National Writing Project

Singing Up Our Ancestors: Teaching Myrlin Hepworth's "Ritchie Valens"

Publication: Rethinking Schools
Date: Summer 2014

Summary: In this article published in Rethinking Schools magazine, Linda Christensen—director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College—describes how she used a bilingual poem about a historical figure to start a dialogue with her students and draw out their own poetry.


Myrlin Hepworth's poem 'Ritchie Valens' is a Swiss army knife kind of poem, providing multiple functions—mentor text for poetic devices; biographic poem to help students praise family members, literary characters, or historical figures; tutor text that examines both racial and language discrimination in the United States; accessible model to launch students' own poetry."

Linda recounts how she sets the mood to engage her students in studying the poem and its historical context.

When I teach the poem, I play Valens' signature song, 'La Bamba,' and project his image across a large screen as students walk in. Most students are familiar with the song, and some even sing along and dance as they move into their seats. 'Hey, I watched that movie with my mom,' Trina remembers. 'He's the singer who died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly, right?' Vince asks. 'The 'La Bamba' upbeat rhythm is a great start to any day.'"

She then guides them though the process of examining the poem's structure and style.

At this point, I'm getting on students' nerves, but we return to the poem again. 'What are Hepworth's poetic landmarks? What do you notice about how he moves the poem forward? What are his hooks?' Let me pause to say that these are questions I ask about almost every poem we examine—and about essays and narratives, as well. These are the 'raise the bones' questions necessary to get students to read like writers."

Finally, she instructs students to write their own poems using Hepworth's "Ritchie Valens" as a model.

I tell students, 'Ultimately, this is a love poem, a praise poem, a biographic poem, so think about who you want to write about.'"

About the Author
LINDA CHRISTENSEN is Director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor and author of Reading, Writing, and Rising Up and Teaching for Joy and Justice.

This article originally appeared in Rethinking Schools, Summer 2014. Used with permission.

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