulary to make their writing more interesting. Have them revise at least 5-7 sentences to make them better.

  • Goals!
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Goals!” 3 Oct. 2008.

Armpit clearly states his goals at the very beginning and the very end of the novel. They are as follows: 1) Graduate from high school 2) Attend 2 years of Austin Community College 3) Do well enough to transfer to the University of Texas 4) Don’t do anything stupid 5) Lose the name Armpit

As the students are now finished reading the book, have a class discussion about Armpit’s achievement, or lack of achievement, of these goals. (Hint-he hasn’t yet achieved any of these!) Point out that although he has yet to reach these specific goals, Armpit has grown up and improved throughout the course of the novel. Have your students brainstorm about a time they failed to reach a goal, but didn’t actually fail because they learned so much and grew. Then have then write a timed-writing mini-essay on it.

Small steps “Cause I don’t know where I’m going Small steps, I just take it day by day. Small steps Somehow, get myself together, Then maybe I’ll discover Who I am along the way

Talk about the implications these lines have for characters in the book, specifically Armpit, Kaira, and X-Ray. What small steps have they taken to change? How have they discovered who they are? Then, have your students write their own stanza or two either to express how they as students have changed and grown up in their own lives. Have a set time for students to share if they desire. Have students hand in their stanzas for participation points for the day.

  • Kaira and Armpit
    Wilkinson, Katherine. “Kaira and Armpit.” 4 Oct. 2008.
    Examine the ending (or not) of the relationship between Kaira and Armpit. Consider the closing lines about the two of them:

She didn’t say she would see him again, just if…Anyway, he couldn’t let his life revolve around Kaira DeLeon. Ask your students how they feel about this ending? Do they wish that Kaira and Armpit got to stay together in the end, or would that be too unrealistic and contrived? Have your students write an alternative ending describing what happens between the two of them. Maybe Armpit will profess his love to Kaira and promise to marry her when they are old enough, maybe he will be angry with her for leaving, or maybe he will end up with Tatiana after all.

  • Appositives!
    Noden, Harry. “Image Grammar.” Lessons to Share on Teaching Grammar in Context.
    Use the novel to discuss grammar concepts!! Take the following example from page 103:
	An officer grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back, spinning him around.

Discuss how these ideas grouped together in one sentence is a lot more effective than, say, the following:

The officer grabbed his arm. He twisted it behind his back. He spun him around.

It is a lot clearer, it flows, and it makes it more dramatic to have it structured the original way. Point out that the “spinning him around” is a participial phrase, and briefly discuss participial phrases, but don’t focus so much on terminology as on what using them can do for your writing. Then, have your students practice a sentence imitation activity. Have them write it with the structure of the original sentence, but with the subject of Armpit reacting to being assaulted by the police officer. An example might be:

	Armpit gasped and went numb, breaking out into a cold sweat.  

	Assign your students to go home and revise their personal narrative essays by combining some of their sentences using appositives.  Specify that they should include at least 3-4 appositives in their revision.