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"Where the Red Fern Grows": A Lesson on Love and Devotion

written by: Mildred Wilson • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 8/2/2012

Is unconditional love real? How can it be identified? These reading activities for Where the Red Fern Grows will inform, surprise and delight your students as to the various ways this emotion can reveal itself.

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    A Boy and his Dogs

    Where the Red Fern Grows is a heart-warming novel about a boy named Billy Colman who yearns for two coon hounds. Billy's father informs him that they can't afford the expense. Billy finds a magazine that has been discarded by some fishermen and learns that the cost of two registered redbone coon hound pups is twenty-five dollars each. He decides to earn the money on his own and buy them. After saving for two years, he finally has enough to buy the dogs. With the help of his grandfather, he orders the dogs. He names them Little Ann and Old Dan. From that point on, Billy and his dogs share some exciting adventures.

    Grade Level: Middle School (6-8)


    Students will be able to recognize acts of kindness in the actions of others.

    Students will be able to describe how an author can show mood and meaning through descriptive words.

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    Before Reading the Novel

    Before you have your students read the novel, discuss the fact that this is a narrative with detailed descriptions. Wilson Rawls lived during the Great Depression and Where the Red Fern Grows reflects his personal experiences growing up poor in the Ozark Mountain area in Oklahoma. Some of the terms and phrases pertinent for discussion include:

    • canebrakes
    • horehound candy
    • riffle
    • allotted land
    • whoop
    • redbone coon hound
    • red fern
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    While Reading the Novel

    Assign the following two activities while the novel is being read and discuss.

    Ask the students to keep a journal and record the acts of kindness that were shown in the novel. Have them pay particular attention to those acts that people did without being asked. For example, Billy's father couldn't afford to buy him two dogs, but he thought Billy would appreciate receiving some traps.

    The language is very descriptive in the novel. As the students read, have them record and later discuss what is meant by the following passages. Instruct them to record two more passages on their own for later discussion.

    Chapter Two - "young man peach tree switchings"

    Chapter Four - "a mile-eating trot"

    Chapter Four - "as the crow flies"

    Chapter Four - "the wind of a deer"

    Chapter Four - " the muscles of a country boy"

    Chapter Four - "a heart full of dog love"

    Chapter Five - "heart started acting like a drunk grasshopper"

    Chapter Seven - "I was almost to the river before the stinging stopped".

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    After Reading the Novel

    1. Direct your students to develop a character analysis of the main characters.

    2. Ask the students the following questions:

    • What does the novel tell you about the values of Billy Colman and his family?
    • How would you rate the manner in which Billy was disciplined? Is it similar to your own experiences or was it surprising?
    • Based on what you read about Billy Colman's mother at the beginning of the novel, what surprised you about her throughout the novel?
    • Compare and contrast Billy's feelings about his hounds when he fought the boys in town because they pulled one of the pup's ears and then later in the story. For example, what do you think it meant when he said, "I hadn't worked two long hard years for my pups to have some freckle-faced punk pull their ears"? Do you think it was real love or do you feel he was fighting to protect his property?
    • How did Billy's treatment of raccoons reveal the complex ways that people feel about animals? For example, what was his conflict when he treed the ghost raccoon?
    • Why did Billy's father have a conflict of feelings when Billy caught his first raccoon? Did this reflect some sort of honor code among hunters?
    • Why did Billy's grandfather seem to have such a vested interest in Billy's hounds? Do you think that enthusiasm was the reason he felt so bad when Rubin died?
    • Was there anything special about Billy's dogs as compared to the other dog breeds that came to the championship match; blue ticks, walkers and blood hounds. (This is in conjunction with the extension activity below.)
    • At the end of the novel, Billy's family was able to move to town because of the money he and his hounds had earned. Do you think this is a unique act of love when a child does that? Because of the poverty of the family, was it expected that he would share?
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    Extension Activities

    1. Divide the students into four groups and have them go online and research the cost of registered redbone coon hounds, blue tick hounds, walkers, and blood hounds. Have them reflect on any job they've had or currently have and then determine how long it would take them to save up for the hounds.

    2. Get the video of Where the Red Fern Grows from the school library and compare it with the novel. If this is not possible, consider renting the video from the video store or Netflix. (Also, videos as low as twenty-five cents are available at Hot Movie Sale's website.)

    Given the values that are being studied, invite parents to view the video and listen to the discussion afterward. As a treat, get some horehound candy. This can be ordered online at O'Ryan's Village. Also, you might consider buying large bags of popcorn and serving it in coffee filters. I have found that this method is much cheaper than popping it. Large bags can be obtained from the dollar store, Walmart, or Sams. (Note: If your school can get YouTube, there are short snippets of this video that your students might find useful.)

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    Closing Comments

    Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls is an excellent example of how a family can love each other and work together. While one would necessarily question the mother's method of disciplining her son by today's standards, the author offset that practice by showing numerous acts of love and devotion that she showed her son.

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    Rawls, Wilson. Where the Red Fern Grows. Random House, Inc.: New York, 1996. ISBN: 0-440-41267-6

    The ideas suggested in this article were based on the author's experience as a teacher and substitute librarian.