Tag Archives: Side-Yard Superhero

My Superheroes, My Outsiders

I really did hit SEND. (Note: Some details have been left out of this email for the sake of my students.)


Dear Ms. Hinton,

Last fall, my 7th and 8th grade students had the experience of a lifetime when Rick D. Niece, author of Side-Yard Superhero: Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher, visited our classroom and had a book discussion with us.

The day Mr. Niece visited was the very best day of my 19 years of teaching and probably the best day of my students’ lives as well, at least when it comes to school.

The positive influence Mr. Niece’s novel had on my class and myself is indescribable, although I have tried to capture it in my blog.


My 7th graders are just starting The Outsiders, and they’ve already asked the question I was expecting: “Can we meet S.E. Hinton too?!”

While Mr. Niece has local ties to this area, I felt it was only right of me to reach out to you, out of respect and love for my students. I have never been prouder of them than that day when they stood and recited one of Rick’s poems in unison. The moment brought tears to both our eyes and still makes my heart swell.

Not that I wouldn’t love to meet you in person…but I am requesting nothing more than an email or letter encouraging my class to continue to be the amazing “superheroes” they proved to be last fall.

They are, in their own way, “Outsiders” too. They have never had the special treatment they have been given this year, and I want to continue the magic just a little while longer.

The opportunity to read Side-Yard Superhero was a completely serendipitous moment that I almost passed up. But I said “Yes” to the book, and the rest is, well….just amazing.

I have taught The Outsiders for many years, and this year I already feel the anticipation and excitement building in my classroom. Should you be able to send us a letter, our address is:   XXXXXXXXXXX

With much respect,

Total Admiration

I have such admiration for the twenty-one students in my class.

~These students who quietly and apprehensively entered the room, followed my directions, and politely helped themselves to the pumpkin muffins I had made.

~These students who dressed up for this very special day and the students who talked non-stop about Rick D. Niece during homeroom that morning.

~The young man who entered the room and confidently went up to our guest, stuck out his hand for a firm handshake and said, “Hi Mr. Niece. My name is C. It’s nice to meet you.” I wish his mother could have seen how grown up he was at that moment.

~The boy who knew the answers to Rick’s questions, but was just too shy to answer. But finally, with some gentle coaxing, got the courage to raise his hand, clear his throat, and answer in a complete sentence. I am so glad he could leave class that day with no regrets.

~The star-struck girls who raised their hands for every question, who knew every little detail, and remembered things I didn’t even remember.

~The 13 and 14-year old boys with nervous, cracking voices, who showed the maturity and compassion I always knew was deep down inside. They were not afraid to ask questions and share their feelings.

~Those boys who were too shy to speak, but were respectful listeners, and still had a one-on-one conversation with Rick during the book signing.

~The very bravest ones who confidently stood and read one of Rick’s poems out loud to him.

~These students, many who struggle with reading, who stood and read a poem called “Small Towns” in unison and brought tears to my eyes.

I have such admiration for this man, Mr. Rick D. Niece, who let my students call him “Rick” or “Rickie, my boy!”

~ The man who met my students at their level, but never talked down to them.

~ The man who answered every question – even “What’s your favorite color?”

~ The man whose favorite color on this particular day was green.

~ The man who quickly learned their names and praised them for their questions and thoughts.

~The man who spoke personally with each student as he autographed each book and took pictures.

~The man who asked my spunky girl, “What do you want to do with your life?” (Does he know how important that made her feel?)

~The man who spent a few extra minutes with the little girl who had lost her book, but finally found it in time for an autograph.

~The man who fought back tears when my students read his poem “Small Towns” in unison.

~The man who told my class, “You guys couldn’t give me a better gift.”

Taking in every bit of advice from "that man" after our amazing class discussion.

Taking in every bit of advice from Rick D. Niece – as an author, teacher, and friend.

Star Struck

I walk into the coffee shop a few minutes before six. I’ve already had one cup over my limit of coffee today.

So, I just say hello to the owner, and I ask the boy behind the counter for a glass of ice water.

I go to the back room of the coffee shop. I tell the man at the head of the table my name is Melanie.

He stands, motions, and invites me to take a seat next to an older woman.

I look around at the group as the book discussion begins….another older woman across from me, the school librarian, and a beautiful woman, who surely must be his wife.

My plan is to be anonymous – to simply attend a book discussion with adults and hear what the author has to say about being a writer and all, because everyone knows, that’s my dream.

I’ve never attended a book discussion before.

I like the anonymity and the fact that the seven people around the table are now connected by words on a page.

And then shortly into the discussion, his beautiful wife asks me, “Are you a student or are you……?” I sense that she is confused by my age or my presence. Or perhaps she caught my name when I walked in.

“I am a teacher,” I say.  “Actually, I’m the teacher of the class you’ll be visiting on Wednesday.”

In less than five seconds, I see the pieces come together and Rick Niece jumps from his seat and runs around the table with his arms open wide. “Melanie!!!”

I jump from my seat and run around to meet him halfway.

It’s like seeing an old friend and meeting a celebrity at the same time.

To say I am “star struck” may sound crazy, but right now that is all I can come up with.

The hour and half I spend listening to him read his favorite parts of the book – so many of them my very favorite parts as well – is like story time for a little kid.

He reads parts that I have memorized, and I say the words along with him in my head, and I feel the meaning of the words even more than before.

As I drive home in the dark with so many things left on tonight’s To Do list, I can’t stop smiling.

I can’t stop thinking about how this book has touched me and how it has touched my students in ways they don’t even know yet.




Tomorrow’s Tomorrow

“You know what, Ms. K?”

the Little girl half-whispers

as she turns around in her seat,

instead of facing front

listening to her social studies teacher.

“Tomorrow’s tomorrow is the day we meet Rick D. Niece!”




Discussion Etiquette 101

Students arrived to class on Friday with instructions to get in groups and open a google doc I had shared with the entire class.

With your group answer the following question:

What things should we do to prepare for Rick Niece’s visit?

We were continuing to prepare for Rick Niece’s visit and focus on the learning targets:

  1. I can prepare for and plan for a class discussion.  I can follow agreed-upon rules for class discussions.  I can ask questions to respond to others.
  2. I can use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  3. I can adapt my speech to a variety of tasks and contexts. I can demonstrate a command of formal English when appropriate.

I know this looks like a lot to read, but again, I was so pleased with their responses, I just had to share. These are the 7th grade responses:

What we should prepare for Rick Niece is to look nice, BE RESPECTFUL TO RICK NIECE!!!!!, be really quiet when Rick Niece is talking, raise your hand when he asks you a question, when Rick Niece ask you something you have to say your answer loud and clear. Smile when Rick Niece comes in the room. Do not shout to Rick Niece because that is disrespectful to Rick Niece. Do not be goofing off at the table or around Rick Niece. I think put the tables to the sides and have 2 tables in the middle and have some kids that fool around to sit with a responsible student.

Be polite, be calm when he gets here so it looks like we are a nice class, ask him the questions that we have made up for him, take pictures if he says we can, when we talk about the book talk loudly and clearly… but not too loud, when Rick Niece gets here we be nice and calm.. don’t freak out, if we are allowed to make treats… can we make pumpkin cookies?! It has to be something to represent the book. I think we should put them at the back of the room and the chairs a certain way so it is still easy to get out.  

Look nice,respect the visitor, say nice things,be quiet when Rick Niece is talking, raise your hand when you want to talk, say hello to Rick Niece  when you see him in the hall or in the classroom.

Welcome Rick to our school, raise your hand when you ask a question, talk clear. I think that we should move the tables then  put the chairs in a circle.

Look nice, respect, raise your hand, don’t shout out loud.

Look nice when rick Niece comes. Raise raise your hand when he comes to visit us, clean the room up so it looks nice,write down question ahead of time that way you are ready to go. Respect the visitors like MR.NIECE . ALSO BE VERY VERY VERY RESPECTFUL TO MR.NIECEE. Put the tables in rows, or just take the chairs and put them up front that way everybody can see.

Look nice, Be nice,Welcome Rick to our school ,Be polite to Rick Niece, don’t talk when Mr.Rick is talking. Take pictures of Mr.Rick if he lets us. 


Here is what the 8th graders had to say:

We will have the chairs in rows,and something to drink.We should practice speaking to one another, we should dress up. Give him our respect and have appropriate language.

I think we should put the chairs in a circle so we all could talk and be able to hear each other and we should have some bottles of water and  we all should have are books with us so just in case he may want us to have them and we all have to be very polite and speak loudly and fluently so he could understand us and we can understand him.

I think  we should put the chairs in some type of circle and we can have Mr.Niece sit in the middle of us or beside one of us.,We can also maybe ask the questions that we discussed yesterday and act in a proper way and be kind to him and his wife if she is coming but mostly we should respect him and what he is saying when he is talking  and we should use all the goals we are trying to accomplish like using “eye contact “, “good posture”, and”using good pronunciation.”

We should move the tables and chairs in rows and we should talk about the book. we could also can talk about the characters in the book and see if he has any other book he has. We should also see if he is still in contact with some of the characters from the book.

I think we should have drinks and move the tables close together. We should talk with respect and even if it’s not a topic we don’t want to hear act like we’re listening. Take turns talking and not all talk at once. We shouldn’t be loud. We should stay focused.

We should move the tables to the outer edge of the room and put the chairs in a line.We should look at him when he is speaking.Ask him questions about the book and don’t talk about stuff that we shouldn’t be talking about in school.And we should act like we are in 8th grade.  

 I think we should have our chairs in like a circle so he could be in the middle.I think we should have water  .When we talk we should have all  eyes on him and you should use the right volume when you speak  to him.You should have right pronunciation . I will talk to him like a normal person.For some of us will be happy and excited but we should have control over ourselves .


Reflecting on these responses two days later, I am so proud and so impressed with my students and their anticipation.  Over and over, as I read through the responses, I can tell that they know the learning targets. I pray they will demonstrate them. I know they are going to be beyond excited Wednesday morning.

Preparation is Key

Last week we spent a lot of time talking about the discussion we will have with the author of our book when he comes to visit us. Haven’t heard about that YET??? Click here for more details.

For Wednesday’s Bell Ringer the directions on the SMART board said:

Rick Niece will be here in exactly one week.  Write down three appropriate questions you might ask him while he is here.

Of course, many students asked if they could write more than three.

Of course, I said yes.

With this visit, I have three particular learning targets:

  1. I can prepare for and plan for a class discussion.  I can follow agreed-upon rules for class discussions.  I can ask questions to respond to others.
  2. I can use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  3. I can adapt my speech to a variety of tasks and contexts. I can demonstrate a command of formal English when appropriate.

After they had time to write their questions, I collected them all, mixed them up, and randomly read them.  I had the students evaluate each question and determine if it would be a good question or not, and explain why.

Here is a sampling of the questions from my 7th graders:

Have you ever written any other books before?
Do you go see Bernie Jones a lot?
Do you have any kids?
Was Side-Yard SuperHero your first book?
How many states have you traveled to?
Is there a movie for this book…or do you think there will be someday?
Did you enjoy going to Ohio State University?
How long did it take you to write this book?
Did you read this book to Bernie Jones?
What year did you meet Bernie?

My 8th graders had similar questions:

Are you married? 
Do you miss Duke and Fern?
Why did they make the parking lot bigger for the box factory?
Do you ever miss your hometown?
Have you ever written any other books?
How did you feel when you said all your goodbyes on the paper route?
Have you ever been back to DeGraff?
How did you feel when Joyce broke up with you?
Do you have any kids? If so, have you ever told them about Bernie?
Do you inspire others to help people and be friends with them?
Did you want to take Bernie with you?
Do you wish you still lived in DeGraff?
Is Bernie still alive? If he is, do you still talk to him?
Can I get an autograph?
Did you become a teacher like Mr. Bethel told you to?
How did you remember all of these details?
Are you still in contact with people?
Have you visited with anyone from the book?

Many of the questions we could already answer based on our reading, which students were quick to point out.

Other students answered the questions themselves.  For example, when I read, “Did you become a teacher like Mr. Bethel told you to?”  One 7th grader said, “I already know he did. I googled him!” :::::::Insert heart swell:::::::

I am so glad we did this prior to the visit.  I feel like the preparation will be well worth it and we can easily fill the time with no awkward silence.

If not, we do have a back-up question.

One of my boys wrote, “What is your favorite color?”

The whole class sort of groaned, but one excited girl piped up,”Wait! Put it in the emergency pile….in case we run out of things to ask him!”


“This Will Never Get Old”

We are wrapping up the book Side-Yard Superhero this week, and my heart has been filled to the brim with love for both the book and for my students.

Tomorrow we will read Ch. 21, “A Promise Finally Kept,” and I know it will be a difficult read.

I’ve read the ending of this book at least a dozen times.

I am not exaggerating.

I don’t know how or why I would read the ending of a book this many times. There are only a handful of books I have even ever read twice.

There is just something so special in these pages.

Yesterday, one of my quiet 8th grade girls came to me and whispered, “I finished the book. It was soooooo good….and I cried.” 

Today, another of my 8th grade girls, a slightly feisty one, came to me right away, “I’m gonna cry when you read Ch. 21 to us. I’m just sayin’. I finished the whole book last night and my dad was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you crying? I told him he didn’t understand how good it was.'” 

No. Words.

Just a few days ago, during a class discussion, I heard her say, “I could totally write a book like this.  I’m gonna write an automythography, too.”

Today, as we read Ch. 20 and searched for evidence that supports the theme of friendship, the feisty girl smiled and shook her head, “This will never get old.”

I hope she will read the ending of this book over and over.

I hope she never forgets the lessons she has learned or what it feels like to truly connect with and appreciate a good book.


Coming Soon: Big Moment in a Small Classroom

Sorry to leave you all hanging about my big news.

I am still not sure if I want to post this now, or wait until Oct. 9th – which very well may be the day after the most exciting day of my teaching career.

Oh, where do I begin?

Let me set this up for you. As I posted here about a month ago, my class is reading the book Side-Yard Superhero: Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher by Rick Niece.

Back in the second week of school, when we were just three chapters into the book, I received an email from a coworker involved in the One Book, One Community program in our county.

Two days later, I stood on my drive-way on a blazing hot Friday afternoon, August 29th, to be exact.  I was so nervous and so excited, but also determined.

I paced back and forth on the hot pavement. I took some deep breaths. I cleared my throat half a dozen times. I practiced what I had rehearsed I was going to say.

And then I dialed the number.

With some luck, I gained a much-needed moment to gain my composure when his wife answered, and then she promptly got Mr. Niece on the phone.

Mr. Rick Niece, the author of the book my students are reading…..On. The. Phone.

With. Me.

There I was, standing on my drive-way on a blazing hot Friday afternoon, August 29th, to be exact, and I had a conversation with Rick Niece.

I have replayed the conversation in my mind a million times and I cannot explain all of the feelings I was feeling as he asked me questions about my class and my teaching career. He applauded me for 19 years as a special education teacher.

He asked me if I liked to write, and he shared that he preferred writing what he knew over fiction, and I told him how fiction simply eludes me. He told me about his career in education and his background with special education programs at the university level.

He told me he typically spoke with creative writing classes, but before we hung up, we had a plan in place.

Mr. Niece will be coming to visit MY students in MY classroom.

True. Story.

My Resource Room students, who are unable to read at grade level, who do not like to read…..are going to meet not only the author of this book, but a CHARACTER from this book.

Coined an “automythography,” the book is the story of Rickie’s life growing up in a small town and the friendship he had with one special boy.

My students are going to meet a man who knew every single one of the characters in this book. He knew them, he talked to them, he helped them, and he learned from them.

These “characters,” who made such an impact on his life, are now part of our daily lives.

My students may ask about shy Miss Lizzie Moore, her pumpkin bread, and the unopened letters on her table.

My students may ask about eccentric Fern Burdette and faithful Duke.(I just know one of them will!)

My students may ask to hear the tale of Frank Tully eating all those hamburgers.

My students may ask about dear, old Mary Waite or firefly-a-phobic Danny Coonzy.

My students can ask all the questions they’ve been dying to ask about Bernie Jones.

Or maybe they’ll ask about one of the characters we haven’t even met yet. We are only on Ch. 15!

Since the day I shared the initial email with my class, this story and these characters have come to life.

And soon we will finish the book. I can only imagine how that might go.

Mr. Niece’s one request was that we finish the book before he came to visit; he felt it was important.

I said I would try my best. (You know I will!)

I am beyond excited for this unexpected and unprecedented event that is going to happen in the lives of 21 students I care a great deal about.

To be able to share this experience with them, to be able to remind them every single day that we have a goal to meet, that we must finish this book,  picture these scenes, connect with these characters, and prepare for a very special guest, it brings me so much joy.

To see them reading, to hear them making connections, to know they are anticipating….

October 8th will be a big moment in a small classroom, and as a teacher, an avid reader, and a wannabe writer, it will be a day I will never forget.

In the Rough Stages: “Side-Yard Superhero” Unit

This fall I will be participating in the One Book, One Community project in our county.  They have chosen the book Side-Yard Superhero: Life Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher by Rick Niece.

This is the first time I have been involved, and from what I’ve been told, there are really no rules….you do as much or as little as you would like.

I decided to use this book as my first novel for the year.   I read it last spring when my assistant principal first asked me to participate.  At first, I was dragging my feet. I just wasn’t sure. But by the end, (without giving anything away), I knew this would be a great book for my class.

So this summer I began to pull together resources for a unit.  And….there is NOTHING online.  Nothing. At. All.  So I was forced to make my own unit.  Click this link: Side-Yard Superhero UNIT plan for the entire unit.

What I am sharing here is a very rough draft; there are probably typos and incomplete parts (especially near the end), and this is all just a possible plan, as it may not go at all like I think it will.

However, I thought I would post what I do have done in case someone else out there is in the same position I was. Right now I feel like I am completely on my own with this.

And maybe….just maybe…someone out there will be willing to collaborate a little.

If that’s you, please leave a comment!!


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