Unsung Heroes, Reprise

Last week I received an unexpected email from the director of the West Lafayette Public Library, Nick Schenkel.  In a book talk on our local NPR station, he had reviewed the collection of essays my 9th grade Honors English class had written and published last spring; he was writing to invite me to listen. Unsung Heroes in Our Community, Volume III was the culmination of a year of carefully planned instruction on my part and intense research, personal interviews, and many, many revisions on the part of the students.  In late May, we celebrated the publication of the book with a festive reception for the heroes in our high school media center.

When you write anything, you wonder if it will find an audience and what that audience will think. Accordingly, I went right to the WBAA website to find and listen to the review. As my browser searched out the recording, I speculated about the content of the 10-minute spot. What would be the focus? Would it be on the work of the heroes or the work of the students?  Which of the stories would Nick retell? Who among my students would be featured? What would the overall appraisal be?

I listened intently.

First, I was gratified that each hero was mentioned—certainly, a few were highlighted—but every person was represented. The students had worked in groups of three to research their topic and interview the hero they were honoring; thus, all of them were recognized for their work. Then I was excited: I wanted to listen to the review again, this time with my students—now 10th graders—and watch their reaction to Nick’s comments and his praise (Yes!)  for their work. Their current teacher graciously let me steal some of her time with them to do so. Sitting in a classroom again with these remarkable kids and listening to what the librarian said took us all right back to last spring when we had worked together so intensely for so long.

Nick opens his review by explaining that Unsung Heroes “spotlights local residents with big hearts and big imaginations.”  The students nodded, stole looks at one another, smiled at me. The librarian goes on to say that each essay exemplifies “Hoosier can-do”—and I thought about how the students’ work itself illustrates the same thing. When we first began the project, the very idea of writing a book had seemed preposterous to them—but the students had persevered, completed the task, and now were hearing genuine, unsolicited praise for a book that Nick calls an “uplift for our spirits.” Like a detective, Nick had read the text, discerned the evolution of the final product, and in his review, he illuminates not only the content of Unsung Heroes, but the process by which it was accomplished.

In the published book, each essay is followed by the students’ personal reflections on the process.  In her reflection, Alesia repeats the definition of a hero that the class had generated: Motivated by his or her values, beliefs, or compassion for others, a hero is a person who, with no expectation of recognition or reward, when confronted by a disaster, an injustice, or a need, inspires and helps others—at the risk of losing something valuable.  Nick zeroes in on that definition in his review, pronouncing it “as good as any I have read.”  We basked in the glow of those seven words, knowing that developing that definition had been our very first step. It had taken the students two instructional days to list all the attributes of a hero they could think of and then capture the essence of those qualities in short, precise phrases. We worked at the ENO board to put all of their ideas into one (long) grammatical sentence—not an easy feat.  Can you imagine having debates about prepositional phrases and commas  and dashes with 9th graders? Well, we had them. Two days—100 minutes—to write a definition might seem extravagant, but 28 kids had to agree on every word. Just as importantly, having a clear definition was critical to the success of the project. It guided the students in selecting the heroes in the first place and later on in composing the text.

Nick mentioned the research the students did—a long and arduous process in which they investigated their hero’s cause and then wrote a traditional term paper complete with an annotated bibliography and a works cited page. Then came the interviews—when the students met their heroes face-to-face—and the follow-up: emails, phone calls, and second and third meetings in some cases. And then the drafts of the essays—and the seemingly endless revisions.

Oh yes. The revisions. I read and responded to the students’ first efforts, reading for structure and coherence. Then I read again—still for structure and coherence. The students read each other’s work—for clarity and  detail. Revisions followed and the students read again—their own and each other’s essays. Sentence structure, word choice, transitions: they checked on these.  Finally, finally, there was the line editing—the grammar that had to be checked, the questions about punctuation that had to answered, the intricacies of prepositional phrases and adjective clause placements that had to be determined. Revision went on—it seemed to them—forever.

One transition was particularly pesky. The students who were writing an essay about the chairperson of our local community health clinic needed to profile the  clinic’s founder, a different person, first, and then transition into the discussion of the chairperson’s work. The first time I listened to Nick’s review, I nearly jumped out of my seat at his mention of that particular segue. He says it was effected “effortlessly.”  When the kids heard that, they grinned broadly.  The fact is, I must have sent that piece back half a dozen times because the transition was choppy; ultimately, the students got it right. That it seemed so smooth to Nick made all the red ink, the returns, the frustration, and the perseverance so worth it. The power of revision: illustrated for us right there on the radio. Could a teacher ask for more?

At one point Nick explains to the radio audience that these essays were written by teams of students “in the best tradition of committee writing.”  The team approach had posed a design problem for me as a teacher. Voice is so important in writing, and I had been afraid that voice would be lost if the students worked collaboratively. Indeed, as McKaylee wrote later, in her reflection on the process, “One of the most challenging aspects of the Unsung Heroes project was to allow the paper to smoothly flow, camouflaging the fact that it was written by three authors instead of one.”  When I hit upon the idea of including each student’s personal reflection in the book, the problem of voice was resolved—and the book is the better for the reflections. Though their heroes have inspired them and made permanent imprints on their lives, in the end, Nick is right:  The reflections are often the most “compelling and thought-filled” pieces in the book.  When he read a portion of  Kory’s reflection, captured a line that Sherrie wrote, repeated Eric’s lovely tribute to the special education teacher in our own building, these three blushed, slid down in their seats, felt the hot pride of authorship that comes when a story has hit home.

“What do you think?” I asked at the end of the broadcast. “How does it feel to listen to the review?”

“It gives me goose bumps,” said Megan, who was sitting next to me. This wasn’t hyperbole. There were little bumps all over her arms.

It gave me goose bumps, too.

Thank you, Nick. Thank you for affirming me as a teacher, my students as writers, and the heroes’ stories as inspiration for us all.

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