Tag Archives: writing

A Pirate’s Life…Or the Adventures of Billy Bones

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

To use a literary analogy, the end of the school year can feel like a fruitless search for Captain Flint’s treasure. We know that the gold is out there somewhere, and we may even have clues about how to find it–(Jim Hawkins has an invaluable map in Treasure Island), but even given these clues, the prize is elusive.

This year, I have a seventh grade class ending the year with a performance of Treasure Island, and it brings to mind a true story of an incorrigible boy who deepened my heart forever and reminds me daily that you’re never too small (or too young) to make an impact on the world. I’m dedicating our upcoming performances to him, and redoubling my efforts to love students well even though the final weeks of school may be fraught with exhaustion and littered with the disappointments of what might have been. Though I wrote this true story for my students this fall when I had known them only a few weeks, it resonates powerfully with me now as the shores of Treasure Island are on the horizon, and I hope it encourages you to press on in your remaining time with the students entrusted to you. I would also like to thank Shana Karnes for her 2018 post for Three Teachers Talk that has inspired me ever since to write about moments that matter.

Jim Hawkins pursued by Israel Hands

The twisting blade of beginnings…

The beginning of the school year is hard.  As the seasons spin from one to the next and the leaves change from green to gold, sometimes I see former students. They’re all around me–at cross country meets, listed in the Town Crier’s Bridal Registry, or driving past my house striving for some combination of a yell and a wave.

 I might see half a dozen of them in one day, and then go for weeks without hearing from any of them. I worry about them. I hear that he has a concussion-AGAIN, or she’s having a hard time adjusting to high school. We’re not together in this building anymore but I hear their voices, see their smiles, and feel the connection that comes from shared writing and theatrical adventures. I cry because I miss them, while at the same time I’m laughing over a joke I still remember being told and retold. Sometimes, their stories take turns that I wish I could rewrite…

MARNE, MI-A 21-year-old Unity Christian High School graduate and former Dordt College student died following a traffic accident in Tallmadge Township Saturday evening.  Evan Westrate suffered critical injuries when he was ejected from his Ford pick-up as it rolled into a ditch near a curve on Luce Street. 

This is not the Evan I remember: a smirking, self-assured prankster whose enthusiasm for life infected everyone. I directed him in Treasure Island at Lamont Christian School. His swagger and rollicking threats were so convincing as he roared his lines as Captain Billy Bones, that my children used to cower under tables in the library during rehearsals. 

I hadn’t seen Evan for years when his Ford F-150 tragically spun from the road on July 26th, but ironically, I had been back in Michigan just weeks before he died, remembering him and other students I taught in Coopersville. I miss them every day.

CAPTAIN BONES: Jim, too late! Come closer! That’s what they’re here for. To tip me the Black Spot. That means they’re going to kill me. Jim-you’re the only one worth anything to me. One day, I was going to take you to sea,to an unknown island for treasure. Here’s a map, Jim! You’ll be a rich man. Take it, boy!

Evan, his eyes alight like matches, smiled more readily than anyone I’ve ever known, an adventurer thrilled with every exploration of  life. He dreamed of farming and football, going on to play as a fullback at Unity Christian High School, and attend Dordt College to study agricultural business on a football scholarship.

Jordan Westrate, Evan’s older brother, spoke of his free spirit and tendency to embrace challenges. First and foremost, however, was Evan’s love for others. “I would describe him as not only my brother, but a brother to all. He inspired us to treasure life.”

MARNE, MI: Ottawa County deputies said the driver was taken to Spectrum Butterworth Hospital  after being thrown from his truck on Luce Street, about a quarter mile west of 8th Avenue on Saturday, July 26th, just before 10:00 p.m. He died shortly after arrival on the Butterworth campus.

Nearly all of his organs were donated to give life to others.

“Evan, you might want to tone it down a bit in this scene. I think everyone in the audience under the age of ten will run screaming for the exits if you don’t.” I am smiling as I say this, though striving valiantly to be serious with him for once.

His crooked grin mocks my attempts not to laugh. 

“Mrs. O., I’m supposed to be a wild, drunken cutthroat!” 

“I know.  And you’re completely in character.”

He won. Again. I love the way that he plays the scene and he knows it. His voice becomes the tiniest bit less intimidating to avoid the exodus toward the exits that I fear will  happen during our matinee. Every time Evan raises his eyebrows and growls Billy Bones’ challenge to Captain Flint and his crew, I fall under the spell of his mesmerizing talent and golden voice.

No one exited unexpectedly during the play, but the cast of Treasure Island got a standing ovation, and the loudest applause was for Evan Westrate, Captain Billy Bones.  

We rented Center Stage Theatre, a beautiful, state-of-the art auditorium for our shows. Saturday night, February 5th, 2006, the crew started striking the set right after curtain calls. 

Our silken backdrop for the lagoon was floating down, and I wasn’t ready for the clock to strike midnight, for the enchantment to break. 

I felt tears already-usually they waited until after the cast party. 

“Hey.” It’s Evan. “Hey, Mrs. O., let’s get a picture.” That grin. 

His mom, Jana, photographed us. For a moment, he elbowed my sadness away with his boundless warmth and our celebration of his accomplishments. When Jana gave me the photo a few days later, I noticed that Evan’s crooked grin was missing. I wondered if he was feeling the same sense of loss that left me fighting tears again as soon as his arm slipped from my shoulders, and the moment was gone.

MARNE, MI: Sergeant Christie Wendt said the Ford F150 was traveling west when the driver lost control on a curve and ran off the right side of the road before over-correcting and rolling the vehicle. The driver, who was not seat belted, was ejected in the middle of the road while his truck careened into a ditch after smashing some nearby mailboxes. Wendt indicated speed and alcohol are factors in the crash, which remains under investigation today.

CAPTAIN BONES: Come on, you rum-swilling, bandy-legged dogs! I’m the captain…and I’ll take ye down to the last man. Tell me who ye be, so I’ll know who I’m killing.

Max, as O’Brien, brandishes a dagger and leers menacingly at Evan. Amanda as Red Dog, Autumn as  Annie, Ashley as Bonnie, and Josh as Captain Flint, all tumble into the Admiral Benbow Inn, in search of the notorious Billy Bones. We’re seeking our Captain again, diminished by the loss of Evan’s smile, emptied by the absence of his passion for every moment. 

The beginning of the school year is hard–again.

Why?  Because I am caught between all of the joy and promises of a new year, and haunted by the Ghosts of What Might Have Been.  Who might Evan have become?  Are there things I could have said, words I could have written, that would have changed the way his life ended on this side of Heaven? I hope that I did everything I could to love him well. I hope he knew that he had a beautiful, old soul-even at the age of fourteen. 

And if I believe that, I have to embrace this moment–another day in writing workshop with students whose stories I am only beginning to know. Another day of being moved by the grit I see in incredible teenagers. Courage is a twisting blade of embracing fear and love together–and moving forward against any obstacle.

How did I use this story as a mentor text for my students when I originally wrote it for them this fall?

  1. It was a mentor for how to compose a tribute to a beloved person, season, etc.
  2. My students and I discussed the power of using multiple genres in a single piece to make our writing more sophisticated. In this case, I combined personal narrative with excerpts from police reports, and lines of dialogue from a script.
  3. Writing this piece also gave me occasion to remind students of the power of writing toward our passions. My writing allowed me to express what I learned from an unforgettable student, and it was also a window into my love for theatrical production and the vast array of emotions connected with the end of telling a story for an audience. Students were invited to write into what they love the most.
  4. This piece could also be used as a mentor for the importance of giving our writing meaningful titles-names are vital, and a study in using punctuation effectively to help communicate tone and mood.

Ending the year with poetry is also incredibly powerful. A few of our favorite poems that have recently invited us into meaningful writing are:

Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem by Matthew Olzmann, read for Ours Poetica by John Green

Alternative Names for Black Boys by Danez Smith, and

Small Kindnesses by Danusha Lameris, recently featured in The New York Times

As this school year draws to a close, what are the stories that you could immortalize by writing a tribute poem or a personal narrative? What are your favorite ways to end the year in writing workshop? Share your ideas in the comments, or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves writing poetry and plays with students. Her favorite stories include Peter Pan, West Side Story, Our Town and The Outsiders. She recently wrote adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

Something’s Coming: Inviting Student Writers Into the World of West Side Story

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Like director Steven Spielberg, I’ve loved West Side Story all my life. Impatiently, I waited for his new film  based on the 1957 Broadway musical with a screenplay written by the legendary Tony Kushner to come to theaters.

Spielberg’s first venture into directing a musical does not disappoint. 

Perhaps more relevant today than it was upon its initial release sixty years ago, West Side Story reminds us of how deep the divisions can be between unlike minded people, and that love can bridge any divide.  Leonard Bernstein’s score was and still is a masterpiece, and Spielberg was very intentional about casting all Latinx actors and actresses to play the Sharks. Gone is the dark makeup used on white actors in the 1961 film to make them appear Puerto Rican. Additionally, the new film incorporates Spanish dialogue without subtitles, in an effort to illustrate that English is not superior to other languages.

 The new West Side Story is an incredible visual text for writing workshop teachers, whether the goal is writing film analysis, or using the movie as an entry point for Romeo & Juliet. 

Recently, I invited my workshop students to view the film with me in class, with the following goals in mind:

  • Identify how the themes of bias, oppression and responsibility “play out” in West Side Story and later in Romeo & Juliet. Special thanks to Rebekah O’Dell for her insights on big picture thinking.
  • Consider these questions: Who is my neighbor? In a world that is rife with division, what is the appropriate way to treat people who see the world through a lens that differs from mine, or come from a different socio economic or ethnic background? 
  • Draw parallels between this visual text, The Outsiders, & Romeo & Juliet.
  • Write effectively in notebooks and on electronic platforms about theme, character, plot, etc.
  • Pose authentic questions.
  • Participate in large group discussions.

Getting Started & Keeping a Journal

As our entrance for West Side Story, I used this anticipation guide (though I call it an opinionnaire) to introduce students to thematic elements. Following our conversation in response to the opinionnaire, I shared these Google slides, inviting students to think further about the film’s origins and why it matters for us to study it today. Your students may not require that much visual “front loading,” but I have several students with unique learning needs, and having the visual texts definitely provided important background information and aided their comprehension going into the film viewing. When I revisit this study with future classes, I plan to add slides introducing specific characters for clarity.

So when did we start writing? Immediately! I gave each student one of these journals inviting them to think about different story elements daily, from 3D character traits (thank you to Susan Barber and Carlos Escobar for their brilliant ideas about looking at characters through varied lenses), to considering how music moves the narrative along, and finally to writing a thematic statement for the character that each student writer chose to “follow” throughout the film. I invited students to follow Tony, Maria, Riff, Bernardo or Anita, but you could also encourage students to follow secondary characters as there are many significant supporting players in West Side Story such as Chino and Valentina.

I loved the ongoing discussions we had about our writing, and the depth of students’ observations. Though some of them were initially skeptical about watching a musical, even the most reluctant eventually fell under the enchanting spell of the Bernstein score.

Summative Assessment Opportunities

David Alvarez (Bernardo) with some of the Sharks. All photo credits to Twentieth Century Studios.

Since we dedicated a significant portion of class time to viewing the film and it’s an invaluable doorway into Romeo and Juliet , and to reflecting on our own biases and what it means to love fiercely, I’ve offered my students two different ways to respond. The first, which we did last week, was to post questions for a large group discussion. Each student was invited to post questions connected to the following categories:

  • CHARACTER
  • MUSIC
  • THEME
  • PLOT
  • CONFLICT
  • TONE/MOOD

Students are familiar with writing a variety of question types since we’ve done Socratic seminars throughout the year, so writing their questions was in that sense, a review.

In addition to participating in the discussion through writing and speaking, students will be composing individual responses in which they take our large group conversation a step further by responding to a question that remains unanswered for them. Finally, students will share some concluding thoughts about their thematic thinking, and embracing characters as three dimensional beings (physical, emotional, and psychological).

I’m excited to see how this immersion in an iconic musical will enrich our study of parallel text Romeo and Juliet.

What are your favorite ways to use visual texts in your reading and writing workshops? How is music part of your craft? Share your thoughts in the comments, or find me on Twitter @oosterheerte.  

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, West Side Story, and Our Town. Recently, she finished writing adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

Listening Matters: Writing Profiles

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, contributing writer

Recently, the New York Times Learning Network offered teachers the opportunity to invite their students into a profile writing contest. The idea behind this was sheer genius: Find a captivating individual, interview the person, and spin those notes into gold: Write that person’s thoughts in the form of a CBS Sunday Morning sort of interview, take a photo of the person–and voila–a fantastic profile is born from an authentic conversation and active listening.

Sadly, I didn’t learn about the contest until after it was closed, but I loved the idea of asking my students to listen well to one another and then process it through writing. I began our profile study with a few visual mentor texts. First, we listened to a portion of Andrew Garfield’s very moving interview about the loss of his mother and acting as an art form with Stephen Colbert, linked here. I asked students to write down a few quick notes sharing what they noticed about the questions being asked AND the depth and integrity of Garfield’s responses. Secondly, we viewed a portion of this profile about Olympic pairs figure skating champion Katia Gordeeva. Though it doesn’t follow a Q&A format, it’s an excellent example of a profile of an athlete’s journey and resilience in the midst of tragedy.

Ekaterina Goordeva and Sergei Grinkov

Following our look at these mentor texts, we moved to written mentors from the New York Times. Several helpful Q&A mentors were posted on the Learning Network. My favorites were actually articles that I discovered on my own: This profile of James McAvoy that first captivated me because of the title referencing a purer form of storytelling, and theatrical performance as a sacrificial act, and this one about Mike Faist, who recently starred as Riff in Steven Spielberg’s brilliant reimagining of West Side Story. I loved using this mentor since my students will be viewing segments of the film when we discuss bias and oppression as part of our study of Romeo and Juliet.

Mike Faist as Riff in West Side Story

What did we notice about writing craft in these mentors?

  • We noted the Q&A format, and the open-ended nature of the questions that left ample room for creative replies, as well as the importance of asking follow up questions.
  • New York Times profiles are edited for length and clarity. Ours should be, too!
  • We agreed that excellent writers make choices about thoughtful doorways into writing, from physical descriptions of people and places, to interesting quotes.
  • We discussed the importance of ending well, but also noted that an effective conclusion when writing a profile doesn’t need to be lengthy, it simply needs to serve its purpose.
  • We had a conversation about playing with formatting to increase visual appeal and to make our questions stand out from the rest of our text.
  • We talked through the importance of naming compositions. I shared that I probably wouldn’t have read the piece about James McAvoy if the title hadn’t intrigued me.
  • Sentence variety is vital. We noted that the questions weren’t all worded the same way, and that there was also a considerable amount of variation in the way interviewees’ responses were recorded.
  • We discussed the importance of checking back with our interviewees during our drafting process to make sure that we represented them accurately.
  • We talked through the difference between paraphrasing and directly quoting someone, and how good writers do both.
  • Finally, we talked about the power of images and how to use them as writers to add appeal to our well chosen words. Students were required to include at least one photo with their profiles.

What other supports did I give my student writers?

It was more difficult than I imagined it would be for my student authors to craft good questions. We had a discussion about the difference between writing a closed ended question and an open ended question, and then students posted questions on a class discussion thread that they might ask during their interviews. I shared this list of suggestions with students, and then gave them time to conduct their interviews and take the important step of moving from what they transcribed to writing their actual profiles. As with writing a screenplay adapted from a book, authors of profiles need to make choices about what is vital and what is not when moving from their rough notes to a best draft. Along the way, I shared profiles that I had written as well since I always write alongside my students. I wrote this profile about my son Shaun, and this one about one of my student actors, Riley. One of the interesting talking points from both of these profiles was that it’s possible to incorporate poetry into a Q&A.

End Result: Student Written Profiles

I asked students what their takeaways were from profile writing, and several of them said that though in many cases they’ve had the same classmates throughout their grade school and middle school experiences, taking the time to do these interviews and write profiles invited them to learn things about one another that they didn’t know, and many of them shared that their classmates’ replies to the questions posed surprised them. One of my student writer’s profiles is linked here. I’m so grateful that we took time in the busy weeks leading up to Spring Break to listen well and to create these mini time capsules of students’ eighth grade lives before they transition to high school.

Next up for our writing workshop is more composing with the New York Times, as we prepare to write argumentative pieces for the Learning Network’s latest writing contest.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into speaking and listening? Share your ideas in the comments or write to me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves writing with her students, and recently composed adaptations of Arabian Nights and The Three Musketeers.

A Beautiful Voyage: Winter Ventures in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert, Contributing Writer

Construction begins on the Hispaniola.

This month, I’ve been thinking about how much writing has in common with building…

So much must be built for authentic writing to occur. Writing workshop teachers must be facilitators of choice, demonstrators of what risk looks like, and intentional collaborators who conference with students and illustrate the definition of community.  

Winter is bittersweet. The flavor of goodbye begins to linger on my tongue as in my school, I  only have one trimester left with students I love; yet at the same time I feel unspeakable joy as I consider all of the ways students have grown during the past months.

In addition to teaching readers’ and writers’ workshops, I direct our 8th Grade Theatre Troupe, and this winter, three of my students approached me with an idea that had never been proposed at our school before. They wanted to build the Hispaniola for our winter production of Treasure Island, and they assured me that they had the blueprint, the tools, and the experience to build a seaworthy vessel. Their only request? Could they bring their tools to school? I told them I would ask our principal and get back to them.

With his consent, the boys began their construction project. They were committed to working on their shipbuilding during any spare moment that arose during the school day, from study hall to staying after school with me for as long as I was willing to linger in the building.

As I watched the ship take shape,  I considered how much writing and construction have in common. 

  1. Both require the right tools–and what are the best “tools” that we can give our student writers? Excellent mentor texts, choice about how to approach their writing and sometimes what writing mode or discipline they are going to employ, AND the gifts of time in writing conferences and space for listening to them–in their conversations with us and with one another as they craft writing that is nothing short of extraordinary.
  2. Precision is important. For the Hispaniola to be seaworthy, its designers had to have the correct measurements so that every piece of lumber fit together like part of a puzzle. In the same way, good writers are exacting. They consider each word and how well it “fits” with its fellows. They wonder about the impact of elements such as point of view. Writers must revise, and the same can be true of builders to ensure that the final product is all that they dream that it can be.
  3. Both writing and building are, as Shakespeare famously said, the stuff that dreams are made of. In construction with lumber OR construction with words, the craftsman imagines what is possible, and dreams of what might be. This leads to beautiful homes, and breathtaking word pictures.
  4. Humility is a hero. Humility isn’t weak. Humility sees that there is always room for growth, and celebrates not only his accomplishments, but all of the ways that he can make the process better or more impactful next time. Humility is a lifelong learner, whether he’s building a staircase or a sentence.

So what were my student writers been building in workshop this winter as the Hispaniola prepared to set sail on stage? 

Message in a Bottle Narratives : Thanks to Xochitl Bentley and Ruta Sepetys for the idea of keeping our stories alive by choosing tiny but important moments to share with others. As mentor texts for this, I used excerpts from Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Students chose snapshots from their lives that they wanted to capture in writing (their messages in a bottle) and also engaged in word studies for their pieces by creating Google slides sharing five words that were important to their topics. I chose Peter Pan as my topic. My slides are linked here. 

Podcast Scripts: Ever since I experienced isolation from my students when our school was closed due to the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for the connection that arises from inviting students to shelter in podcasts. We begin our study of podcasts by listening to excerpts from professional podcasts on a variety of topics and we agree on elements that are non-negotiable such as  having an engaging introduction, including authentic body details, and designing an exit “strategy” for the podcast that works. I give students several choices for directions they can go with their podcasts, and invite them to record using Anchor.fm. The result? Student podcasts about everything from football to PBS Kids series. Podcast scripts provide students with a cool new mode of writing to experiment with, AND Anchor gives them the space to add “extras” like music and images for their podcasts in addition to selecting fitting titles and writing descriptions for each podcast episode. Our podcast notes template is linked here.

What happened with the construction of the Hispaniola? I assisted my boys with painting the ship once construction was complete, and the result was a proud and beautiful ship that we used for our annual theater trip to area schools AND that we will reuse as we have our Winter Showcase coming up in just a few days. It’s difficult to count all of the ways that I loved this project, but what I loved best was that an idea that was entirely conceived by students came to life, and that students were invited to use skills that aren’t typically connected with the traditional definition of school to create something that blessed and will continue to bless their classmates and our larger school community.

The Proud and Beautiful Hispaniola, with the PC Winter Theatre Troupe

What are you building in your workshops this winter? How are you sheltering in words with your students, and creating extraordinary things?

Share your thoughts in the comments, or send me an email at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theater arts teacher in central Iowa. She enjoys writing poetry and plays with her students, and recently completed a script for a November 2021 production of Arabian Nights.

Unsung Heroes

“The soul of the brave warrior rising slowly with the smoke…” Taylor Mali

For the last several years, my first writing study in January with eighth graders has consisted of what I refer to as food narratives. Many thanks to Karla Hilliard for inspiring me with this idea originally!

Over time, I’ve learned that food writing is a love language of sorts for teenagers.

Students soon discover that in writing about food, though meals are significant, it’s the memories evoked that matter. We’re remembering not only the Christmas cheesy potatoes, but the person who made them and the conversations that we savored around the table. Meals are like lighthouses on the shorelines of our lives, and writing about food ignites the light and spreads it as we choose sensory details that give our writing color and meaning.

On Martin Luther King Jr., Day,  a day that memorializes a man who crossed racial and religious divides by speaking the common language of love, I’m reflecting on how often teenagers are marginalized, how frequently they are overlooked by a culture that tags them as unmotivated, relationally awkward, shackled to their phones, and the list goes on. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an unsung hero. Webster’s definition of “unsung” is as follows:

unsung adjective

un·​sung |  \ ˌən-ˈsəŋ   \

Definition of unsung

1.not sung

2. not sung meaning not celebrated or praised (as in song or verse)

an unsung hero

Last week, I wrote the following narrative for my students about a season in my life when a high risk pregnancy required bed rest, and I found myself confined to a hospital room for months. On one level, it’s a story of struggling to consume the number of calories required to support multiple babies–but it’s also about the endurance of love, and what a difference a visit from my theatre students made. They were my unsung heroes, and my current students are also givers of courage and hope in a world that is often forbidding and constantly changing.

Unsung Heroes

March 29th, 2004

 9 AM: I wake up thinking: “Today is going to be awful.” Dr. Rightmeier invades my room, perfectly clinical in his long white coat, stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck like a lifeguard’s whistle. He’s pacing, frustrated. 

“You can’t possibly overindulge.”.

“Eat whatever you want. Eat THIS,” he says, holding up a supersized Hershey bar. “You should be taking in more calories.”

I CAN’T!  That’s what my mutinous mind is thinking. My doctors increased my dosage of magnesium sulfate, a drug intended to prevent early labor, causing constant nausea and dizziness. How could I eat when the room was turning like a carousel?

Twenty-four hours later, I’m propped up against a snowy mountain of pillows with a full breakfast tray. Waffles swimming in maple syrup, a covered bowl of oatmeal, two packets of brown sugar, a plate of toast that I hadn’t even ordered…

My stomach churns in protest. The babies, butterflies waiting to emerge, flutter under my hands. 

Tears hurry down my face as I contemplate the overloaded tray. Suzi, one of my nurses, sweeps into the room, smiling a good morning. “I’ve come to get your vitals,” she announces, wheeling the blood pressure cart up to my bed.

Her smile softens as her eyes read my tearstained face.

“Still feeling sick?” she asks.

I nod, embarrassed that I’m crying. 

“This is too much with your stomach doing somersaults, How about a protein shake instead?” she asks.

“Yes, please..” 

 She grabs my hand and holds it for a moment before disappearing with the tray. 

10 AM: I drink half of a vanilla protein shake. It isn’t nearly enough, but it’s a start.  My laptop is open. I’m trying to write my final paper for my last Masters Class at Calvin University.

My mind wanders from my blank screen to a conversation with my lead physician, Dr. Cook, the day before.
“This is such an important week, Elizabeth. The threshold of viability. If you can press on until Friday, everything looks brighter. Your babies’ chances of survival skyrocket.”

He prays with me, and writes Romans 12:12 on a notecard. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.”

Joyful. Patient. Faithful. Am I any of those?

Why am I writing about middle school theatre? Will I ever direct a play again? I’m only allowed out of bed to take a shower.

1 PM:  Saltine crackers. That’s all I’ve been able to eat since the protein shake. Loneliness lingers like an old friend, My mind seems as closed as the books scattered on the end of my bed.

 I  rewrite a paragraph for the fifth time, and then, I see familiar faces in the doorway.  It’s Steven, Paul, Josh, Shelley and Staci,  principal cast members from the production of Peter Pan that I directed before a doctor’s orders changed everything.

“Mrs. O.! It’s so good to see you…” Steven’s words fill the semi-dark room with light, and in his voice I’m reliving scenes from the play. I hear him saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” All he needs is some glitter in his hair and an epee. In my mind, he’s soaring across the stage, flying over the audience throwing pixie dust like confetti.  Ageless. 

“The rumor is that you need to get outside,” said Paul.

“That sounds awesome, but you would have to get me past several nurses.”

“We already have permission,” Staci insists.  Shelley and Josh go into the hallway and return with a wheelchair-the chariot of 4th Floor.

Within minutes, I’m outside of my room for the first time in weeks. Steven, the Prince of the Never Land, gently pushes the chair into the elevator , while Paul and Josh complain about writing workshop without me. Piles of grammar worksheets. Homework overload.

Out in the hospital courtyard, we’re all tasting blue skies, savoring the flavor of hope.

In March, Michigan clouds rarely part, but that day, the sun glints through the trees like a cutlass. We talk about our shared memories of Peter Pan.  I ask them what I could have done better. I think about how often God works through teenagers, unsung heroes that the rest of the world overlooks.

“We’ll never forget it, Mrs. O. The flying rehearsals especially,” Steven muses.

“You need to be on stage again,” I said. “You still have stories to tell.”

“When will you be back?” asks Paul. After that, no one says anything for a while, because we don’t know when that will be.

4 PM: As the sun melts lower in the sky, I know it’s time for them to go, and for me to go back. I will forever remember them as I see them that day. Beams of spring sunlight. I don’t need to tell them how much I miss them, or that I don’t want the day to end. With the unique wisdom of eighth graders, they already know.

January 2022: Unsung Heroes Still Surround Me

I remember that visit as if it just happened, because those students were unsung heroes, givers of hope and courage. So are you. You are life giving in the same way.

Thank you for being a gift.

Reading Like Writers:

Always, I ask my students what they notice about a mentor text, whether it’s professionally written, a draft that I’m working on, or an eighth grade writer’s work. What ideas did they take away from my narrative?

  1. One way to write a food narrative is to approach it as a Day in the Life sort of food journal, with time stamps and short bursts of descriptive language.
  2. Dialogue helps to advance any piece of writing, whether it’s a food narrative or something else.
  3. Sometimes writers use intentional sentence fragments to emphasize words that they want their readers to notice.
  4. Writers may choose to use prologues or epilogues to set the stage for a composition OR to bring a piece to completion.

What Options Do Students Have During Our Food Writing Study?

Autonomy is a vital component of writing workshop, and I love to give students as many choices as possible around whatever our focal point–in this case food writing-is. 

Here are a few of the options that I give them, including links to the professional mentor texts that they may explore as they think about what they would like to write, and what the best path into that writing is:

  1. A Food Themed Letter of Recommendation–With Thanks to The New York Times. We read this article entitled “I Recommend Eating Chips” as a way to explore excellent descriptive writing. This piece also illustrates that a good writer can write about food while at the same time cleverly expressing commentary on different cultural elements. I invited my students to write imitations of passages they admired.
  2. A Widow Takes the Helm at Blackberry Farm: Once again, The New York Times provided an outstanding example of a food narrative that is about SO much more than food. This is a story of tragedy, grief and resilience. The narrative is filled with beautifully structured complex sentences for students to use as mentors in their own compositions, as well as breathtaking photos of one of the most exquisite resorts in the United States. 
  3. The Story of a Recipe: This idea came both from my own life experiences, since my great grandmother passed down incredible recipes to the next generations, and also from an NPR feature that I read about high school students sharing their recipe stories and compiling them in a cookbook. My students have the opportunity to record a recipe that they love and share why it’s important to them. The NPR feature is linked here

We also enjoyed watching this CBS News feature about a world famous chef who is revolutionizing school lunches. Earlier this year, we wrote menus filled with our ideal entrees, beverages, sides and desserts.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! I hope that today is a day filled with celebrations of Dr. King’s life and legacy, and of the unsung heroes in your life, including those in your classrooms.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. Her favorite stories are The Outsiders, Peter Pan and Our Town. Recently, she wrote a script for a production of Arabian Nights. Share your amazing ideas for writing workshop in the comments below, or email Elizabeth at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

A Star’s Good Company

PC Theatre Students Prepare Cuttings from Our Town for Regional Competition

Since I have the distinct privilege of writing a post just days before Christmas, I thought this was the perfect time to share a tribute to a literary work that has profoundly impacted my pedagogy and my students’ lives–Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town. I posted previously about Our Town in 2019, sharing how I workshopped a canonical text.

This post is different. Our Town demonstrates in the most gentle and profound of ways-how difficult it is to be a human being. In the midst of every kind of unrest from the horrors of school shootings to political upheaval that polarizes families and communities, this play invites us all to pause and to savor the people and things that give our lives meaning. I wrote this tribute for my students recently as we finished reading Our Town together. It was intended to be an invitation to them to think about why reading an eighty year old Pulitzer Prize winning play matters, and as a step into writing their own tributes to the things that make up the fabric of their lives, as well as an introduction to designing one pagers in response to the play. My job sheet for our one pagers is linked here.

Knowing the Stars by Name

A Playlet Starring Various Eighth Graders, and TIME as the thief, as Mrs. O. reflects on one of her favorite things…Our Town.

Act I Scene One:

Date: February 13th, 2019. Time: Late afternoon

 The second trimester is fading like a rose, and the clock is ticking. TIME, that relentless thief, is busy stealing.

The PC 8th Grade Theatre Troupe is preparing to present Our Town, a play in three acts by Thornton Wilder, at District V Regionals. 

TOBY and EMRI are in the window at the Gibbs’ home in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, playing the roles of GEORGE and REBECCA. I know I will read the play again, with other students in these roles, but these two voices are perfect. Melody and harmony. 

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, do you know what I think? Do you? I think maybe the moon’s getting nearer and nearer, and there’ll be a big ‘splosion…

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Rebecca, you don’t know anything. If the moon were getting nearer, the guys that sit up all night with telescopes would see it first, and they’d tell about it, and it’d be in all the newspapers.

EMRI (AS REBECCA): George, is the moon shining on South America, Canada, and half the whole world?

TOBY (AS GEORGE): Well–probly is.

ISAAC (AS STAGE MANAGER): Nine thirty. Most of the lights are out. No, there’s Constable Warren trying a few doors on Main Street. And here comes Editor Webb after putting his newspaper to bed…

MRS. O: The first time I read Our Town, I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher and one of the most significant mentors of my life, Dale Brinks, assigned the play and we read it in a few days. I remember both loving the story, and desperately wanting there to be more to the story. I knew as a fifteen year old kid who had just fallen in love for the first time, that it was a play that would matter to me for the rest of my life.

Act I Scene Two: Where We Are Now–December 2021

As I think back on our 2019 season, I remember that TIME kept stealing, stuffing minutes into his pockets like crumpled dollar bills, and hurrying away. WINTER was another villain,  brutally icy and cold, blotting out the sun. We had snow days upon snow days…a stack of missed opportunities.  I remember tears of frustration when another email landed in my inbox announcing a cancellation or a two hour delay. 

Members of the 2018-2019 8th Grade Theatre Troupe with Mrs. O.

Then, in February, theatre troupe member Josh’s father died from cancer on Valentine’s Day, while the rest of the troupe was performing Peter Pan in Sully. We dedicated the performance to Josh and his dad. It gave Our Town another layer of meaning for us, and made us treasure the time that we had left together even more.

So here we are. It’s December, 2021.. TIME is still stealing, and Our Town endures, reminding me in its plain and gentle way that more goodbyes are always coming. “Don’t waste time,” the pages whisper. Make the most of today. Be a gift-whether you’re reading a play, or washing dishes. Everything matters–and people–my family and my students–matter the most.

Cast Members at a Dress Rehearsal for the 2021 8th Grade Theatre production of Arabian Nights

 Another day will dim, another rehearsal ends, and the moment, as all moments are, is unrepeatable. I will only be able to “open” the gifts of being with you for a few more months. And then your stories will continue.  Without me. That is the way of things every year, but I never get used to it. It’s unspeakably painful to say goodbye to students who have journeyed with you through everything from the secret of staying gold in The Outsiders to the magic of Arabian Nights and everything still to come.  How do you bid farewell to souls who have lit candles of love and hope with you through their words, and the characters they’ve played? I don’t know the answer. Maybe I never will.

So why is Our Town one of my favorite things? The words are old friends. When I return to them, they are the same, whether I am a fifteen year old girl flushed with first love, or a wife and mother tempered by time, failures, dreams, and devastation. The message is the same regardless of my life season. Don’t presume too much, or berate yourself, either. Be tender. Treasure each moment. Love your family. Love your students. Love life. I can’t think of a message much more meaningful than that.

CURTAIN

What are the stories that live in your heart? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net. If you’d like to learn more about the endurance of Our Town and why it’s one of the most performed plays in the world, check out this video from the Wilder family, or this one from CBS News, including interviews with award-winning director David Cromer.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language and theatre arts teacher in central Iowa. She loves reading and writing poetry and plays with her students. Recently, she wrote Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Lyric Mashup Poetry: Synthesis & Reflection on Beautiful Words

Billy Joel at the piano with his daughter Alexa Ray

One thing I know about teenagers is that music is a universal love language for them.

As writing workshop teachers, one of the ways that we can speak this language is by inviting our students to write lyric mashup poetry. As the name suggests, this kind of poetry invites students into practicing several skills that elevate our students’ writing craft. Among them:

  • Immersion in beautiful words. As students dive into well-known lyrics, they’re empowered to love words and reflect on their meanings.
  • Listening and speaking: Students are invited to listen to the words of favorite songs, and talk with other writers about why the songs are meaningful, and how they plan to “mash them up” with other songs. 
  • Synthesis: Perhaps the most powerful invitation for our students in writing lyric mashups is synthesizing–looking at the lyrics of three songs, and intentionally selecting lines from each to “mashup” and create a new song.
  • Thanks to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle for introducing me to lyric mashups during their daily videos for teachers during the COVID-19 lockdown!

Billy Joel’s music was the soundtrack of my adolescence, and I still love his haunting melodies and the way that so many of his songs are narrative poems that invite listeners into redemptive tales, breakup stories, or litanies of historic events. Following is a description of how I implement lyric mashup poetry with eighth grade poets, with my job sheets and student examples linked.

Step One: I share my favorite artist, Billy Joel with students, by playing one of the three songs that I use for my mashup with them, “The Downeaster Alexa,” a piece that tells the story of New England fishermen struggling for survival. 

Step Two: After listening to the song together, I give students my mashup and we use different colored highlighters to take a look at how lyrics from “The Downeaster Alexa” are mashed up with words from the other two songs I selected, and lines I wrote myself to preserve the flow of the mashup poem. My job sheet for students is linked here.

The mashup poem that I wrote is called “Cathedral,” and I use it to illustrate how powerful it can be to mashup songs that are dissimilar at first glance, but on closer examination have common threads thematically. To write “Cathedral,” I used “The Downeaster Alexa,” and a song that Joel wrote about Victor, a dear friend he met while on tour in what at the time was still the USSR, called “Leningrad.” My third and final song is his famous breakup song and the tenth track on his 1989 album Storm Front, And So it Goes.” All three of these songs are about loss in different ways: Loss of innocence, loss of a lifestyle, a parent, and the death of a relationship. When joined together, the lyrics from these three songs can create a compelling new poem.

 My students’ lyric mashups were a joy to read and showed the depth of their dive into music, and the breadth of their appreciation for different musical genres. I asked them to include a brief rationale for why they chose the artist that they did at the beginning of their mashup poems. 

     Karis and Carly mashed up four different Beatles’ songs, and wrote about the lasting impact that the Beatles have had on the world. Shaun and Isaiah collaborated on a mashup using the music of NF. Another beautiful aspect of writing mashups is that it invites students to collaborate around their similar musical tastes to create something meaningful.

     Lyric mashups were one way to invite my students back into composing poetry before we spend time writing beside living poets this December during our Ten Days of Spoken Word Poetry. What are your favorite ways to invite students into poetic exploration? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Wiki-poems

Inspired by Brian Bilston’s creative poetic structures, such as his Google auto-fill poem, I thought about additional ways to inspire students to construct a form of non-threatening “found” poems. Based on my own quirky practice of researching documentaries and historical films that I view to determine their historical accuracy, and the fact that I often start with Wikipedia as a beginning point of reference (there are great resources cited at the bottom of the pages), I decided to experiment with a “wiki-poem.” Wikipedia pages are already sorted into categories, so if a student takes one line from each section, a poem will naturally progress through a sequence of ideas. This works well for both biographies, historical events, works of art and literature, and other high-interest subjects.

For example, here is a table that shows the organizational chart for Mary Shelley:

Setting parameters that make sense for a specific assignment, you could have students choose words, phrases, or sentences from a certain number of sections to craft their poems. If you’re working on specific literary or rhetorical devices, structure, or other elements of craft, you could require those.

Giving myself the guidelines of writing a poem constructed from at least one phrase from each of the sections from “life and career” through “reputation,” here is a found wiki-poem on Mary Shelley:

Works Cited: “Mary Shelley.” Wikipedia, 4 Sept. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mary_Shelley&oldid=1042316021.

Amber Counts is a frazzled grad student studying English literature while teaching a variety of courses to high school juniors and seniors. Excited to start teaching a 9-week creative writing course today, she spent most of the recent 3-day weekend lesson-planning anywhere inspiration struck. She’s still getting back into the writing groove after a Covid dry spell.

Searching the Depths of Your Heart: Parallels Between Writing Workshop and Theatre

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Caleb & Garrett rehearse combat choreography for Arabian Nights.

One of the most magical things about directing middle school theatre…

is inviting students to unwrap the art of stage combat choreography. I love the beauty of the interaction, the sheer grace that is part of learning together, and the way that students use their imaginations to enter the world of the play and make decisions about how each scene, and each combat sequence will evolve as part of the larger story.

As I reflected on the fine art of stage combat, I realized that there are many parallels between spectacular swordplay, and being part of a writing workshop.

Since my students and I will be writing listicles this week, (thanks to @KellyGToGo and ESPN Magazine for the idea!) I thought I would share a listicle with you about the tandem hearts of theatre (combat choreography in particular) and writing workshop.

Six Things I Know About Writing Workshop & Stage Combat Choreography

  1. Both writing and combat choreography are matters of the heart. Excellent writing, AND masterful choreography begins in a restless heart that simply MUST write, or MUST take to the stage-to be complete.
  2. Whether one is wielding a pen or an epee (stage combat weapon) risk is involved. Authentic writers and actors embrace risk as part of the journey. What does risk look like for writers in our workshop? It’s everything from playing with mixing genres (last week we looked at mixing poetry and informational text as we studied stories of 9-11–See a list of mentor texts at the end of this post!) to working with a co-author for the first time. On stage, there is inherent risk in crafting a new combat sequence and in trusting one’s partner to memorize every move.
  3. Both writing and acting involve world building. Eighth grade writers construct worlds built of childhood recollections as we compose our autobiographies together, while 8th Grade Theatre Troupe members are invited to suspend their teenaged, central Iowan existence every day for an hour to become princes, or palace guards. 
  4. Writers and actors need inspiring mentors. Our favorite poetic mentors in writing workshop so far this year for crafting autobiographical texts have been “My Honest Poem” by Rudy Francisco, and “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymborska. On stage, eighth grade actors are mentored by high school and college students who bring a wealth of stagecraft knowledge to us every day.
  5. Writing and acting are about surrendering the spotlight so that we can truly grow into the supporting roles we’re meant to play in a story that is larger than we are. I frequently tell students in our writing workshop that writing is about growth and grace, not grades. The same is true about learning the language of combat choreography. Students quickly discern that it takes countless hours of rehearsal to polish even five minutes of finished fight choreography. It is time and effort that elevates a performance (or a piece of writing) from good to great.
  6. One of the greatest gifts of both theatrical training AND writing workshop is the opportunity to be part of a thriving community that scales the mountains of a great performance and also weathers the valleys of those days when it feels like we’re not “good enough” to write anything of consequence or to tell a story on stage convincingly. Whether we’re in writing workshop or on stage, the invitation is open. Regardless of how discouraging today might have been, tomorrow we can return to the page, or the stage and begin again.
These epees are ready to go on stage. They’re waiting for a few eighth graders…

As writers and actors, we’ve been invited on a journey to a place of discovery, harmony and joy. What a privilege it is to write beside the students in our workshops–and in my story I am doubly blessed with opportunities to build worlds with words in notebooks and in auditoriums.

Last week, we were mentored by the heroes of September 11th.

Mentored by Heroes

I thought I would close by sharing links to a few deeply moving mentor texts in honor of the victims of 9-11 and their families. My students and I studied these written and visual texts last week, and used them in crafting narrative snapshots.

The Unusual Courage of Todd Beamer by Brandon Anderson

Anderson beautifully weaves the threads of the loss of his brother into a story that honors the extraordinary courage of Todd Beamer and the other passengers of Flight 93. My students and I noticed that looping is a powerful craft move, and that this is a multi-genre piece that blends narrative, poetry and commentary.

The Man in the Red Bandana courtesy of ESPN.com

This is the story of Welles Crowther, a volunteer firefighter who sacrificed his own life to save the lives of many others.

Beverly Eckert Remembers Sean Rooney courtesy of Storycorps.org

Eckert invites us to know her husband Sean by ushering us into her final conversation with him on September 11th. This is a story of searing loss and enduring love. Ironically, Eckert later died in a fiery crash as she traveled to award a scholarship in Sean’s honor.

The Photos of 9-11 courtesy of The New York Times Insider

This photo journal captures unforgettable images of September 11th and includes captions to draw us into the stories of each photo. My students used this piece as a mentor for constructing our own “Dear Photograph” captions. This piece illustrates not only the power of a photograph, but also the importance of word economy.

What are your deepest convictions about writing workshop?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

Field of Dreams: Film Study in Writing Workshop

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Kevin Costner and Gabby Hoffmann in Field of Dreams.

If you build it, they will come…

For Iowans like me, last week the iconic line from 1989’s classic Field of Dreams came true  as our state hosted its first ever Major League Baseball game between the White Sox and the Yankees on a field adjacent to the Dyersville site used in the famous film. 

Eight thousand fans welcomed the teams, and Kevin Costner walked through a cornfield onto the new diamond, giving a sparkling speech referencing his love for baseball and the movie. Thirty years ago, on the other side of that corn, we filmed a movie that stood the test of time,” he said. “Tonight, thanks to that enduring impact that little movie had, it’s allowed us to come here again. But now we’re on a field that Major League Baseball made.

We’ve kept our promise, Major League Baseball has kept its promise, the dream is still alive. There is probably just one more question to answer – is this Heaven? Yes it is,” he added, a nod to one of the film’s famous quotes.

 (Speech excerpt courtesy of People.com.)

Reading the multitude of articles about the new field and the iconic movie reminds me of how films become woven into our cultural identity, and how vital it is for us as teachers  to invite our students into studying, interpreting and responding to visual text.

Field of Dreams is a perfect example of a sports themed movie that is about much more than a baseball game. It’s a story of regret, redemption, and relationships between fathers and sons.

For eighth graders, analyzing an entire film is a daunting task, so I’ve learned that one of the best ways to welcome them into film study is through analysis of ONE scene, giving attention to nonverbal elements such as the actors’ positioning, facial expressions, costumes, use of props, and more.

Film study also exemplifies how bias informs writing. When we read a film review with our writers’ eyes, we can infer within a sentence or two what the author intends to communicate. We can also use the reading of critical reviews to teach sophisticated craft moves.

My favorite mentor texts for film study include:

The New York Times Anatomy of a Scene Videos

How I Use This Mentor:

  • These videos are excellent tools for demonstrating how much thought goes into a movie. What’s even better is that directors narrate them, so students know this is expert analysis rather than another school “hoop.” One of my favorite videos is this one for Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action Cinderella. Branagh explains that every detail of the first meeting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is critical, from the Shakespearean trees in the background to the horses’ genders. This video is also helpful if you have a student who chooses to write about the rash of live action remakes studios like Disney have released, from The Lion King to Mulan. And speaking of Mulan, there’s an Anatomy of a Scene video for that film as well! The Times continually updates this collection, recently adding videos for summer hits such as Black Widow and In the Heights.

Film Analysis and Prompts from Scott Myers (@GoIntoTheStory) on Medium.com

How I Use This Mentor:

  • Myers is a screenwriter, professor and blogger. His work is an outstanding mentor text since he leaves NO writing stone unturned. Whether your students are engaged in film study, writing narrative snapshots, or responding to their independent reading, studying Myers’ writing will inspire them to delve beneath the surface of setting, characterization and more to produce writing that is truly empathetic.  Recently, Myers wrote a piece for Medium.com called “The Writer as Psychologist.” In it, he discusses how often shame motivates fictional characters, and invites readers to explore Red’s development in The Shawshank Redemption. Myers concludes by saying that “it is our responsibility to understand each of our characters to the core of their emotional, spiritual, and psychological being. That process not only enables us to write complex, multilayered characters, it also informs us as to how each character ties into the overall narrative as well as the shape of the story’s structure.” It’s awesome to aspire to this analytical depth in writing workshop.

What evidence of learning do I ask students to share?

  • Students take notes with a partner on cinematic scenes and techniques.
  • Students view and comment on videos from the NYT Anatomy of a Scene series.
  • We discuss professional and student written mentor texts for writing about visual texts. 
  • Students write their own Anatomy of a Scene. This may be in response to a film OR an episode from a series.
  • Students compose an original scene individually or collaboratively.
  • Students read a variety of professional film reviews and we comment on craft moves such as writing a lead for a review and how those leads often show the writer’s bias. Discussion of bias is critical to future argumentative writing that we will do later in the year.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into writing critical commentary? Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She recently finished writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

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