“That version of the story–that version of my life without my husband in it–is a ghost I carry around with me. It’s always there, beneath the surface of my real life. I feel…so grateful that this big, messy, joyous life isn’t a ghost life, but mine…”
Kate Hope Day for The New York Times
If you’re like me, when the end of the school year arrives, you entertain the ghosts of what might have been. These lingering ghosts are questions like: What if I had spent more time conferencing with that student? What if I had found this mentor text a little sooner? What if I had done more mini-lessons about . . .
And the list goes on.
I learned a few lessons during this past year I hope will have a positive impact on EVERY facet of my readers’ and writers’ workshop for next year. My teacher’s soul already knew this, but I recognized more powerfully than ever before that the right mentor texts at the right time, combined with enough space to explore craft moves and to write about things that matter, makes all the difference.
My students love what I call food literature (thanks to @KarlaHilliard for this amazing idea!), a writing study we do after Christmas composed entirely of reflections about food. This takes the form of food narratives, poetry, listicles, or critical reviews.
We study mentor texts, and then students choose a direction based on the ideas they’ve developed in both handwritten and digital notebooks. After discussing many mentors, and highlighting craft observations, students list powerful descriptive words, make notes about the writer’s voice, and practice composing complex sentences based on passages in the mentor pieces.
I encouraged my students to consider food in the context of specific flavors and seasons.
Childhood and adolescence have unique tastes. December has a far different flavor than July. What we quickly noticed is that food literature is about so much more than what is on our plates. It’s about savoring cherished memories.
Another frame that worked well for food narrative that is also very effective for other kinds of autobiographical writing is an idea adapted from Penny Kittle that I call Then and Now:
Then I thought, but now I know. . .
When we write Then and Now snapshots, we admit that our understanding of everything from food, to sports, to relationships evolves as we age and learn how difficult it is to be a human being.
Three new mentor texts spoke powerfully to my students. One was “Carrying the Ghosts of Lives Unlived,” published in the Ties section of The New York Times, written by Kate Hope Day. While this piece is NOT about food, it is about how, in Day’s words, “There are hinge points in time when life could be one thing, or another.” My students applied this mentor to our food study, writing about different life seasons, and how sometimes seemingly small decisions have a BIG impact.
Another New York Times piece that was very helpful to us was “Christmas Fudge and Misremembered Snow Cream” by Rhiannon Giles. I composed a piece for my students based on this mentor about the flavors of my childhood. An excerpt is linked here. Students then wrote about their own life flavors, recipes, or memorable meals.
Finally, we studied “Ode to Cheese Fries” by Jose Olivarez. What I love is that my discerning, sensitive, wondering students used that poem to create beautiful reflections on some of their fears about adolescence and daily pressures assailing them. In his poem, “Pack of Ranch Sunflower Seeds,” Toby, one of my eighth grade authors, wrote:
What if I’m the small seed
With a big shell
Waiting in the bag
Pleading not to be eaten up
By the mouth
And my inner seed gets revealed
And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled
Maybe I should chew more bubble gum
The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here.
Our food study is a ghost that haunts me, because I hope that I can continue to make it more authentic. For now, though, I have to remember to be grateful for the time and the writing that was — and in the words of Mary Oliver, give thanks for my “one wild and precious life” and the students’ lives that intersect with mine every day.
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.