Mentor Text Wednesday – Sunday Edition: Writing About Tragedy

Mentor Texts:

Sometimes, The Earth is Cruel by Leonard Pitts Jr.

Patton Oswalt’s Facebook response to the Boston Marathon Bombing

Take Time To Heal – A Gay Educator Looks At Orlando by Jess Lifshitz

Finding Love In Our Anger – A Straight Educator Looks at Orlando by Doug Robertson

I Still Love America by Devin Faraci

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About Tragic Events


As teachers know, sometimes, in the moment, you break the routine, and you do what you feel needs doing. That’s why there’s a Mentor Text Wednesday column posted on a Sunday. This wasn’t a column I planned to write. It’s not one I wanted to write. I really felt that I needed to.

Doug Robertson, known as The Weird Teacher, hosts a weekly Twitter chat, #WeirdEd. I participate when I can. On June 15th, the chat focused on how we, as educators, deal with LGBTQ issues, particularly in the wake of the tragic loss of life on June 12th in Orlando.

He, and another educator, Jess Lifshitz, wrote introductory blog posts, discussing their feelings. Jess frequently blogs about her experiences as a gay educator and parent. Her posts are always powerful and personal, the one for #WeirdEd being no exception.

Image via shutterstock

Over the course of the chat, we discussed how we move forward, and how we can teach in such a way to make things better, to lessen hate, to foster understanding and to help people heal. I answered, highlighting my own classroom practice as an English teacher, and the power of literature to build empathy.

I forgot about writing. I often refer to writing as thinking out loud on paper. It’s often part of my personal process for working through ideas, not just for writing, but for speaking or teaching. Sometimes, my notebook or computer screen bears thoughts that will not see the light of day, but that need to come out of me. When I deal with tough stuff, that helps me process. Students need this too.

In the wake of tragedy, those that write for a living do just that. They respond and react. They create and share. I realized that I had been collecting these kinds of pieces for awhile. This is sometimes how a mentor text set is built, over time. Penny Kittle shared Leonard Pitts Jr.’s piece about Haiti with us a few years ago. Patton Oswalt’s emotional response to the Boston Marathon bombing stuck with me. Jess and Doug’s pieces prefacing #WeirdEd about Orlando, as well as Devin Faraci’s response to Orlando resonated as well.

A terrible truth is that this is a mentor text cluster I will continue to add to.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Writing About Tragic Events — As I’ve already said, when terrible things happen, writers respond with words. Why would our writers be any different?

The challenge here, as a teacher, is that our writers are young. They are raw balls of emotion at the best of times, to say nothing of what they are at times of tragedy. We need to guide them through this exercise.

I would honestly start them off with simply writing. Minimal instruction, just letting the thoughts flow onto the page. Feelings are visceral things, and the first bit of writing about tragedy should capture that. It’s how we process.

Then, we look at the mentor texts. We’d hopefully note that each of these writers speaks pretty openly about their emotions. The rawness is there in most of these pieces. Our writers could look at the way this is channeled by different writers.

Oswalt’s piece gives us a nice opportunity for a lesson, or chat, about the use of profanity. It’s an eternal question with our writers, and not the focus of this column, so I’ll not go on, but here, the f-word is used for impact. Not for shock, or titillation, for impact. As it should be with any word choice.

The part of this set of mentor texts that I would stress, however, is that each writer also focuses on the future. There’s talk of action, there’s talk of the positive in humanity, there’s talk of hope. This is what they need to write as well. Perhaps it’s just words on a page, but the process may make those words into something more, build empathy, or inspire change.

Timing is a weird thing with this set. Do we wait for the next bad thing to happen before we do this? Do we teach this independent of a specific event? Is it an activity that we do as response to a text that features tragedy? Do we have students write about personal tragedy, first, knowing that they may get a second chance at responding to tragedy when something happens? It’s challenging, because I don’t actually want to have to use this set. I’d rather not have it, because I’d rather not have the tragedies that prompted the writing.

As both Jess and Doug point out in their pieces, we have a responsibility as educators to help our students work through things like this. As teachers of writing, it is our job to help them find the words, and craft their responses. It is not easy. It is not fun. It is, however, necessary.

Do you have strategies for having students write about tragedy? What are your thoughts on the timing questions I posed? I hate to admit it, but I know that there are other powerful pieces responding to tragedy… what are some that I missed?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!



Leave a Reply