By Marie LeJeune and Tracy Smiles, Western Oregon University
This week, we continue our exploration of authors as mentors—authors whose work and words contribute to our teaching of reading, writing, language, and culture. As we’ve mentioned in past weeks, we are interested in exploring a study of mentor authors whose work informs students as readers and writers but also as global citizens. We are now layering Marie’s framework for Mentor Author Studies with a framework for International Curriculum (Short, 2003).
This week we examine a mentor author study of Sherman Alexie, whose work we have shared with middle and high school students and their teachers. Although Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is his only novel deemed “young adult,” much of Alexie’s work is suitable for secondary study, including many of his poems, essays, short stories and novels. In addition to writing in multiple formats and genres, Alexie deals with complex cultural and racial themes in his work that many students can easily relate to as they navigate their own sense of self. There are multiple online resources for exploring Alexie’s work, including various podcasts and video clips of Alexie reading from his work and engaging in interviews regarding his process and inspiration for writing. (Note: Alexie’s work and words are fascinating and highly engaging—but many do contain quite sophisticated adult themes; as is always true of introducing new work to students, teachers will want to preview work as they decide what is more appropriate for their own classroom settings.)
Alexie’s webite, www.fallsapart.com is an excellent resource for classroom study—it includes links to various awards, a list of Alexie’s “favorite things,” information about a group called “teaching Alexie” that educators can join, and updated links to his newest work and online publications. We have found the huge list of links to all of the interviews with and articles about Alexie’s writing process to be incredibly helpful as we explore him as mentor for student writers in our classrooms.
Instructional Ideas for Interacting with Alexie’s Work and Words
Alexie’s award winning adolescent novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a loosely auto-biographical tale about a budding cartoonist, Junior, who struggles with his desire to leave his reservation’s school in order to receive a stronger education while also realizing that his cultural values and identity are not appreciated or recognized in his new “white” school off the reservation. (As Junior ironically notes in the novel, the only “Indian” in his new school other than himself is the school mascot.) The book chronicles Junior’s struggles to reconcile his conflicting desires to escape from the pain and poverty he feels destined to be a part of, while attempting to cling to the values and heritage of his family and community. The tale is alternatively bitterly sad and hilariously funny and our students have both laughed and cried through the narrative. One of the most unique and engaging features of the novel is its illustrated nature. Junior is an artist—a cartoonist—and the narrative is frequently interspersed with “Junior’s” (illustrated by Ellen Forney) drawings of both the comical and the painful aspects of his everyday life.
Marie’s students were especially intrigued by the frequent use of “character sketches” in the text where Forney includes drawings of characters such as Junior himself, his parents, his grandmother, etc. with carefully labeled, wry details. These illustrations are excellent mentor texts for students to explore—creating similar illustrations about people in their own lives or characters from various texts serves as both deep exploration of characterization and inference skills and offers rich opportunities for follow up discussions and writing. (These illustrations are a great pre-writing exercise for students attempting to form characters or write about an important person in their lives or in the world.) Particularly important are the ways in which the text’s illustrations explore cultural details—something that we are continually seeking to explore with our own students.
•What other authors for adolescents use sketches/art within their novels that might inspire students as readers and writers?
•We’d love to hear your reactions to Alexie’s work. What titles inspire you and your students? What possibilities for global inquiry could you recommend connected to his work?
Links to Descriptions of Sherman Alexie’s Books on WOW’s Literature Database:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
For next week: Pam Munyoz Ryan
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