Touching Bear Spirit: Artwork at JH Middle School grows from an unlikely place

By on January 3, 2018

Reading Touching Spirit Bear has become a rite of passage for sixth graders at Jackson Hole Middle School. The story follows Cole, a troubled teen with abusive parents and anger issues of his own.

It’s an intense book, and for many sixth graders the first they read about difficult subjects like abuse and alcoholism, said Michelle Rooks, a sixth grade language arts teacher. It’s a book they devote time to processing and understanding, from the darker subjects, to also the themes of forgiveness and managing emotions, Rooks said. The book offers important lessons in how feelings manifest and ways to deal with anger.

The author, Ben Mikaelsen, writes “… a large set of eyes reflected the light, staring patiently out of the darkness.”

“This is a climax point in the book,” Rooks said. “It’s when Cole releases his anger and recognizes the power of forgiveness, both of himself and others.”

It also is a quote that inspired an art project for the sixth graders to help them process the book and what that means.

The students worked with pARTners, a nonprofit that works on art projects in the schools. The week before Christmas, the kids learned scale and shading to draw human eyes they rendered on wood blocks. They then used whatever colors they wanted to create the fantastical or the realistic when it came to their eye art.

The students also answered questions about the overarching themes of the book and the quote. They thought about Cole’s anger as darkness and his forgiveness as light, Rooks said. Then they talked about what the eyes in the story and the ones they made represent.

Some of the students wrote about how they had never studied their own eyes before and in them found beauty. One student noted that he saw his grandfather in his own eyes and missed him, Rooks said. Many kids talked about new beginnings and what it means to start over.

“I’ve seen darker parts of the world and even though they are there, I can see other things as well,” one kid wrote.

“… I’m quiet, but what I realized is our eyes tell a lot about ourselves. Everybody is strong,” another said.

Another student wrote they had heard the eyes were the window to the soul and the project and quote is a reminder to look for the “good in other people and maybe most in myself.”

For many kids, reading Touching Spirit Bear is the first time they read a book that might make them uncomfortable, Rooks said.

“There’s a lot of new learning,” Rooks said. “A lot of times kids are like ‘whoa, this is an intense book.’ It’s a book that can be life-changing, but it’s about hard topics.”

Leela Rogers, 11, and Angel Rooks Orton, 12, both said they liked the book and the art project, although they said drawing the eyes was harder than they expected.

The art project showed the students how their classmates viewed themselves, Leela said. It also reminded them as they drew their eyes that no one can tell you how you should see yourself, Angel said.

The project and the book serve as a reminder that everyone is different and that’s OK, both girls said.

The book was sometimes hard to read, but the girls both said they liked and learned from it.

“(I learned) there are no second chances, but you can earn trust back,” Leela said of the book.

“Sometimes if there is a bully, he might be bullied himself,” Angel said.

Rooks has read the book at least 14 times and said she still gets something new out of it each time she teaches it.

The finished pieces hang in the sixth grade hall in the school along with responses the students decided to share publicly about what, or who has helped them out of the dark, and what they see the light shining on in their own lives. PJH


About Kelsey Dayton

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