My ninth grade students have all of the voice and choice that they need when it comes to choosing their independent reading books. Our focus has been on narrative reading and writing as we have launched the school year, so as you can guess, finding narratives that students want to read is pretty easy. The choices are really wide-open.
The choices that students don’t have as much voice in are the mentor texts. Those short, whole-class texts that we all read together, and that we use for so many different purposes.
Our curriculum suggests that we read James Thurber’s classic short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty , originally published in 1939 in The New Yorker, during this launching unit. It’s a great story, and once the students understand that Walter Mitty isn’t actually an airplane pilot or a surgeon, they can relate to him and his daydreams. We’ve all been there, daydreaming about being somewhere other than our current reality.
We read the story in class; I did a think-aloud with the first section, reading the dialogue with different voices and inflection. For example, I stopped and talked to my students about how the punctuation clues me in to shifts in setting, and how the use of “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” brings me right into the scene. I can hear the noise of the airplane, and can see how the sound intensifies in the story through the use of italics.
I asked my students to read and annotate – always read with a pencil in your hand! – using the Book Head Heart framework we have practiced several times. While some of my students “got it” right away, I didn’t feel the engagement in the room that I was hoping to feel. They weren’t relating to Walter Mitty like I was hoping they would.
A about the same time I was teaching Walter Mitty, our department received our new classroom libraries (more on that later! So exciting!) and I picked up our new copy of Kwame Alexander’s Booked, a book I had looked forward to reading since I had read Crossover for the Book Love Foundation Summer Book Club. As soon as I brought it home, my ten-year-old son spotted it and then read it in one sitting, hooked because it has a soccer ball on the cover, and of course because the story is engaging and powerful. It is an absolutely beautiful book, and it reaches kids.
After I got the book back from my son, I keyed in to the scene when our main character, Nick Hall, has a daydream sequence. Let me set the scene… he’s in his boring English class, and his mind starts to wander… he’s about to score the “winning kick of [his] Barcelona debut” when his English teacher interrupts the daydream and prevents him from winning the imaginary game.
This sounds suspiciously similar to when Walter Mitty is about to save the imaginary crew of his imaginary plane from dying in an imaginary hurricane, and his wife tells him “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” and jolts him back to the reality of driving to town. I realized that Walter Mitty and Nick Hall have some things in common, and that maybe Nick Hall is more relatable to my ninth grade students. An excerpt from Booked could help my students access Walter Mitty.
I also realized that we hadn’t talked about the use of verse for telling a narrative story. It seemed like the perfect time to introduce Nick Hall to my students and to show them that there are multiple ways to write a narrative.
So the following day I asked my students to narrate a story from Walter Mitty’s point of view, but write it as though they are Kwame Alexander writing about Nick Hall. To mash up a classic story with a contemporary one. This was a great exercise in character study, in word choice, in voice. It was a way for my students to be creative while exploring and playing with these characters. There were beautiful “lightbulb” moments in those thirty minutes of class, and students started to understand who Walter Mitty is, and what his motivations are. They discovered who Walter Mitty is because they could understand Nick Hall. Like Nick, they have all been bored in class before, and they all know soccer. It clicked with them.
Before class, I worked on my own Booked-Walter Mitty mash-up.
I copied the first part of our excerpt from Booked:
Mrs. Hardwick’s Honors English class
is one boring
Here’s what I wrote in that same style:
Mrs. Mitty’s Weekly Trips to Town
are one boring
I shared my own writing with my students, letting them know that it was far from perfect, but I was having fun playing with words and form.
I showed them that later in my writing I used the word slow deliberately in my mash-up – I tried to play with Alexander’s use of font choices as I was writing from Walter Mitty’s point of view. I wrote s l o w in my own notebook, stretching out the letters, trying to slow the pace of the reader, looking for effect, similar to when Nick Hall’s friend whispers to him in tiny, italicized font, and we know it’s a quiet voice. I capitalized all of the letters in HITS in my own writing, trying to copy the effect of SLAMS from the Nick Hall excerpt.
Then I let them loose to do the same. To have fun with words, to play in their readers-writers notebooks, and to start to understand the characters and forms better.
Our class had some great discussion; we talked about author’s purpose, which translated to their own purpose in writing. We talked about the effect on the reader, and how authors’ choices are deliberate, but that it takes time to write exactly what we mean.
We played with words, with language, with character, and we deepened our understanding of all of them.
As I informally debriefed this lesson with our school’s teacher-librarian/high school literacy coach @jtlevitt (I’m often at her desk, pondering something that happened in class and asking her for her thoughts on how to sharpen my workshop skills), she directed me to chapter six in Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. Kittle writes:
How do I choose mentor texts? I look for the best writing in the genre we’re studying while we’re studying it. That way I find fresh work I can read with students for the first time discovering a writer’s craft. Most model texts used again and again become dull for me, so I’m always seeking the surprise of new ideas.
My friend and literacy coach showed me that I also was finding the freshest, best writing in the genre we are studying: narrative. That new ideas are powerful, and not only keep students engaged, but excite the teacher as well.
I look forward to finding more pieces of literature that I can use to help my students’ understanding of story, of words, of form. I like this mash-up of literature, and the mimicking and discovery that comes with it.
Update: I’m adding an exemplar piece from one of my students. She and I are both very proud.
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