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Jerry Spinelli

Theme: Challenging Prejudices
Grades: Grades 7-7

Maniac Magee, the title character of this novel, gains instant celebrity in the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania. Jeffrey Lionel Magee is a 12-year-old homeless wanderer who can move like no one else the town has ever seen. He earns the name "Maniac" with such feats as intercepting a football on a field of players twice his size, hitting an inside-the-park home run without a baseball, and winning a race by running backwards. As the legend of Maniac spreads, Jeffrey reluctantly takes on two challenges he can't outrun: the strong racial divisions in Two Mills and his need for a loving family. His unconventional actions weaken the town's barriers and he eventually finds the home he'd always needed.

  1. Challenging Assumptions.
    Ask students to remember a time when they heard about a person before actually meeting him or her. Perhaps students heard about a teacher, a new student, or a faraway relative. Suggest that students make a two-column chart in their notebooks. In the first column, have them brainstorm a list of things that they had heard were true about the person. In the second column, have them write their impressions of the person after they actually met. In small groups, students should share their charts and discuss whether what they had heard about a person affected their ability to get to know the person on his or her own terms.
  1. Linking to Today: Racial Prejudice.
    Explain to students that racism is a dominant theme in Maniac Magee. Ask students if they have ever been discriminated against in any way—on the basis of age, race, religion, or social class, for example. Then ask what they believe was at the root of the discrimination they experienced. Lead them to conclude that fear was probably the cause. If your class is not ready to discuss these difficult issues aloud, have them write about their experiences in their notebooks. Students may wish to share their experiences after they've had a chance to read the novel and discuss Maniac's experiences with prejudice.
  1. Telling the Tale.
    Divide the class into four groups and have each group discuss one of the novel's four sections. In preparation for an oral retelling of the story, ask students to think about the most important information the narrator shares and the conflicts that occur between the characters. Each group should choose a method for retelling its section of the novel. One group might present a skit, retelling the story through the invented dialogue of the characters; another group might share the events in a round-robin format.

  1. Talk! Talk! Talk!
    Stage a radio or TV talk show, with one student playing the role of Maniac Magee as the principal guest and another student playing the host. Other characters from the novel may make appearances on the show as well; the rest of the class may act as the studio audience or phone-in listeners. To prepare for the show, have students brainstorm a list of possible discussion topics based on the novel's dominant themes, such as how to get along with others, how to resolve conflicts nonviolently, or how to understand the pros and cons of different family structures.
  1. Illiteracy.
    Have students conduct research on the problem of illiteracy in your city or town. Have them try to discover how common the problem is and what's being done in your community to solve it. If possible, instruct them to conduct an interview with a literacy teacher or with an adult who is learning to read and write. Have them summarize their findings in a report.

  2. Living on the Streets: No Life at All.
    In this project, students will consider the problem of homelessness from different angles. They will learn about homeless populations in other countries and cultures and study homelessness during the Depression in this country. Students will compare what they learn with the information presented in Maniac Magee. Students will study available resources and conduct a fundraising campaign for a local homeless shelter.

    Suggested Procedure:

  • Divide students into small groups and have them conduct research on the problem of homelessness in other parts of the world, such as India, South America, or Central America. Have at least one group research the history of homelessness in the United States, focusing perhaps on the Great Depression. Groups should present their findings to the class in oral reports. Discuss the fact that homelessness is not a new problem, nor is it confined to individual neighborhoods, cities, or countries. Have students do research on the homeless in their communities. Have them try to uncover who is homeless, why, and what their lives are like. Ask students to consider why it's so difficult to accurately count how many homeless people there are.
  • Have students organize a fundraising campaign for the homeless in their community. Students can use the money they raise to support the efforts of a local homeless shelter or a related service organization. Have students work in small groups to brainstorm ways to raise money. Students can focus on a single event or plan a series of them over a period of time. Then have students form teams to do the necessary research and to make posters and flyers. At a fundraising event, students can take turns managing a general information table, sharing what they know about the area's homeless population. The shelter or service that students choose to support might co-sponsor an event by supplying their own information and mailing materials.