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Art by Briana Arrington-Dengoue
Who Stole My Cactus Arm?

Oliver learns an important lesson from nature on telling the truth and making things right.

By Dusti Bowling | Art by Briana Arrington-Dengoue
From the October/November 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will identify how a character changes in this realistic story about a young boy who learns the importance of being truthful and protecting nature.

Lexile: 500L-600L, 600-700L
Guided Reading Level: N
DRA Level: 29
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Think and Read: How a Character Changes

As you read, think about how Oliver changes from the beginning of the story to the end.

I stand under the saguaro cactus in my yard with my neighbor Calvin. The cactus towers over us, at least five times our height. Its large curving arm reaches for the cloudless Arizona sky.

A recent storm had nearly caused the cactus arm to fall down. My parents wedged a wooden board under the saguaro’s arm to hold it up.

“Oliver,” Calvin says. “I bet five dollars you can’t make that arm fall off.” He’s always betting me like this. Last week he bet five dollars I couldn’t catch a tarantula hawk, a nasty wasp. I ended up with the most painful sting of my life. But that was still better than having to deal with Calvin making fun of me if I’d chickened out.

“I don’t know,” I say, kicking at the cactus lightly. “My parents are trying to save it.” Though I can’t really understand what the big deal is about a stupid cactus arm.

Calvin grins. “I’ll bet you 10 dollars.”

“Nah,” I say. “My parents might get mad.”

I stand under the saguaro cactus in my front yard with my next-door neighbor, Calvin. The cactus towers over us, at least five times our height. Its trunk-like body and large curving arms reach for the cloudless Arizona sky.

“Oliver,” Calvin says. “I bet five dollars you can’t make that arm fall off.” He’s always betting me like this. Last week he bet five dollars I couldn’t catch a tarantula hawk, which is a nasty wasp. I ended up with the most painful sting of my life. But that was still better than having to deal with Calvin making fun of me at school if I’d chickened out.

A wooden support beam is wedged under one of the saguaro’s arms. My parents put it there to hold the arm up after a tree branch fell on it, causing it to nearly break off. I push on the beam, but it’s pretty stuck. “I don’t know,” I say, kicking at it lightly. “My parents are trying to save it.”

Calvin narrows his eyes and grins. “I’ll bet you 10 dollars.”

I’m tempted. I could put the money toward the new video game I’ve been wanting—Animal Crossing. But it’s still a bad idea. “Nah,” I say. “My parents might get mad.”

Calvin rolls his eyes. “You’re such a chicken.”

Here he goes again with his taunting. Why did that guy have to live next door to me?

I lean on the beam a little. “I don’t think so,” I say, but I’m sure Calvin senses he’s wearing me down.

“Fine,” he says. “Fifteen dollars. That’s all the money I have.”

Whoa. He’s never bet me that much before. Fifteen dollars would definitely be enough to buy Animal Crossing, and maybe Calvin would finally leave me alone once and for all.

Calvin rolls his eyes. “You’re such a chicken.”

I lean on the board a little. “I don’t think so,” I say, but I’m sure Calvin senses he’s wearing me down.

“Fine,” he says. “Fifteen dollars. That’s all the money I have.”

Whoa. He’s never bet me that much before. Fifteen dollars would be enough to buy the video game I want. And maybe Calvin would finally leave me alone.

“Deal,” I say.

I glance back at my house to make sure no one’s watching and push the board as hard as I can. The beam clatters to the ground.

“Yes!” I shout. There won’t be any teasing tomorrow, and with all of Calvin’s money gone now, maybe not ever again.

I kick a little harder at the beam. It budges. I know I shouldn’t do it, but that arm is on its way out anyway. How long could it possibly hold on? “Deal,” I say.

I glance back at my house to make sure no one’s watching and kick at the beam as hard as I can. It moves about an inch. My toes sting, but I keep kicking it. The beam eventually clatters to the ground in a cloud of dust, forcing us to jump out of its way.

The saguaro arm sways and sags, but it doesn’t fall. Calvin pumps his fist. “You lose!”

“Not so fast,” I say, picking up a large rock. I chuck it at the arm. It bounces off, and the arm sways again. I start grabbing every rock I find and hurling them at the arm. It begins to tilt, finally twisting and tearing off at the joint, plummeting to the ground in another puff of dust.

“Yes!” I shout. There won’t be any teasing at school tomorrow, and with all of Calvin’s money gone, maybe not ever.

Calvin is pale despite the blazing heat. “I can’t believe it,” he mutters.

“What’s going on out here?” We whirl around and see Dad coming toward us. “Oh no,” he says. “That arm broke off.” He looks down at us suspiciously. “How’d that happen, Oliver?”

I shrug, my shoulders shaking a little. “I don’t know.”

“It was like this when we got here,” Calvin adds. We glance at each other nervously.

Dad shakes his head. “Bummer,” he says. “You know it takes a hundred years for a saguaro cactus to even grow an arm? What a loss.”

I blink at him in the bright sun. No, I hadn’t known that.

Dad shrugs. “Oh well. Nothing to be done about it now. Will you boys help me wrap it up and carry it to the Dumpster?”

We help Dad roll the arm up in an old piece of carpet and carry it across the yard. As we toss it into the Dumpster, Dad says, “Just think—a hundred years down the toilet.”

“Actually, down the Dumpster,” says Calvin, chuckling.

Dad smiles, but I don’t feel like smiling at all anymore. After Dad goes back into the house, Calvin grumbles, “I’ll bring you your money tomorrow.” Then he turns and leaves.

I watch him walk next door, the guilt already building in my chest over what I did to that cactus. And over how I’d lied to Dad.

Down the Dumpster

“What’s going on out here?” We spin around and see Dad coming toward us. “Oh no,” he says. “That arm broke off.” He looks at us suspiciously. “How’d that happen?”

I shrug, my shoulders shaking a little. “I don’t know.”

“It was like this when we got here,” Calvin adds. We glance at each other nervously.

Dad shakes his head. “Bummer,” he says. “You know it takes a hundred years for a saguaro cactus to even grow an arm?”

I blink at him in the bright sun. No, I hadn’t known that.

We help Dad roll the arm up in an old rug so we don’t get hurt by the thorns. Then we carry it across the yard. As we toss it into a Dumpster, Dad says, “Just think—a hundred years down the toilet.”

“Actually, down the Dumpster,” says Calvin, chuckling.

Dad smiles, but I don’t feel like smiling at all anymore. The guilt is already building in my chest over what I did to that cactus. And over how I’d lied to Dad.

I toss and turn in my bed that night, thinking about the cactus and Dad’s disappointed face.

A hundred years down the Dumpster.

A light flashes into my room, and several seconds later thunder booms. I start counting the seconds between the flashes and booms. There are fewer seconds every time. The storm is moving closer.

After another blinding burst of light, I count, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi—”

I stop. Did I hear something? It sounded like whispering.

The thundering boom comes, and I think I hear whispering again.

Poo’s old at Jack Hut’s farm.

Is that what it’s saying? That can’t be right. I don’t even know anyone named Jack Hut.

I strain to hear the words. It’s getting easier to make them out between the booms because the whispering is getting louder, just like the thunder. My heart nearly stops as I figure it out.

Who stole my cactus arm?

I pull the covers up to my trembling chin. Then I let out a big sigh of relief, the realization hitting me—it’s Calvin. He’s pranking me. It’s just like him to do something like this. What a sore loser.

I throw the covers back down and jump out of bed. Running to the window, I shout, “I know you’re out there, Calvin! I’m not letting you off the hook for the money!”

The whispering gets even louder.

Who stole my cactus arm?

Lightning flashes, revealing the yard outside my window. I run back to my bed, my heart leaping in my chest, the thunder rattling the window. I pull the covers up over my head.

Because I hadn’t seen Calvin outside. I hadn’t seen anyone at all.

Thunder, Lightning, and Whispers

I toss and turn in my bed that night, thinking about the cactus and Dad’s disappointed face. A hundred years down the Dumpster.

Thunder booms outside and lightning flashes into my room. A storm is rolling in. I stop. Did I hear something? It sounded like whispering.

Poo’s old at Jack Hut’s farm.

That can’t be right. I don’t even know anyone named Jack Hut.

I strain to hear the words. The whispering is getting louder. My heart nearly stops as I figure out the words.

Who stole my cactus arm?

I pull the covers up to my trembling chin. Then I let out a big sigh of relief. I realize it’s Calvin, trying to prank me. I throw the covers back down and jump out of bed. Running to the window, I shout, “I know you’re out there, Calvin! I’m not letting you off the hook for the money!”

Who stole my cactus arm?

Lightning flashes, revealing the yard. I run back to my bed, my heart leaping in my chest. I pull the covers up over my head.

Because I hadn’t seen Calvin outside anywhere. I hadn’t seen anyone at all.

Calvin hands me the 15 dollars as we walk to the bus stop the next morning. “Here,” he says begrudgingly, like it’s my fault he’s broke now, when he’s the one who forced me into the bet.

I take the money and wipe sweat from my forehead, the air already hot and humid from the storm. “Were you outside my window last night?” I ask.

“Why would I be outside your window? It was storming.”

I squint at him. “I heard you whispering.”

He smirks. “And what exactly was I whispering?”

“Who stole my cactus arm?”

He laughs. “That’s a good one. I think you’ve been reading too many scary stories.”

“I know it was you.”

“Dude, I was asleep in bed last night. I wouldn’t go out in a storm. I don’t want to get struck by lightning.”

But it had to be Calvin. Who else could it have been? A ghost? That’s silly. And it couldn’t have possibly been the actual . . . No, that’s ridiculous. It had to be a person. And that person was probably Calvin.

“Fine,” I grumble, though I still don’t totally believe him. Because I really don’t know what else it possibly could’ve been.

Another Stormy Night

Calvin hands me the 15 dollars as we walk to the bus stop the next morning. “Here,” he says reluctantly. I pocket the money. 

“Were you outside my window last night?” I ask. “I heard you whispering, ‘Who stole my cactus arm?’”

He laughs. “That’s a good one. I think you’ve been reading too many scary stories.”

“I know it was you.”

“Dude, I was asleep in bed last night. I wouldn’t go out in a storm.”

But it had to be Calvin. Who else could it have been? A ghost? That’s silly. And it couldn’t have possibly been the actual . . . No, that’s ridiculous. 

More storms roll in that night as I lie awake in bed. Then I hear the whispering again. Only it’s louder than last night. Much louder. And I realize it doesn’t sound like Calvin at all.

Who stole my cactus arm?

Burying my head under the pillow, I tremble. “Leave me alone!” 

Who stole my cactus arm?

“Go away!”

Who stole my cactus arm?

The fear overwhelms me, and I shout, “I’ll make it right! I promise!”

The whispering stops.

The next morning, I sit down at breakfast with my parents, my heart thumping. “I have something to tell you,” I say.

“What is it, honey?” Mom asks.

I swallow hard. “I knocked the cactus arm down. I’m sorry.”

Dad stares at me. “Why would you do that, Oliver?”

I explain the whole story about Calvin and the bet. “I’ll make it right,” I tell them. “I have to make it right.”

Mom puts her hand on mine and squeezes. “Thank you for telling us the truth.”

“And I think I know how you can make it right,” says Dad.

More storms roll in that night as I lie wide awake in bed. I pull the covers tightly around me. And then I hear the whispering again. Only it’s louder than last night. Much louder. And I realize it doesn’t sound like Calvin at all.

Who stole my cactus arm?

Burying my head under the pillow, I tremble. “Leave me alone!”

Who stole my cactus arm?

“Go away!”

Who stole my cactus arm?

The whispering is loud enough now that I’m sure it’s inside my room. “I’m sorry! It’s gone! The garbage truck already took it away!”

Who stole my cactus arm?

The fear overwhelms me and I start to cry, declaring, “I’ll make it right! I promise! I’ll make it right if you’ll just go away!”

And the whispering finally stops.

It’s Up to Us

On Saturday, Mom and Dad take me to visit Saguaro National Park. The park ranger tells us, “This desert is the only place in the whole world where the saguaro cactus grows. Some of these cactuses are hundreds of years old. It’s up to us to protect them.”

My hand shoots up, and the park ranger points to me.

“What can we do to help?” I ask.

Putting his arm around me, Dad smiles.

“We have to take care of the desert,” the park ranger says. “Pick up trash and be careful not to start fires. And you can always donate.”

I pull the 15 dollars out of my pocket and tell the park ranger, “I’d like to donate.”

That night, I’m able to fall asleep easily. The sky is clear and quiet. There are no more storms. No more guilt over what I did.

And no more whispers.

The next morning, I sit down at breakfast with my parents, my heart thumping. “I have something important to tell you,” I say.

They stop chewing their cereal and give me their full attention. “What is it, honey?” Mom asks.

I swallow hard. “I made the cactus arm fall down. I knocked it off. I’m sorry.”

Dad stares at me. “Why would you do that, Oliver?”

I explain the whole story about Calvin and the bet. Then I tell them, “I’ll make it right.” I take in a deep breath. “I have to make it right.”

Mom puts her hand on mine and squeezes. “Thank you for telling us the truth.”

“And I think I know how you can make it right,” says Dad.


It’s Saturday, so Mom and Dad take me to visit Saguaro National Park. On the tour, the park ranger tells us, “The Sonoran Desert is the only place in the whole world where the saguaro cactus grows. It can take 10 years for a saguaro to grow its first inch, and some of these cactuses are hundreds of years old. It’s up to us to protect them.”

Dad raises his hand and asks, “What’s the penalty for damaging a saguaro?” He looks down at me and raises an eyebrow.

“A person can be sentenced to up to 25 years in prison for cutting down a saguaro, even on their own property,” the park ranger says.

I gulp. Twenty-five years? My own hand shoots up and the park ranger points to me.

“What can we do to help?” I ask.

Putting his arm around me, Dad smiles.

“Glad you asked,” the park ranger says. “We have to take care of the desert. Pick up trash when you see it. Be careful not to start fires. And of course you can always donate.”

I reach down, pull the 15 dollars out of my pocket, and tell the park ranger, “I’d like to donate.”

That night, I’m able to fall asleep peacefully because the sky is clear and quiet. There are no more storms. No more guilt over what I did.

And no more whispers.

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Can't Miss Teaching Extras
Watch a Video About Peer Pressure

In this story, Oliver experiences peer pressure from Calvin. Your students will learn about peer pressure and how to deal with it from kids their own age in this fantastic three-minute video from CBC Kids.

Travel to Saguaro National Park

Take a trip to Saguaro National Park in this awesome three-minute video from National Geographic. Your students will see mesmerizing footage of the Saguaro cacti blooming, and meet many of the animals (including a species of hummingbird!) that inhabit the Sonoran Desert.

 

Fun Fact

After the saguaro cactus dies, its wood-like “ribs” can be used to build fences, roofs, furniture, and more! 

Visit the World of the Saguaro Cactus

Visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s interactive pages to meet the daytime life and the nighttime life around the saguaro cactus. Click on different figures in the scenes to learn more.

Learn About Deserts

Did you know that deserts cover more than one-quarter of Earth’s land surface? Show your students what makes these habitats so unique with these interactive pages from DK Find Out.

More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

Science: plants, desert conservation

Social-Emotional Learning: self-awareness (identifying emotions); responsible decision-making (identifying problems, solving problems, reflecting, ethical responsibility); relationship skills (communication, teamwork)

Key Skills

how a character changes, text features, vocabulary, main idea, character’s motivation, inference, compare and contrast, mood, supporting details, cause and effect, expressing an opinion, narrative writing

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. PREPARING TO READ

Preview Text Features (10 minutes)

  •  Ask students to look at pages 10-11. Direct their attention to the title, subtitle, and illustration. What are the boys doing in the illustration? Based on the illustration, how do you think Oliver, who is holding the cactus arm, feels? What  might Calvin be thinking or feeling?  Have students make a prediction about who or what might be asking the question in the title.
  • Then ask students to look at the illustration on page 13. Why might Oliver be so frightened? How does this illustration connect to the story title on pages 10-11? Ask students to predict why the question is repeated in this illustration. They can revisit their predictions after they read the story.

  • Direct students’ attention to the illustration on page 15. Explain that this part of the story takes place in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Point to Arizona on a map. What is Oliver doing in this illustration? Compare this illustration of Oliver with the one on page 13. How do you think Oliver gets the money he is donating?

  • Students can see pictures of saguaro cactuses and learn more about Saguaro National Park at this website.

Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  •  We have highlighted in bold six terms that may be challenging and defined them on the page. 
  • Preview these terms by projecting or distributing our Vocabulary Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) and completing it as a class. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow, where images help students with comprehension.

  • Highlighted terms: towers over, wedged, clatters, suspiciously, reluctantly, thumping

Set a Purpose for Reading (5 minutes)

  •  Call on volunteers to read aloud the Think and Read and Think and Write boxes. These prompts and the Skill Builders (available in your Resources tab) support the story’s featured skill, how a character changes.
  • Remind students to look for clues as they read that help them identify how Oliver changes from the beginning to the end of the story.

2. CLOSE READING

Reading and Unpacking the Text

  • First Read: Read the story as a class or have students follow along as they listen to the Editor Read-Aloud.

  • Have students identify story details and vocabulary they don’t understand. Use the Pause and Think Questions to check comprehension.

  • Second Read: Project, distribute, or assign the Close-Reading and Critical-Thinking Questions (available in your Resources tab). Discuss them as a class, rereading sentences or passages as necessary. (Alternatively, assign all or part of the Learning Journey Slideshow, which contains the questions—along with other activities from this lesson plan and a link to the story.)

  • Pair each student with a partner to discuss the Critical-Thinking Questions. Then ask pairs to share their answers with the class.

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes) 

  1. Read the first section. How does Oliver feel about the cactus arm that his parents are trying to save? (main idea) He doesn’t understand why saving the cactus arm is so important to them.
  2. Why does Oliver finally agree to Calvin’s bet? (character’s motivation) He can use the 15 dollars to buy a video game he wants. Also, taking the bet might make Calvin leave him alone and stop teasing him.
  3. Read “Down the Dumpster.” Why does Dad look at Oliver and Calvin suspiciously after he realizes the cactus arm has broken off? (inference) He suspects that Oliver and Calvin might be involved with what happened to the cactus. 
  4. How do Oliver and Calvin feel about what happened to the cactus? (compare and contrast) Oliver feels guilty about breaking off the cactus arm and lying to his father. Calvin doesn’t seem to be bothered by what happened. He even jokes about it to Oliver’s dad.
  5. Read “Thunder, Lightning, and Whispers.”  What is the mood or feeling in this part of the story? What details create this mood? (mood/supporting details) The mood is spooky. Thunder booms and lightning flashes into Oliver’s room at night. It begins to storm. He hears a strange whisper that asks, “Who stole my cactus arm?”
  6. Where do you think the whispering voice comes from? (inference) Answers will vary. Some students will say that the voice is Oliver’s guilty conscience. He feels guilty because the cactus arm broke off when he pushed the board holding it up. Oliver also feels guilty for lying to his dad about what happened. He knows that what he did was wrong. Other students will say that the voice comes from the cactus that Oliver harmed.
  7. Read “Another Stormy Night.” Why does the whispering stop in this part of the story? (how a character changes/inference) Oliver takes responsibility for his actions. He promises to do something to make up for what he did to the cactus.
  8. Read “It’s Up to Us.”  Why is Oliver able to fall asleep without any strange whispers or scary storms bothering him? (how a character changes/cause and effect) He donated the 15 dollars he won in his bet with Calvin to help care for the desert. He’s stopped feeling guilty for breaking off the cactus arm.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

  1. Why do you think it’s important for Oliver to make things right? (expressing an opinion) Answers may vary. Students may say that Oliver was wrong to break off the cactus arm to win his bet with Calvin. People have a responsibility to protect nature, not destroy it. By making things right, Oliver is admitting that what he did is wrong. He must do everything he can to correct his mistake.

  2.  How does Oliver’s plan for the money he won change from the beginning to the end of the story? Why does his plan change? (how a character changes) At the beginning of the story, Oliver wants to use the money to buy a video game. At the end of the story, he decides to donate it to the Saguaro National Park to help protect the desert. His plan changes because he realizes it was wrong to knock off the cactus arm, and he wants to make things right. He also realizes that it’s important to protect cactuses and the desert.

3. SKILL AND KNOWLEDGE BUILDING

Featured Skill: Problem and Solution

  • Distribute the How a Character Changes Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) and have students complete it in class or for homework.  

  • Ask students to write a response to the prompt in the Think and Write box. Remind them to use the pronoun I since the letter is written from Oliver’s point of view.

GREAT IDEAS FOR REMOTE LEARNING

  • Our new Learning Journey Slideshow is designed to make your life easier. Have students move through at their own pace or assign smaller chunks for different days. You can also customize the slideshow to your liking.
  • Have students listen to the Editor Read-Aloud. Or read the story aloud to the class or to a small group in a virtual classroom.

  • Schedule one-on-one video conferences with students and use the story as a springboard for discussion. You can discuss the close-reading questions, or open a conversation about why it’s important to protect nature.  Ask one of the critical-thinking questions as an informal assessment of reading comprehension.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Play the audio of the story as students follow along in their magazines. Ask them to underline details that describe how Oliver feels when he breaks the cactus arm; when he hears the whispering voice in his room; and when he visits Saguaro National Park. Remote-learning tip: When students read the article online in Presentation View, they can use the highlighter tool to mark the text. Have students share the details with the group. Help them use these details to write two sentences that explain how Oliver changes from the beginning to the end of the story.

For ELL Students

Read the story aloud while students follow along in their magazines. As you read, discuss any unfamiliar phrases and idioms (p. 10: “. . . I’d chickened out” and “You’re such a chicken”; p. 12: “Just think—a hundred years down the toilet”; p. 13: “my heart leaping in my chest”). Discuss what Oliver means when he tells his parents, “I’ll make it right . . . I have to make it right.”

For Advanced Readers

Ask students how Oliver and Calvin each felt about breaking the cactus arm in the beginning of the story. How do Oliver’s feelings change? Instruct students to write a scene that takes place a week after Oliver’s visit to Saguaro National Park. In this scene Oliver sees Calvin for the first time since Calvin gave him the 15 dollars. What do the boys say to each other? Students can share their scenes in pairs. Students can use either the on-level or the higher-level Storyworks version of the story for the first part of this activity.

For School or at Home

Ask students to make a shoebox diorama of the Saguaro National Park. Ask them to draw pictures of several saguaro cactuses, cut them out, and tape them to the desert floor of their diorama. They can also include cut-out figures of Oliver and his parents.