Are You the Master of Your Fate?
Use contemporary nonfiction in order to develop empathy and examine the power an individual has over his destiny.
By Elijah Ammen
Teenagers often feel powerless to change their destiny. Decisions are made for them by parents, teachers, and other adults. What they seldom realize is that the decisions they make in middle and high school have an incalculable influence on their future. This is why powerful nonfiction texts, like The Other Wes Moore, help young people consider how their choices have resounding effects on their future.
The story of The Other Wes Moore is a simple premise: two men with the same name grew up in similar neighborhoods, with similar difficulties, yet one of them became a successful businessman and the other is in jail for the rest of his life for murder. In this true story, the author Wes Moore (through meticulous interviews and visits with the other, incarcerated, Wes Moore) goes back through both of their lives and tells the story of how they grew up and the choices they made.
The book has been a bestseller, and the author Wes Moore has leveraged the success to raise support for organizations that help young people in difficult situations like what he and the other Wes Moore faced. Since the Common Core standards place a heavier influence on informational texts, it's important to find extended, nonfiction narratives that are still engaging and can reinforce literature standards as well. The Other Wes Moore provides a variety of ways to blend standards while having your class focus on making decisions that set them on a successful path.
Teach Literary Concepts
Because "informational text" is usually teacher-speak for "news article on something," students get a warped perspective of the range of nonfiction. Because of the narrative format, The Other Wes Moore can be used to teach a wide variety of literary concepts—protagonists, conflict, plot, motivation, and foreshadowing, to name a few. All these concepts can be applied to real life—something that readers sometimes overlook.
One of the concepts you can incorporate is poetic devices and how poetry can communicate a theme. One of the repeated themes of The Other Wes Moore is that your fate is determined by your choices, not outside forces. The author Wes Moore talks repeatedly about a poem that influenced his belief in this—"Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. The ending has a famous phrase that Wes Moore often references:
"It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul" (13-16).
This is a beautiful opportunity to teach poetry and directly connect the theme and message of the poem to both the author's life and the lives of the young people in your class (not to mention the potential for teaching imagery, symbolism, rhyme, rhythm, and meter).
Empathize with Reflective Writing
I teach in a Title I school where many of my children face social and financial difficulties I could barely imagine at their age. Reflective writing with The Other Wes Moore has helped me see the similarities between the Wes Moores and my kids, because their reflective writing communicates similar experiences. However, no matter what the social strata, children everywhere wrestle with the same issues of identity and control. More affluent students often feel even more helpless because their lives are run by the adults around them—they can't see how their limited choices change anything.
This is where reflective writing can help your writers develop empathy and serve as a form of catharsis. If you are struggling with developing writing prompts, consider using the ReadNRespond Bloom's taxonomy questioning app that we recently reviewed, or the A+ writing prompt app.
Evaluate and Create Media
On the Wes Moore website, they have several clips where the author Wes Moore visits where he grew up and discusses his childhood, as well as interviews with both the author and the other Wes Moore's mothers. This helps your classes put faces to characters and solidifies the reality of this story.
Once you have evaluated the media that exists, that can serve as a model for your classes to go and interview their own family members and discuss where and how they have grown up this far. This can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. It can be a simple interview with a family member, an interview with a picture of where they grew up, a Google Earth tour of where they have lived, or a full-fledged video project interviewing multiple sources and investigating their family history.
No matter how you use this book, whether you use it as a primary text or merely recommend it as independent reading, the effects can be great. The text is accessible, but rigorous, even being used with college freshmen (though I have used the text successfully with 10th grade, many of whom are not reading on grade level). The rigorous vocabulary is balanced with the high-interest story that keeps readers engaged; but most of all, it challenges readers to consider how their choices control their destiny, and how they can become masters of their fate.