Today was Day 2 of our Read-a-Thon—ten days of non-stop reading in my 9th grade classes. When the bell rang at the end of 6th period, every student’s head popped up in surprise, so engrossed were we the world of our books.
I finished two novels in verse today. Ironically, poetry has never been a favorite genre, even though there are poems that I love so much I know their lines by heart—”Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “The Weight of Sweetness” by Li-Young Lee, “My Dreams, My Works, Must Wait Till After Hell” by Geraldine Brooks. Not surprisingly, I love to read, but I’d never really explored novels in verse until relatively recently.
A colleague was kind enough to lend me her ARC of Kwame Alexander’s next novel, Booked. I had met Kwame last fall at a conference and picked up his Newbery winning novel The Crossover. It was actually the first novel in verse I’d decided to read, and when I finished, I couldn’t wait to get it into the hands of every one of my students. I remember many interested faces when I told them about its story, but the moment I revealed that it was written in verse, I could see many of those students’ faces drop.
“I don’t like poetry,” one student said after another.
I shared my own reservations and inexperience with novels in verse, hoping to convince even just one or two students. “Just give it a chance,” I told them. “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
A few students did take me up on the novel, and now it’s quietly making its way around the classroom. Not only that, but I’ve started to see other novels in verse pop up in students’ hands, like those of Ellen Hopkins. One students checked out a new title from the library called One by Sarah Crossen yesterday and finished it today. “I read so much last night,” she told me this morning. “It was so good I couldn’t put it down!”
Aside from Booked, the other title I finished was October Mourning by Leslea Newman. It was a book that a student recommended to me last year, and I’m so thankful that she did. Newman skillfully captures the events and people surrounding Matthew Shepard’s tragic death—and more importantly, honors his life. Each poem is written in its own form—the book includes an explanation of each form at the end—and draws on the real-life words of those involved in the case for inspiration. Each poem could easily stand alone, but taken together, the poems work to tell the whole story.
When I told my colleague, who is the librarian in our building, that I was going to read October Mourning (she has also highly recommended it), she warned, “Just be ready to cry.” Perhaps I should have heeded her warning a little bit better and saved October Mourning for a time when I wasn’t surrounded by students. I caught myself getting teary-eyed in several places, putting the book down to take a few deep, long breaths. Fortunately, most students were too lost in their own books to notice. Or at least I thought so.
On her way out the door, one student asked me what book I was reading. “I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting,” she told me. After I told her the title, she asked, “Was it sad?”
“It was a bit sad, yes.”
“I could tell by the way you were reading it. I kept seeing your facial expressions. What’s it about?”
I told her a little bit more about the book, which gave her pause. Then, as she walked out the door, she added, “Maybe I’ll read it.”
I smiled and made a note to put it by her desk the next day.
It’s hard to put into words how powerful October Mourning is. Matthew Shepard’s death was one that I’d always felt connected and drawn to, perhaps because we were the same age. Now, however, I’m drawn to Matthew Shepard’s story because I’m a mother to three boys, and I cannot fathom how awful Matthew’s death was for his family. When I finished the book this afternoon, I knew I wasn’t quite finished with the story. I needed to know more, perhaps to try to understand or make sense of it all. So I watched the film, The Laramie Project, which depicts the events surrounding the Matthew Shepard tragedy by piecing together transcripts from more than 200 interviews with the people of Laramie, where Matthew Shepard was killed.
I’m not a person with extra time to watch a movie, especially on a Thursday afternoon, exhausted as I was by the school week. But as I sat in my classroom after all the students had filed out, and the halls quickly quieted, I found myself still searching, needing answers to all the questions October Mourning left me grappling with. After some quick Googling, I found the entire film on YouTube. Though I don’t know that my questions were answered after watching The Laramie Project—after all, how can there really be any satisfying answers to the tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s death—I’m so glad that I took the time to watch it. What a powerful film and companion to Newman’s poetry—and a moving testimony to Matthew’s life.
This post is part of the “Slice of Life” series, organized by the teachers at Two Writing Teachers, whose goal is to give teachers a place to write and reflect. This March, more than 300 teachers have committed to daily writing. If you’d like to read more “slices” (from other teachers and even some students), visit twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/challenges.