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Six Fun Middle School Classroom Activities for "The Schwa Was Here"

By Peter Boysen

These are activities and ideas for students working on Neal Shusterman's novel, suitable for use with middle school readers. If you are teaching this popular book then take a look and grab some ideas.

Theme of Invisibility

One of the driving themes in The Schwa Was Here is how invisible some people feel. The "schwa" itself refers to a common, yet barely noticed vowel sound ("uh") that can hide inside just about every real vowel. It only appears in written form in phonetic spellings in dictionaries, sort of like an upside-down e: "∂".

This is a set of activities that will help your students explore the idea of feeling invisible. For some of your students, this may be the way they always feel, so be sensitive. For others, they may feel too visible. You will get a wide range of emotional responses from these activities.

1. Classroom Memory. Have each of your students number a sheet of paper corresponding to the number of students in the class. Then, have them write down as many names as they can. The only rule: no looking up and around! Give them a couple of minutes, and then have them only share the number they could come up with. Important: do NOT tell the students why they are doing this first, as you don't want people to feel singled out for not being remembered. Point out to the students, after they've counted the people they can remember, how little we actually notice about what's going on.

2. Sketching/Drawing Invisibility. A very common dream involves either being invisible, or being unable to see. You can either divide your class into small groups and give each a scroll of butcher paper, or have students do this individually. Have them draw their dreams. If this is in groups, have them find a way to combine their individual dreams into a mural.

3. Journaling. Have students write in their journals about a time when they felt invisible, or unnoticed. This could be physical invisibility, or emotional invisibility. You can turn some of the lights off in your class, or turn on some slow music to help students write more reflectively.

Theme of Facades

Crawley turns out to be a lot less mean than we would have guessed, based on his reputation. He hires Antsy's father to work in his restaurant, and he actively works to connect Antsy with Lexie. However, he is a recluse who is ruthless in his business dealings.

Antsy uses his sarcasm as a facade to hide his true personality behind. He is a warm, caring person, but he does not want to make himself vulnerable to those around him, so he uses sarcasm.

1. Personal Facades. Give each student a sheet of plain white or manila paper. Have each student draw the way he or she would like to look to other people on one side, and the way he or she actually sees himself or herself on the back. On a separate sheet of paper, have the students list the differences they observe -- both intentional and unintentional ones.

2. Literary Comparison/Contrast. Ask each student to think of another character that he or she has come across in other literature, in movies or on television who lives behind a facade like Crawley or Antsy. Have the student make a list of similarities and differences between the two characters in a Venn diagram, and then use the list to teach the use of text evidence in analysis.

3. Journaling. Have students write a journal article describing the facade that he or she uses most commonly. Why is this facade comfortable for the student? What would it take for the student to set the facade aside, at least sometimes?