Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Learning from Student Recommendations: Touching Spirit Bear

Last year I started having my 5th grade students keep Readers' Notebooks. This is a helpful way to keep students accountable for their reading and provides an ongoing record of their progress. As a tool to connect reading and writing, students would write a letter to me weekly to share their thinking about the books they were reading.

In addition to helping students develop skills in writing thoughtful and personal responses to the books that they read, the letters helped me gain insight into which books students really enjoyed.  One of the books that several of my students recommended enthusiastically was Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen (2001). This book came to my classroom as part of a collection of books purchased by our school from a generous grant donation. I had never read it, and since it was constantly being read by a student, I didn't get a chance to read it, until now!

Wow! What an awesome book! The story focuses on a fifteen-year-old boy, Cole Matthews, who has been in trouble with the law numerous times for fighting and stealing. The book opens with the consequences for Cole's latest crime, smashing Peter Driscal's head into the sidewalk and critically injuring him. Cole is given a choice between prison and Native American Circle Justice. Cole chooses Circle Justice and is sentenced to a year of banishment to a remote Alaskan island. Within the first few days of his stay on this island, Cole is mauled by a mysterious white bear and comes very close to dying.

As Cole suffers through this attack and faces the island once more, he learns and grows so much. There are so many lessons for all readers in this book, I was just blown away by it!

Immediately after the bear attack, as Cole is lying broken, bloody and very close to death, he has quite a bit of time to reflect and think about his situation. He is suffering so much, that he is ready to just let go and die. But he wasn't ready and suddenly "in that moment, Cole made a simple decision. He wanted to live. In death there was no control, no anger, no one to blame, no choices, no nothing. To be alive was to have choice. The power to choose was real power, not the fake power of making others afraid."

After he had been rescued from the island, people had a hard time believing that he had been attacked by a Spirit Bear, because they weren't known to be in that geographical area. Cole had kept a handful of the white hair and was going to show it to people to prove that this bear was the one that attacked him. As he reached for the bag of hair, he paused. "His life had been filled with lies, and the more he lied the more he always tried to prove he was right. Never had he been strong enough to simply tell the truth. Cole put down the bag. Today things would change. From now on he would speak the truth, even if it meant going to jail."

When he returns to the island, he is accompanied by Garvy (a Native American probation officer) and Edwin (a Tlingit Indian caretaker). With their help he learns a lot about how to look at life and let go of anger. Edwin teaches Cole to soak in a freezing cold pond every morning at dawn to help him focus on what's important, "What you focus on becomes reality. Everybody carries anger inside. But also happiness. Those who focus on anger will always be angry. Those who focus on happiness will..."

As the story progresses, there are so many awesome lessons about how to look at your circumstances, being honest with others and yourself, healing and forgiveness. This book has made an impact on my own feelings about starting the school year. I can choose to focus on the stress of all of the work that we do or I can focus on the happiness I have when I help children learn to love reading (or math, or science, or social studies...). I can choose to be frightened to get involved or extend myself because of what others might think or I can take risks (like starting a blog or going out of town to a conference) that might make a world of difference in the learning of kids.

I'm so glad I took the time to read this book. Now when one of my students wants to discuss the story with me, I know that I'm prepared to share all of the excitement I felt when I read it and help him/her appreciate all the lessons this book has.

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