BY: LIZ KEIPER
I’m a big fan of Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover.
I’ll admit—at first I was a bit skeptical. When we received word last school year that Berkeley County high schools were going to be reading The Crossover as a county One Book event, I was not immediately sold.
“So, it’s one of those poetry-novels. Teen angst and basketball…” I mean, I’ll try anything once, but I was not ready for how powerful that book was.
It’s about basketball… but it’s about so much more. The big ideas forming the story are incredible—family, sacrifice, love, acceptance, jealousy, revenge, (spoiler alert!) death. The poetry is rhetorically rich. There are motifs and symbolism galore, and also Biblical allusions… There are two brothers, one of whom is jealous of the other and wounds the other out of jealousy. (Cain and Abel, much?) Also, the two brothers happen to be named Joshua and Jordan, and at the end of the story, Joshua crosses over Jordan in a basketball move (eerily similar to Joshua crossing over the Jordan River into the Promised Land).
For many students, basketball was the hook or initial interest point, but there was so much more that they got from the text.
I remember telling a friend, “The Crossover isn’t just a popular poetry-novel; it’s LITERATURE!”
And Solo is no exception to that.
It is the newest book written co-written by Kwame Alexander and Mary Rand Hess. The story is about a boy named Blade who is the son of a formerly famous, now drug addicted, rock star. Blade goes on a journey in search of his past, and ultimately himself. He is an avid classic rock fan, so rock songs and references to them are woven throughout.
But of course, it’s about far more than just classic rock. Solo is also rife with symbolism, themes, allusions, powerful rhetoric, interesting poetic structure, and just about every archetype under the sun. However, I’m not going to give away too much more before you read it. ☺
I think that several activities that I used in my classroom with The Crossover would also work well with Solo (or any other novel told through poetry) because of the structure of the text.
During reading with The Crossover, I had my students analyze poems of their choosing from the book. Below are my instructions and here's a copy of the document.
We analyzed the first poem “Dribbling” as a class, and the rest were their free choice.
For me, this helped me not go “overkill” on the book during reading. This held the students responsible for deep thinking but also let them enjoy the flow of the story as well.
The Crossover is also a phenomenal mentor text for poetry writing. During reading, I had students write a Found poem modeled after the newspaper-story-turned-poem “Article #1 in the Daily News (December 14),” a List poem modeled after “Five Reasons I Have Locks,” and a Definition poem modeled after “ca-lam-i-ty.”
For each of these types of poems, we read and analyzed a model poem from The Crossover as a class, I showed them an example that I had written based on the model, and then I gave them the remaining time in class to write their own. They then decorated their favorite poem that they had written for display.
As an after-reading activity, I identified three main motifs that I found significant in the book: Flight/Flying, Stars, and the word Crossover. I split the students into groups and assigned each group a motif. I gave each group six different instances of that motif in the story and had them look up all those instances. Then as a group, they had to decide what the recurring symbol seemed to represent and why. Here's the motifs handout that accompanied the task.
Along with meshing well with the above-mentioned techniques, the new book Solo is also a fabulous example of the classical quest and the concept of The Hero’s Journey. Here’s a cool tie-in video for your kids to explain The Hero’s Journey and why it’s important.
In Solo, (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) the main character Blade has a recurring dream in which he hears a call to “wake up and face the spider.” Throughout the story, he develops many theories as to who or what the “spider” is or what this means. He then proceeds to go on a quest in which he gains much more than he expected and deciphers the nature of the “spider.” All of this is part of his Hero’s Journey.
A few years ago, I taught English 12, and after reading Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I showed my students the above Hero’s Journey Ted Ed video, and they identified the elements of the journey for both Beowulf and Sir Gawain. Then, that gave us a chance to make text-to-self connections—what is your Grendel? What is your Green Knight?
Or, in the case of Solo, what is your Spider? What is a fear or obstacle that is keeping you from your goals—your destination?
One of the deepest powers of story is how it can impact and teach. And you can definitely get to that level with your students and Solo.
So, whether you just decide to read it as a last-hurrah of summer, whether this inspires you to try to write a grant to get a classroom set, or whether you pick up a copy for your classroom library and wait for that kid with the Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin t-shirt to walk into your classroom during the first month of school and you use it to hook them on a good book… I hope that you and your students get a taste of this book.
And may you wake up and face your Spider.
WVCTE is wondering…
1) Have you read or taught The Crossover? What other engaging activities do you suggest with the text?
2) With what other quest/Hero’s Journey stories would the Ted Ed video be useful?
Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!
As a high school ELA teacher, finding the right books for my students is not only an essential part of effective instruction, but it’s critical in building good classroom culture and growing good people. I want to make sure that my classroom library and my syllabus reflect the rich diversity of my classroom population. But as a West Virginia educator, sometimes this is hard. In the last few years there has been an explosion of YA lit that features a myriad of diverse characters, races, and voices. But there seems to be a void in YA literature when it comes reflecting the unique stories of the young people of Appalachia. This past year’s NCTE Convention was themed around advocacy, and the opening panel featured several YA authors who write books that primarily feature protagonists from marginalized groups. The panel was incredible and moved me to tears, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but think, “Where is the representation for our young people in Appalachia? There is a whole group of young people who feel marginalized and who are not represented on this stage.”
More recently I attended and presented at the 40th annual Appalachian Studies Conference in Blacksburg, Va with a 13 of my Advanced Placement Language and Composition students. You can read about the incredible panel presentation we put together on this blog next week.
Before our presentation, my students and I were invited to participate in a round table discussion about youth and activism in Appalachia alongside award winning author, Robert Gipe. It was here that I was first introduced to his incredible book, Trampoline.
Trampoline is the story of 15 year old Dawn, who becomes immersed in her grandmother’s controversial fight against mountain top removal in their east Kentucky community. During our round table presentation together, the more Robert talked about Trampoline, the more I began to realize that this just may be the type of book many of our young people in Appalachia are looking for. I left the session, went straight to the convention hall and bought a copy of Trampoline. I spend the following Tuesday happily snowed in curled around this gritty, beautiful, heart-wrenching book.
As a teaching resource, Trampoline is rich with material. An illustrated novel, Gipe uses his stark black and white illustrations to provide us with further insight into the protagonist in much the same way Sherman Alexie uses Junior’s cartoons in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The similarities don’t end there. Just as Junior is forced to leave his reservation to save himself and becomes viewed as a “traitor” by most of his tribe, Dawn’s stance on mountain top removal makes her pariah to many in her mountain community.
However, Gipe’s prose sets him apart from Alexie in that Dawn’s voice is as mature, as rich, as powerful, and as resonate as the mountains themselves. And while Alexie’s book is clearly written for a young adult audience, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Trampoline as YA lit.
Trampoline is 312 pages long, a bit long for a middle school or freshman audience, and contains adult language and content. It would probably be best received in upper level high school classrooms, and/or perhaps excerpted for lower grades.
But Dawn’s story itself is one that will resonate with audiences of all ages for many reasons. Her coming of age struggle in the book is a universal one, but what makes this book important is that her story is a uniquely Appalachian one. She's a character who many of our students in central and southern West Virginia will immediately recognize as themselves. She wants to escape and at the same time she doesn’t. She knows why we need coal, but she also knows what it’s doing to her world.
One of my favorite excerpts in the book is in reference to these contradictions she faces. Dawn says:
“Those coal miners who had been so good to me, who had loved me through my tree-hugging ways, needed the mountains and the woods more than any of us. They loved it here, and they had to tear it up to stay. The full hard hardness of their lot came down on me that winter night, and I knew maybe not them but other coal-mining people would be mad at me, would hate me, but after that night, I never was mad at them, not the ones who lived here with me, not the ones taking their sorrow and joy from what was left of these trees, these rocks, these rustling waters” (226).
She loves the mountains and the people in them, but they seem to be trying to destroy her. She knows the coal miners in her community love the mountains, but they are tearing it apart. Just like West Virginia and Appalachia, Dawn and her community are full of paradoxes.
Her story is gripping, heart-breaking, and raw, and Gipe’s prose and illustrations show us this story though a powerful young voice—a character unafraid to be different, to be brave, to be strong. So often in Appalachia our young people hear a single story about who they are. Dawn rejects this. Much like the mountain landscape around her, she is powerful, wild, and authentic.
I will be adding this book to my AP English 11 Summer Reading assignment this year, and I recommend every teacher in West Virginia who is struggling to find a book that your students see themselves in, check out Trampoline.
If you’re interested in using Trampoline in your classroom, you can read the first Three Acts online in the literary and art journal, Still: the Journal. Click HERE to go straight there.
And if you had been thinking that maybe it seemed like the mountains were empty of stories for and about our young people…
well, I’ll let Dawn take this one...