This post is written by NCTE member Jason D. DeHart.
As a teacher who has taught K-12 and university students for a total of sixteen years now, I have attempted many writing engagements and used a variety of books. When I was a teacher in Tennessee, I had the challenge of readying students for an annual summative writing assessment. While the students I currently teach in North Carolina do not have such an assessment, I still make the most of any opportunity to get students writing—and any chance to write alongside my students. The work of attempting to pull reading standards from writing standards and teach either series of processes in isolation is a bit like trying to remove Kool-Aid from water once it is mixed—of course, it is possible to attempt, but the result is usually dry and sticky.
Relevant Prompts and Relevant Readings
Of all the prompts I have used, the most energy and invested responses seem to come when we have read a passage or have completed a literary unit and we then have the opportunity to think about the substance of the story in relation to our lived experiences. The first time I remember students actively engaging this way was in the middle of reading a dystopian unit about survival and overcoming the odds. Our text at that time was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a book that engaged the majority of my students. As a class-wide read, this book seemed to work well based on the ways that students responded, and I would often use the second and third books in the series for choice reads if students engaged with the first entry.
Conversations about survival and overcoming now take shape in more realistic forms as I work with students to process the events of the past two years, including national and political tensions, unrest, and surviving through a pandemic. Survival and overcoming the odds can mean take on many meanings. In my work with university students, I readily share about how I dropped out of high school, earned a GED, and eventually made my way back to college—working toward and earning a PhD in 2019, and teaching at the college level from 2015 to 2022. I am thankful that the statistical realities of dropping out did not defeat my steps forward, and I am also grateful to have met the students I have worked with along the way on this journey, from five-year-old readers to in-service teachers at the university. We each carry our burdens, and these experiences begin even when young.
I am currently a high school English teacher, and I am now exploring narratives of survival with books such as Night by Elie Wiesel and Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. I find joy in juxtaposing these classic and contemporary voices and finding what resonates with my students. From the Hamlet-like journey of Will down the elevator in Long Way Down, to the emotionally resonant and highly relevant work of Wiesel in thinking about the past and noting parallels to the hatred we still see today, invitations to write and share can—at the very least—help students to carve out a space in the noise of daily life to process, grieve, and maybe even heal a little.
From 2012 to Now
When it comes to my personal journal, I am more reserved in my work with younger audiences, but this “writing alongside” example serves as one way in which the idea of survival can be concrete, and need not relate to a far-off mythical world. The social and emotional needs that students carry with them is yet another application, made evident by the world students continue to live in, including quarantines and safety drills.
When I first employed this “survival” prompt with middle school students in 2012, I was surprised to find that many of my students had overcome accidents, losses, and wounds of many kinds. In addition to The Hunger Games, we were reading contemporary stories of survival against nature odds in the work of Gary Paulsen. While the dystopian story in Collins’s work seemed far removed, hindsight in 2022 now seems to reveal links to reality I had not even begun to process then, particularly in relation to human rights.
Until we engage our students in talking and writing, we simply do not know what they are carrying with them. Several of the students had embraced our classroom community enough to share out loud, while others chose to convey their ideas in communication only on the page. Sometimes I still have students processing events and, even without my urge to do so, I find them writing on notebook pages in order to process events in their lives. In conversation with some pre-service teachers in Fall 2022, one of my students noted how children at the middle school level can share what they are processing in moment and, in the very next moment, demonstrate a powerful sense of resolve. While writing can be honored, so too can taking a moment to process through talk.
Through this writing prompt, I discovered that many of my students carry scar tissue that is both literal and figurative. Linking to this kind of writing need not involve a full novel—I am reminded of the stories of hope and survival found in Superman comics, as well as in the stories of Gary Paulson and his true-to-life text, Guts. Still another text entitled Guts is the graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, in which going to therapy is normalized in a key scene. While I do not ask students to share of themselves in ways they would find uncomfortable, I note the bibliotherapy that can be found in choosing texts and in linking these literacy experiences with short, meaningful responses in writing.
Jason D. DeHart is a passionate educator, currently teaching English at Central Wilkes High School in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. He served as a middle grades English teacher for eight years and an assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University from 2019 to 2022. DeHart reviews books and interviews authors at his website, Book Love: Dr. J. Reads.
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