Category Archives: Modeling

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

The Power of Wonder & Mentor Texts (a post inspired by Kwame Alexander)

Last week my 12-year-old son and I attended an event with Kwame Alexander at our local book store, Joseph-Beth Booksellers.

You have never heard someone read a book like Kwame Alexander reads a book. This man takes his time. He lets the words fill up the air. He chews on a pause, taking his time, stre-e-e-e-tching it out. He understands the power of pacing and performance.

I’ve seen Kwame perform before; he and his partner Randy Preston put on a show. Randy plays guitar beneath Kwame’s words, punctuating, pacing, elevating the performance. Sometimes they break into song, or rap, or they just riff.

Sharing this experience with my son was important. Reading Crossover broke him out of a reading rut a few years ago and he’s devoured so many of Alexander’s titles. I’m looking forward to sharing the graphic novel with my other children, who are big GN fans, and with the students I see, who I know will love it.

But what’s really staying with me about this experience is what I found while wandering around the bookstore. Tucked in a back corner, I stumbled across this collection of poems, Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets. Kwame Alexander, along with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, and illustrator by Ekua Holmes, have created a beautiful book and I can’t wait to share it. 

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I flipped through the collection and while I recognized many of the names —  Giovanni, Oliver, Hughes — I realized they weren’t the writers of the poems. Rather, they were the inspiration. The whole book is a celebration of poets, full of pieces written in the style of the poets themselves. I’d found a treasure trove of mentor texts!

For example, this one by Wentworth, “(Loving) The World and Everything In It”, inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “My work is loving the world …”

 

The collection is broken into three sections:

  1. Got Style: where the poets imitate the style of a famous poet.
  2. In Your Shoes: poets imitate the tone and voice of other poets.
  3. Thank You: poets pay homage to their favorite poets, “sharing with the world how awesome we feel about the poet and the poem.”

I love thinking about being in conversation with poets and their poems in these ways. Wouldn’t it be powerful to give kids the opportunity to find a poet that resonates with them, or to explore different poems (maybe in a gallery walk like the one talked about here in Teach Living Poets). Then to let them choose a path to enter into dialogue.

Share with us the way you have students talk back to their favorite poems. (And we hope you have the chance to see Kwame Alexander on his upcoming tour.)Screen Shot 2019-09-29 at 9.20.36 PM

 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She’s in the middle of having the honor of attending several amazing author events this fall: Angie Thomas and Kwame Alexander in September, and now Bryan Stevenson, Ruta Septys and Raina Tegelmeir in October. In her spare time she likes to ask her kids’ friends what they’re reading and making book suggestions to pretty much everyone. 

A Life Full of Revision

I saw one in early August this year, winging its way over our Fine Line Buckthorns, past our Red Maple tree, through our verdant yard. Transfixed, I hoped it would land on one of our scarlet day lilies just like the first time I beheld one (back when I held Ingrid and held Jonas’ hand). But this Tiger Swallowtail–golden-winged and delicate–floated away, on its own journey of transformation. And while I once marveled at its beauty with my children, this year I marveled at the metamorphosis the butterfly endured in order to take flight. 

Even as that caterpillar egg (where, if you look closely, the caterpillar inside is visible) becomes a caterpillar; even as that caterpillar decimates leaves and sheds its skin several times to grow; even as that caterpillar forms a chrysalis and, as it begins its transformation, actually digests itself, using highly organized groups of cells to redirect its creation; even as there is seemingly destruction–something new emerges. And, after all this, the butterfly must hang upside down to allow its wings to harden before it takes flight. A butterfly in its colorful splendor is the culmination of a life full of revision.

Maya Angelou once noted that “We delight in the beauty of the of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” She’s right, of course. We reduce the complexity of the transformation in the same ways many of our students reduce the complexity of revision in writing. The beautiful butterfly doesn’t exist without significant change just as beautiful writing doesn’t suddenly and artfully emerge. So many of our students need to learn that once an idea is born into the world, this idea can and will transform–many times!–given the right conditions. This learning can transform the possibilities they see for themselves as writers, possibilities often limited by the misconception that some people are good writers while others are not. 

So, what do we do as teachers? How do we provide the right conditions, the ones that nurture (to help grow, develop, or succeed) destruction that leads to transformation? And, how can we help them look inside their work to see the special parts that hold the potential for splendor?

  1. The pitch: Have students pitch their ideas for writing projects to one another (Liz Prather’s Project Based Writing is an excellent resource for this). This lets ideas live, born into the world by sharing with peers, providing time and space for growth and development. And, sometimes, necessary destruction. 
  2. Feedback: Share this video with students about the nature of offering and receiving feedback. This may transform their understanding of the power of their responses to one another. 
  3. Modeling and practicing revision: Consistent practice in small ways in notebooks allows students to internalize the ways to direct their revision. Ask them to add, delete, rearrange, or substitute in their writing. Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle speak to the importance of this, especially with writing that is generative. More importantly, as teachers, we can and should model this, making it visible how and why we transform our writing. 
  4. Showing: Use the work of other students, snagging Google History screenshots to make visible the kinds of revision that occurs. Discuss these together. Show them our own, too. This is like looking inside the chrysalis! Whoa!
  5. Conferring: The questions we ask and the micro lessons we offer during this time can both trigger transformation and call attention to the parts already bright with meaning. Celebrating with students where a move works may prove a catalyst for more revision. 
  6. Destruction: Encourage students to print drafts and cut them apart. All the parts may be there, but they may need to be rearranged or to be developed further. 
  7. Letting students create their own analogy: Engage students in creating their own analogies about revision. They create meaning while we glimpse their thinking.
  8. Managing their creative process: This video from Tiffany Shlain helps writers think about their own processes. One of the most important aspects it focuses on is time. Writers need time to hang upside down with their ideas before they take flight. 

Of course, the limitation of comparing the nature of revision to metamorphosis is that it likens writing to a cycle. But writing is and must be recursive for our writers to successfully transform their writing. When our writers embrace this, then we can stand back with wonder and appreciation and watch them take flight.

Kristin Jeschke is an Instructional Coach for Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa (where she spent time prior as an English teacher). She’s standing back, watching her colleagues write in their writer’s notebooks, wondering about the potential in each. What ideas will take flight? Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

Becoming a Writer — Guest Post by Austin Darrow

On a late summer night, as the new school year looms on the horizon, my wife and I re-watch Heath Ledger’s comedic masterpiece A Knight’s Tale for the umpteenth time. As Ledger’s character William makes the decision to bravely follow his true calling and stand as a knight, knowing he will be arrested, Roland proclaims the old adage, “Well boys, all good things must come to an end.”

As all teachers oft do, I took this as a metaphor. It’s time for summer to come to an end, to don my armor, pursue my calling, boldly face the new year. In response, my wife said to stop being so melodramatic and watch the movie.

With her reminder, I did put an end to these flairs. Sure, summer–with its days of sleeping in, its weeks to simply and blissfully read for hours, catch up with old friends, its endless possibilities–would have to make way for something more structured. But I also felt a change this time around. The nervousness, the butterflies, the back-to-school nightmares (mostly) gave way to a new feeling: excitement. This would be a great year.

You see, last year, my second year in this profession, was a furnace for me.

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The Image by zephylwer0 from Pixabay

Conditions were just right: the heat was cranked up by my peer Charles Moore, who constantly challenged me to grow through conversations, mentor text wars, an anchor chart “hall of fame”, and an endless pursuit of authenticity in our shared love of teaching literacy; a mold was given to me by my mentor, Helen Becker, who showed me concrete strategies to make these things work while always reminding me to read, write, and cut out all the extra “stuff” that could allow impurities to ruin my work; Megan Thompson was the hand that guided the hammer, refining the techniques I tried, inviting me into her classroom and her thoughts, and modeling an unconditional love for students that requires a strong will; lastly, the students were the anvil, always giving me a sturdy base on which I could hone my edges and continue growing and shaping.

Without “further gilding the lily” as Chaucer would say in A Knight’s Tale, I learned and grew so much in this forge through the strong students, mentors, peers, colleagues, and I daresay friends that were willing to walk the walk with me.

Our North star–our central focus–at the heart of this growth was always learning how to make the literacy experiences for our students more authentic.

As I continue to reflect on these experiences, I realize that our greatest growth was in writing instruction. As our students walked in the door for the first time last year, we quickly realized many had gaps in their writing instruction. But perhaps a more alarming assessment was that most students, even those “proficient” by any state standards, had no love or purpose for writing.

And so our work began.

We tried many things–increasing the amount of formative data we would look at in team meetings to help guide our planning; shifting what and how we assessed and graded with rubrics and scales that would be more authentic; changing the pacing and length of our mini-lessons to get out of the way of these young writers; and so much more. Each of our adjustments were tried, refined, and often ditched and replaced, and I believe that each warrants further reflection. But one adjustment stood above the rest: when we as teachers became writers too.

In Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This, he proclaims: “Of all the strategies I have learned over the years, there is one that stands far above the rest when it comes to improving my students’ writing: the teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class” (15).

Nearly all teachers of writing have heard something along these lines at some point in their career. Many have been brave and vulnerable enough to try it.

But this past year, I learned that there is a difference between writing in front of your students and becoming a writer.

A writer is a person who keeps journals and notebooks and endless Word documents, filled with ideas and drafts and revisions in a smorgasbord of conditions. A writer is an artist who pursues and experiments with their craft to get it just right. A writer is a dreamer filled with goals and purpose that can only be met through careful, meticulous, arduous effort.

With this working definition, I quickly realized that I was not a writer. Are you? I also questioned myself:  How could I authentically ask my students to become the writers that I have qualified here if I hadn’t become a writer yet myself? How could I expect them to give what I was not willing to give myself?

So I set out to become a writer. At first, I wrote the same essays and assignments that I tasked my students with. Then I said yes to sponsoring our school’s Poetry Corner and shared my own work at our weekly meetings. I wrote letters to family and friends, and love notes to my (at the time) fiancé. I wrote reviews of products I had purchased and services I had received, application letters to conferences I wished to attend, thank-you cards to wedding guests, and much more.

As I climbed each of these mountains of literacy, I shared my writing experiences with students. I wrote many of these pieces with them, inviting their feedback and giving mine in return. I became a writer and watched as my students became writers, too.

In a recent conversation with the aforementioned colleagues and friends, we created an anchor chart of reasons why everybody–students and teachers alike–benefit when the teacher becomes a writer:

  • Foresight to specific struggles students might have
  • Better understanding of what skills to teach in mini-lessons
  • Concrete conferring questions to ask student writers
  • Empathy for students struggling with the writing process
  • Equity in creating assessment scales and rubrics
  • Modeling vulnerability, struggle, and craft for the students
  • Modeling authenticity and purpose as a writer

I’m certain there is more to unpack here, but with these benefits alone, I am convinced: the most essential “tool” of writing instruction is when the teacher becomes a writer, too.

So as I glimpse into the year ahead, the usual back-to-school nerves have been replaced with sheer excitement. I am excited to step into the classroom, share my writing territories with students, and coach them as they create their own. I am excited to write alongside them, receive their feedback, and watch as they grow. I am excited for our next Poetry Corner meeting, where old students and new are so electrified by their literacy that they have to come and share. I have so much to learn still about writing instruction, and I am excited to step back into the furnace.

Austin Darrow has now begun his third year as a teacher and self-proclaimed literacy advocate. He teaches English I, AP Lit, and coaches the Academic Decathlon at Clear Creek High School. He is trying to grow and refine his voice of advocacy, so follow him on Twitter @darrowatcreek.

Summer Reading Recommendations : what to read and how to go public

As summer winds down and I am heading back to school, I am taking time to reflect on my own summer reading.

Summer is always busy: our family travels from our home in Nicaragua back to our home in Oregon to visit family and friends, and we don’t really have a “home base” throughout the summer. We are always so happy to spend this precious time with our loved ones, and we end up visiting late into the night quite often. This means I’m not reading as much before bedtime, and in the afternoons when I might normally be reading, I’m visiting and playing and participating in summer activities.

But just because I’m not reading on my regular schedule doesn’t mean I don’t value reading and books like I always do, and when my students return to school in a couple of weeks I want to be able to demonstrate to them that it’s important for me and for them to all have healthy reading habits.

I’ve written before about how important it is to be public with our students regarding our reading habits and values. I just don’t think it can be said enough — showing our students how much we value and appreciate reading is perhaps more important than telling them. But the questions is how… so I have come up with a few more ideas this summer about how to share with my new students in the fall.

  1. First of all, I will show them my own list of books I’ve read over the summer.IMG_5385IMG_5386I’ve kept track in the Notes app on my phone, and it’s super easy to keep track this way. I could have added how many pages were in each book, genre, authors, etc, but those are easy things to look up later, so I just included the titles in my own list.

I’ll share this list with my students, and then talk with them about the diversity of the list — books in verse, graphic novels, nonfiction, middle school level, young adult, etc. My reading life isn’t just about reading “on level” books; it’s about reading what I like, reading to learn, and reading for fun. I want to both model this and be explicit with my students about this fact.

  1. Secondly, I’ll share with my students that I’ve been public all summer long. I’ve shared many of my current reads on twitter and instagram, and while I don’t have a huge following on either of these platforms, I have gotten good feedback from others, and it feels good to have a conversation starter about books.
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A screenshot of one of my posts on Instagram this summer. Not only am I sharing what I’m reading, but I’m sharing that I read and it’s important to me. This leads to conversations that happen face to face!

 

 

My students can share their current reads in many ways – they don’t necessarily need social media, but they do need to see that a willingness to start a conversation about books and about reading is beneficial in creating a community of readers.

 

As an aside, I can heartily recommend all nine of the books pictured above. Actually, I can recommend all of the books on my list above — it was such a great summer of reading! 

  1. Thirdly, I’ll share with my students that while I wasn’t reading, I was often shopping for books for our classroom library. I shopped our local thrift shop, the Goodwills in my area, the St. Vincent de Paul, and some other local new/used bookstores. I even found a few copies in some little free libraries around town. I found treasures without having to spend too much money. Most of my book purchases were fifty cents apiece, and I made it a rule not to go over three dollars a book unless it was something I had to have. Even then I only went over the three dollar mark about three times, and most of my books were under a dollar.

 

I purchased multiple copies of the same titles so I could organize book clubs and book partnership units and activities, and so some of my students can organically decide to read the same titles together. (I was so happy to find about ten copies of Seabiscuit, for example, and I didn’t pay more than two dollars per copy.)

I understand that it’s not feasible for every teacher to purchase books, but that’s not the point. The point is that I want my students to see that I value reading, books, and their access to books. As teachers, we can demonstrate that priority in countless ways. In fact, last year, I built my classroom library from scratch with no money out of pocket at all. I just needed to make sure that I could immediately put books into the hands of my students, and I’ll keep doing what I can to make that happen.

I wonder how other educators will model their values as they get to know their students this fall? Please share in the comments, as I know there are some really good ideas out there, and I oh-so-selfishly want to hear them!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

I’ve Been Thinking…About Heroes (Or What I’ve Learned from Eighth Graders This Year) Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

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Eighth Grade Theatre Troupe members rehearse a scene from Peter Pan

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?

TheaterIn  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.

Cancer

/kansər/

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…

 

The Outsiders DallasIn 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.

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