Every great story has a beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order.
We are all great stories…Phil Kaye
As the first days of June open like flowers, I’m thinking about the courage, complexity, and vulnerability of the eighth graders I taught this year…and all that I learned as we wrote together, and spent time on stage.
My students suffered. They experienced everything from abuse, to the death of a parent and coach, to Stage IV cancer. It was heartrending. And it was glorious, because they used tragedy to craft some of the most beautiful, honest writing I’ve ever read from middle school students, and their wounds gave them authenticity on stage, as many of them joined my theatre troupe.
What were our favorite mentor texts?
In writing workshop, my students’ favorite things to compose were Spoken Word poetry and film analysis. When I asked students what their favorite mentor text was at the end of the year, most of them chose “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior” by Taylor Mali.
In a poem that Mali says took him three years to write, he recounts what it was like to lose a seventh grade student to cancer, and also incorporates some of his best teaching memories.
Mali masterfully employs the metaphor of the Viking ship, their belief in Valhalla, and the importance of dying valiantly in battle.
Students selected a captivating line or image from the poem, and wrote from that. Not surprisingly, in a year when cancer was impacting so many of my students’ families, this poem resonated with them.
Following is an excerpt from a co-authored poem written by Trevan and Hayden, after listening to and writing beside the “Tony Steinberg” mentor text:
We’ve seen cancer take more than hair.
We’ve seen it take joy, peace, and life.
Cancer has stolen our coach’s joy,
and torn the heart of his son like a gift ripped away from a child.
A disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body sometimes causing death.
Cancer can be battled, beaten like a knight in shining armor overcoming an army.
We watched it advance…
In addition to being inspired by Spoken Word poets, particularly Taylor Mali and Phil Kaye, my students enjoyed the autonomy of writing about memorable characters when we studied book and film analysis. Our favorite mentor text for character study was “Katniss Everdeen is my Hero” by Sabaa Tahir, published in the New York Times.
In using this mentor text, students had the opportunity to borrow many excellent craft moves, such as the way that Tahir opened her commentary by explaining how she first “met” Katniss Everdeen.
Writing in front of my students, I imitated this craft move by sharing my first encounter with Dallas Winston, the toughest member of Pony’s gang, in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.
Dallas Winston and I met on a summer’s day in 2002.
Countless colleagues had urged me to read The Outsiders, yet for some reason the book and I had never crossed paths. At the time, I wondered how a story written so many years ago could still resonate with teenagers. Days away from the birth of my first child, I decided to embrace stillness long enough to give the gold-dusted pages a try, reasoning that my advanced pregnancy made everything other than reading–from tying my shoes to my habit of swimming a mile every morning–a challenge.
Resting beneath the branches of an ancient pine tree in my front yard, with only a few persistent sparrows for company, I read the book in one afternoon, ignoring everything but the words on the pages as the characters’ lives entranced me as deeply as any magic spell.
Of all the characters in Pony’s gang, it was Dallas Winston who hooked me from his first appearance. Dallas is a character of contradictions, claiming a stone cold heart, yet lending his gun to two desperate boys and helping to shelter them in Windrixville. Scorning love, but ultimately dying for it. Dallas’ character stayed with me long after I read Pony’s last words about him. I wondered about the tough but broken hearted boy who died under a streetlight with an unloaded gun and Two Bit’s jet handled switchblade.. To some, he died a nameless hoodlum, but Pony knew the truth. Dallas died young, reckless, and gallant, a true gentleman in a blood soaked jacket who got what he wanted.
So I could write much more about the eighth grade heroes I taught this year. Like Dallas, they are gallant. They have broken hearts that are healing as they leave eighth grade and look forward to their high school chapters. They’ve reminded me that one is never too young to harness the healing power of the written word.
Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte.