Reading as a Collaborative Act: Sherman Alexie as Mentor

By Marie LeJeune and Tracy Smiles, Western Oregon University

Book cover for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThis 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

[Editor Note: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is reviewed in Volume I, Issue 2 of WOW Review.]

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15 thoughts on “Reading as a Collaborative Act: Sherman Alexie as Mentor

  1. Marcus Louk says:

    I am a big fan of Sherman Alexie. I have read many of his works, listened to/read a lot of his interviews, and I have had the privilege to listen to him in person several years ago when he was a guest speaker at Oregon State University. Unfortunately, I was never exposed to his work until I enrolled in a minority literature class as a sophomore in college. I could have benefited from reading his work in high school as I (like many other high school students) tried to find my true identity. For this reason, when I was doing my student teaching, I decided to include Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a selection high school seniors could read as part of a literature circle unit. Initially, students were hesitant to read it and I had to do a lot of persuading to convince students to give it a try. After an initial small group of students read it and did a mini-presentation on it, there was a long waiting list of students who wanted to read the book as part of their next literature circle rotation.

    I can think of a few authors/books for adolescents who use sketches/art within their novels that might inspire students as readers and writers. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (illustrated by Jules Feiffer), A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (illustrated by Coleman Polhemus), and The Savage by David Almond (illustrated by Dave McKean). Without the sketches/artwork, the books would lose meaning and the readers would miss out on the full experience that these books have to offer. Through the sketches/artwork, readers can see that text does not have to be confined to words. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” implies that sketches/artwork used in books adds even more to the story and it can do so without using up the pages and pages it would have taken to write out those thousands of words. The sketches/art within these books can help students comprehend if they are struggling reading the text, and hopefully, the images in the books will help students understand that being a good book does not necessarily require walls and walls of text.

  2. Celina Lopez says:

    Another author who uses sketches in his books is Jeff Kinney. He’s the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Kinney has engaged many elementary students with style of writing and his sketches. I teach third grade and his illustrations truly tend to inspire my students to read more. Like Sherman Alexie his humor also engages kids and inspires kids to read.

    Alexie’s novel is a great story. It has been an eye opening novel for me to read. I felt this book could be a great tool in order to engage critical thinking and literacy in young adults.

  3. Theresa says:

    Arnold has such tenacity and will to make it through. Arnold faced each day and dealt with whatever it held for him. Many people in his situation would have stayed home from school if they couldn’t catch a ride. I definitly will share this book with my class.

  4. Annette Fiedler says:

    Celina, my kids have really enjoyed the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I need to find some more uses for it in the classroom. I do agree the humor inspires kids to read. I enjoyed reading this text immensely as I found it to be both humorous and heartbreaking. I agree that Arnold endured many hardships, but his perseverance to achieve proved encouraging. This is a wonderful story that exhibits many life situations that many people are enduring today. I would like to come in contact with other work that Sherman Alexie has done, as I found it to be interesting. Theresa, I believe your 5/6th graders would find this book as thrilling and interesting as we did.

  5. Salina says:

    As others have mention, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a favorite in my classroom along with Dear Dumb Diary. Students are drawn to the cartoon style pictures that add a deeper meaning and entertainment to the text. These diaries tend to be raw thoughts that we “think” but never say. I believe this is why these books are so popular…they push the limits of what’s acceptable in society.

    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian pushes these limits with more mature subjects. The book is filled with stereotypical descriptions of an Indian (e.g., drunk indian, economic conditions, relationships, and anger management problems). Although it may be funny for some readers, It may be offensive to others and may give a false notion of Native American culture.

  6. Celina Lopez says:

    Salina, I understand what you are saying. However, this novel is loosely based on Sherman Alexie’s life growing up on a reservation. What he wrote is culturally authentic to what he experienced being a Native American living on a reservation.

    I do agree that this book isn’t a mainstream type of novel which is a good thing. Many Native American novels fall under two main categories which are well loved classics or they are portrayed as heathen savages who have trouble communicating. This novel deals with many real life issues that some Native Americans are forced to face. As an educator, critical literacy is what I strive to teach. Alexie’s novel would be an excellent piece of literature to engage and inspire young adults in critical thought.

  7. Annette Fiedler says:

    Celina, I do agree with the “real life issues” that Native American’s endure. This is where we, as teachers, can accurately inform our students about “real life” situations. Any type of information about culture and literature can be subjective to any reader or reviewer, but it’s ultimately up to us, as educators, to expose children to these situations that are culturally relevant to the Native American people and other cultures alike. This is a novel that can inspire many children to learn more about the Native American life and culture. Salina, my 3rd graders (last year) are in a DOTWK craze. I must find more insightful and meaningful ways in which to bring them into the curriculum.

  8. Alicia M. Fagan says:

    To me, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, is a coming of age story that deals with issues that many of our young people deal with while growing up. Alexie paints a picture of his life experiences growing up. Many of the characters and situations fit into some stereo types, i.e. the alcoholism, and poverty. I don’t think Alexie was trying to set out this view, I just think it was what was true for him. If I used this book with a group of students, I feel that I would like to us it along with a novel that portrayed Native Americans that did not struggle with many of the same demons as the characters in Alexie’s book did.

  9. Rae Etta Zuniga says:

    I appreciated the way Arnold went to such lengths to change the future he saw he would be destined to have…he changed schools and rocked his world. I thought it was sad how little support he got for doing this. It felt like the he was fighting the whole reservation to leave. I wonder if that happens often to children on the reservation…how hard it is for them to leave if they want to?

    I also could see using this book with my 6th grade as we talk about perspectives and stereotypes. I think having this discussion will help my students see some of their own stereotyping and predujices.

  10. Theresa says:

    Excellent questions Rae Etta, I wondered that myself. If they leave are they expected to come back and help with their tribe? If so, how accepting are they when one of their own has been educated comes home and wants to help? I truly felt that Arnold had tunnel vision and one goal in mind. I felt like that is what got him through the tough spots.

  11. Amanda says:

    I agree with you Salina! This book can be offensive to some people and give the wrong impression of Native Americans. I think that Arnold was a very brave person. He went through many hardships and still stayed strong. I think this book would be good for older kids.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I agree that the series that were previously mentioned are great books to get kids interested in both reading and writing. They are also books that show kids that it is okay to write as well as sketch. I loved Alexie’s book, the different text styles that were used are sure to be a hit with students, some of the subjects that were brought up in this book will keep me from sharing this book with my 3rd graders.

  13. tabitha kline says:

    I enjoyed this book. The format made it more engaging for me with the sketches and drawings. I think it would be possibe to share portions of this book with my 3rd grade students, but not certain adult topics that it addressed. Graphic novels are other options for students who appreciate the artwork.

  14. I really enjoyed seeing how determined Arnold was to get his way on the basketball court. He knew he deserved to be there and he was going to do whatever it took to get there. I believe that this is the main idea of the whole book. Arnold is learning who he is, what he is supposed to do and he learns how to stand up for himself, for what he believes in and learns that he can make it off of the reservation. This would be a great story for any child who is struggling with learning who they are to read. I know I was able to make connections and I loved how he was able to overcome his differnces in order to succeed!

  15. aline gonzales says:

    I loved this book!
    It was funny, real and I believe all teens can relate to the struggles of life! The diary format and drawing add a special connection! Highly recommend it!

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