Connecting Give A Boy A Gun to the Common Core


               Give a Boy a Gun- Fictional tale that resonates with too much truth in today’s news


Governing Essential Social Issue Questions open to CCSS ELA/SS Argument and needed student owned CCSS conversations


 1.Is being bullied part of growing up we  all have to get through or should schools, society and peers take responsibility to address it before it ends in lethal consequences? 


2. Does access to guns inherently trigger school and teens to violence?


 3. Would stricter gun laws prevent or diminish the extent and deathly outcomes of school peer driven violence?


4. When schools erupt in student violence, are only the actual student perpetrators responsible or does responsibility lie with parents, counselors, administrators, community, gun laws, video games and teachers?


Aligning with ELA CCSS Common Core State Standards Literacy

Dr. Rose Cherie Reissman

Director of the Writing Institute

Ditmas IS 62, Brooklyn, NYC


CCSS Literacy Alignment Support

Summary/Key Issues:  (  CCSS ELA/Lit in History/SS Argument Task and Research Topics)

Give a Boy a Gun is the haunting story of what happens after two rather different from norm, Middletown High School students, Brendan and Gary, acquire guns and “pay back” peer football team and other students who have relentlessly and cruelly harassed them throughout high school.  Their revenge results in a crippling assault on one of their key jock harassers and the boys’ suicides.  This fictional tale of a high school where some lead athletes are treated more favorably than other students and have free reign to taunt students who are different, is filled with social and moral  issues that resonate in many students’ high school experiences.  Specifically:

  • How can a student who is intellectually, physically, temperamentally, emotionally or otherwise different from the popular lead high school peers, survive their taunts?

  • To what extent are already overburdened high school content educators, guidance counselors, deans, and administrators responsible for safeguarding and protecting those students who are harassed with words and physical threats?

  • How responsible are parents when their teens use weapons to commit adult crimes and wreak havoc?  Why should they be held responsible or why not?

  • To what does adolescent ongoing intense videogame serve as a trigger for dehumanizing actual gun or violent action, if a teen becomes addicted to such play?  How responsible are parents to stop this addiction?

  • Does the easy access to guns through purchase –legal or not- and their not being locked in households- serve to contribute to the deadly nature of various headline school tragedies?  If so what type of legislation needs to be enacted?  What arguments can be made against enacting such legislation?  Which arguments are more compelling?  Explain why or use research to justify the more compelling argument.

  • If teens commit suicide, whose responsibility is that other than teens themselves?  To what extent should parents, teachers, and community be held culpable for suicides?

  • If teens commit suicide because of onsite physical or emotional harassment, to what extent should their peer tormenters be held legally and morally responsible for their suicides?

  • When peers, friends and bystanders witness verbal or physical assaults on bullied peers, what actions must they take?  What actions should they not take?  Is tattling or reporting to school, family or police, “okay” action?  Why or why not?

  • If teens talk about planning violent actions or suicide, should peers only take action if they think these plans are credible or should they try to stop them themselves or report them to adult authorities whether credible or not. 


Strasser who wrote this work in 1999, includes a list at the back of his original edition tracking the various violent school incidents he read as research for this YA fiction.  He is very open and passionate about his purpose/agenda as a writer in crafting this haunting tale:  “guns in our society . . . like violence and sex in the media, . . . rob children of what we used to think of as childhood.”  As an author and as a citizen Strasser posits some ideas and strategies for dealing with the very real and broad spectrum of issues delineated in this story.  His governing purpose, one that is aligned to educating for citizenship and CCSS common law critical thinking, discussion  and argument  and argument is that student readers “examine . . . [their] own life, . . .own school, keep these issues in the forefront with open discussions and debate.” 


Strasser believes that teen readers as a generation “may someday have the power to make the changes that will save young lives.”  Keeping these “everything . . .about it is real” ongoing challenges in this ongoing time of real school tragic suicides and violence, Give a Boy a Gun sadly but meaningfully vivifies life issues as well as Common Core literacy goals.


CCSS ELA Craft and Style Connections


In addition to its issues, this Strasser work is rich in Craft and Style components that students can examine as part of their critical reading.  Strasser deliberately infuses this narrative with secondary news source quotations.  Many of them are at the bottom of his fictional narrative and students can discuss immediately the connections between these researched and dated news bytes and the fictional (or not so fictional) narrative of Brendan and Gary.  Strasser includes not only fictive quotes and interviews with a range of teen peers, adults, and neighbors, but also excerpts from the suicide notes left by the boys and actual chat dialogue with the key “outcast peers” using Chat names plus email exchanges.  Beyond this variety of documents and writing genres mirroring a reporter’s or detective’s compilation of evidence, it of course engages and supports the student readers in comprehension of text complexity, plus use of multiple document types to compile a report or research an issue.  Another craft layer to this of course, Denise Shipley, journalism student  as compiling interviews narrator, who is ostensibly “researching” this headline story that took place in her former high school.  In terms of sharing perspectives or points of view with the readers, while the story is ostensibly told from majority teen perspectives, enough of the interview subjects including the school principal, guidance counselor, neighbors, English teacher are adults, so students have sufficient evidence, including the factual adult news personalities quoted at the bottom of the pages to retell or recast the story from adult parent or authority perspectives.  Strasser deftly uses Denise’s “Postscript” to her story for a twist and also to further resonate his authorial message in this work.  Student readers and writers can argue for or against this “postscript” for their reflections.  Students can also react in terms of editorial commentary or reader’s reflections as peers of the key characters to Strasser’s “Final Thoughts.” 


Common Core ELA and Literacy in History/SS and Civic Education for Citizenship Connections

Todd Strasser’s initial 1999 “Author’s Note” –“the story you are about to read is a work of fiction.  Nothing—and everything- about it is true,” is as accurate if not more so today. Since the CCSS ELA and Literacy in SS and History mandate short research papers, the students at various points during their ongoing independent reading can go online or listen to broadcast news or investigate in detail one of the authentic secondary sources cited by Strasser.  They can explain in depth the connections he made to these sources at the time he wrote the narrative and consider how valid they are today.  Students can also “update “ these sources for upcoming editions of Give a Boy a Gun and make a case (CCSS Common Core Argument) and  for how  relevant this story is in the context of this year’s news stories of school violence and teen suicides.  Since  today’s school tragedies angst have crowded out tragedies past or student readers today have not researched contemporary events of the past 15 years, they can also research in depth particularly the death of six year old Kelly Rowland shot by a first grade classmate and some of the school shootings Strasser lists in the back.  In addition, in terms of students addressing CCSS ELA standards for comparative works with similar themes or digital versions, they can view the Bully documentary, read Jodi Piccoult’s 19 Minutes, Amanda Maciel’s Tease, Strasser’s If I Grow Up or visit some of the websites he lists.  These sites were compiled for the 2000 first edition of this work.   Students can compile an updated list of resources or create a blog or review online debates about the essential issues the book frames.  These investigations address secondary source research but also engage students as citizens in pondering the necessary challenges and approaches they at their schools and as teens need to effect positive societal change.


Not for Common Core ELA teachers only- Great for Collaboration with American History, Sociology, Urban Affairs and Law Studies /Juvenile Justice teachers as well in addressing Common Core Literacy in History and Social Studies


  Indeed American History and Law Studies teachers can use it in collaboration with ELA partners to focus on:  the 2nd Amendment, state hunting laws and gun permits, the NRA role, the extent to which videogames should be censored and banned, school guidance use of suicide hotlines, school violence incidents reporting, student school rights to safe environment, diversity training in the light of rigorous academic Common Core and testing standards, social and emotional learning, discriminatory school behavior codes, implicit and explicit favoring/different standards for school “stars,” school law versus civic law, types of gun use historically, young gun culture, semiautomatic gun use, need for trigger locks, search and seizure school law cases and the availability of military assault rifles for citizens. Students can also research the various anti gun and pro gun advocacy groups.  They can stage mock and real debates using their research and commenting online or create their own podcasts including panels of adults, educators and peers discussing the issues.  They can also engage local police liaison youth officers and school safety officers plus local school boards in examining the applicable authentic connections the issues addressed in this work have within their own school and peer youth community.  


Making Connections to the Real World of Careers and to other texts/informational literature


 Strasser’s craft design for the style of this piece was to weave together quotes Denise Shipley gets from the various adults and teens she interviews.  Students can easily focus on either the adult educators- particularly the principal, guidance counselor, English and Biology teachers and share them with their actual school staff members.  They can find out how school law and staff responsibilities and protocol play out in their school setting.  They can also write to or interview online community reporters who cover neighborhood schools or local crime beat and find out how in reality they would cover such events.  Through this primary source investigation which will also enhance students’ CCSS Speaking and Listening Common Core Skills, they can investigate actual adult careers and jobs, plus identify potential ways they can begin as interns to contribute to society and perhaps identify immediately doable volunteer and community service opportunities.


The veteran English teacher alignment below and suggested directions for projects/short research that address CCSS ELA standards are initial ones representative of a multiplicity of growing reading, writing, speaking and listening and language  opportunities. 


Pre-Reading discussion to focus students on the emotional and self defining personhood core issues of this work.  The teacher in preparing a few emotionally teen centered questions should examine the essential  social conversation issues questions (p1) and the moral and social issues relevant school specific questions (pp. 1 and 2).  In crafting no more than a few probing questions to have students reflect on and discuss in class BEFORE reading the Strasser work, the teacher should keep in mind the type of conversation that he or she is comfortable with in the classroom and the cultural/school community social/ethnic/diversity standards/climate.  This work is certainly about suicide and violence and these issues need to be discussed in its study.  Teachers also will recognize that many students may not be able to voice their responses to these questions during either the pre-discussion or the post discussion.  However, just having everyone in the class think about and listen to student responses to these questions sets the work for reading and serves Strasser’s purpose.  These are suggested student questions which teachers can adapt to suit their school population needs and culture.  Teachers can choose between three and four of these questions for a focus discussion.  Students should have an opportunity to revisit these after they have read the work.  Of course, there are no single correct answers for any of these given the perplexity of situations they present.


  • Have you ever been bullied at school or by peers?  How?  How did you respond?

  • Have you ever been a bully by verbally harassing others or excluding them from your group or actually physically harassed someone else?  Why did you do it?  How did you feel doing it?  How do you feel when you think about it now?

  • Did you “get away” with bullying or did those who bullied you get away with it?  If you were “caught” or they were “caught and punished,” did that stop them from bullying or stop you? Do bullies have a back story and want to be stopped or not?

  • Have you ever been a bystander to bullying?  When?  What did you do as you watched someone else be physically or verbally bullied?  Now that you look back, what should you have done?

  • Have you ever thought about suicide?  (You need not answer publically).  Have you had friends who have attempted suicide or done it or threatened it?  As a friend, what have you done when you heard someone threaten suicide or what would you do?

  • Is it okay to report bullying to school or adult authorities (parents, police, counselors)?  Does doing so demonstrate caring or does it signify betrayal of friendship?  What would you do if a friend or even an acquaintance threatened suicide or seemed to be preparing to try it?

  • If you could steal a gun or were able to purchase or acquire one not for hunting with family or friends but for gun play, would you jump at the opportunity?  Explain why or why not?

  • Do you ever feel “ready and able” to do violent deeds after playing violent videogames or watching movies?  Do you feel adults or teens who are into violent video games and movies are more likely to be violent to others?  Explain your answer.


During the Reading:

Questions to pose during reading so that students concentrate on facts and details and craft and style in the inherently rich and complex Strasser narrative which unfolds through Denise Shipley quotes from Brendan and Gary’s peers and community.



  • What does the title suggest about what Strasser sees as the cause of the tragedy?

  • While Strasser’s views are evident, are there other adult and peer perspectives on gun access offered in the narrative?  Jot down their ideas and list any factual secondary sources Strasser also includes. (CCSS Literacy in History and SS- citing sources and quotes).

  • Although Brendan and Gary are never interviewed since the story takes place as a result of their tragedy, how are their authentic voices included?  What device does Strasser use in terms of this inclusion? (Teacher note:  Strasser reveals bits of the suicide notes, not the entire notes immediately- in advanced classes teachers can focus on the subtlety of this craft format.

  • Among the peers- particularly the small group who were “friends” or hung out with Brendan and Gary, how do the reactions to what these two teens did experience and how they reacted to it, differ?   

  • Focus on the school guidance counselor, English teacher, Biology teacher and principal comments?  What do each of these key adult authorities have to stay?  Do their reactions or perspectives change over the course of the narrative as Denise interviews them

  • What information do Gary’s mother and their neighbors offer that provides insight into these teens back stories?  Does this information in some way explain or predict their actions at the dance?

  • Sam Flach is one of the key bullies in the story and Dustin Williams is both a football jock and a sometime confidant of Brendan’s.  Do they take responsibility for what happened or at least partial responsibility?  Review their interview comments and retell their side of the story.

  • As you read the narrative which of Brendan and Gary’s small circle of peers had access to advance knowledge of their suicides and violent plans?  What access and evidence did these peers have?  How did each of them “act” on the evidence or choose “not to act” on it?  Why did each of the peers make his or her choice?

  • Look at the comments of the adult staff at Middletown High, which of them had clear evidence of something very wrong going on in both Brendan’s and Gary’s personal lives?  What evidence did these school authority figures have and how did they act on it?  If they chose not to act, why did they not act?

  • Ultimately who were the heroes of this tragic story?  In what ways did their actions at least stem the tragedy that had already happened?  What personal qualities did the student heroes demonstrate that brought the hostage situation to a close?



Reader response and reflection:

If the story were told by Gary or Brendon, speaking from an Elsewhere afterworld, how would they comment on its development and outcome?Were Strasser to do a companion story or sequel, which character might be the most interesting to track or should it be set in Middletown High say two years after.What would such a story narrative arc be?Are changes going to be made in school and family protocol/law and in gun accessibility or not?

Had the peers reported to authorities- parents, principal, guidance, what Brendon and Gary were doing during and after school, could their lives have been saved and the tragedy averted?Why or why not?

Did Sam get what was”coming” to him and was Brendan somewhat “justified” in wreaking his revenge?

How can and do the teachers who saw Brendan’s writings and what happened to him live with and move forward from this tragedy?Should they be able to move forward?Would you if you were principal or superintendent have disciplined or fired any of the staff after this?

Students can and should revisit their initial responses to the pre reading questions and in some cases talk about them in the context of what happened to Brendon and Gary or at least listen to some peers talking about it.


Follow up research and narrative, digital production projects and school law/juvenile law research.These enrichmentprojects address the following standards:

Reading- Key Ideas and Details

Standard 1 –Cite textual evidence

Standard 2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text

Standard  3- Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story propel the action.

Standard 4- Determine the special or academic use of words in a certain context.

Standard 9 – Read or write comparative works on the same theme

Standard 10- Read a range of works over a spectrum of complexity



Standard 1- Develop arguments

Standard 2- Write explanatory narratives

Standard 3- Do research and write /display results


Speaking and Listening

1. Engage in collaborative small and whole group discussions and one on one interviews

1. At the end of the day, is the high school growing up experience supposed to include bullying and dealing with it by peers on their own or should school and family authorities step in to stop it?  Students can create a blog or a web site monitoring bullying incidents or a peer advisement site or collaborate with the school guidance staff and parent group.  They can use this topic for debate and research points of view in the press.   

2.  Go through the book for special domain language related to guns and list those terms.  Explain them with graphic illustrations and definitions attribute their sources.

3. If the NRA or someone who is a licensed gun user and uses the gun for hunting or protection of his/her property/family were to review this work, how would he or she respond?  Get evidence for responses from Gun advocacy sources.

4. See the Lee Hirsch documentary Bully (2011) or read 19 Minutes by Piccoult or Tease by Amanda Maciel (2014).  How do this digital work and the two print books compare and contrast with Strasser’s story?  Maciel’s book focuses on a female who is bullied into a successful suicide by her female peers.  Would this story play out differently if the key protagonists were Brenda and Garianna?  Why or why not?

5.  Were this work to be filmed, what playlist would fit each section, pick out the songs and explain how they would fit to a particular section.

6.  In this school athletes are not held to the full letter of the school behavior code and school law>  Are there students at your school, who you feel are not held fully responsible for following school law.  Look up the school behavior code and discuss this school’s actions with the dean and the principal of your school.  Should a star athlete or a star academic be allowed to be less responsible and held to lower behavior standards than the rest of the students if the school’s funding or standing in the community is based on a team or a number of college scholarships and admissions?  Why or why not?

7. Find evidence for and against the idea that video game use, if intense, can promote physical violence.

Based on your evidence , argue for or against that premise.

  •  Had stricter gun sale or acquisitions or trigger lock laws been in effect, would Brendan and Gary’s story have played out differently?  Explain why or why not?

  • If you had been “in” on what Brendan and Gary were thinking, emailing and chatting, what would you have done?  Explain what you would have done or not done and why.

  • Todd Strasser wants you the reader to advocate for gun sale and use legislation.  Did this story convince you of his argument or not.  Write a letter to your local newspaper or create a rap/poem advocating for or against gun control legislation.