We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga – Studying a Mentor Text

Before I share this morning’s Teachers Write post, would you take a minute to celebrate with me? I have a new book in the world today!

Ranger in Time: Night of Soldiers and Spies is the latest in my Scholastic chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog and takes Ranger back to the days of the American Revolution. If you’d like a signed, personalized copy of this new book or any of my other titles, just call The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid at 518-523-2950. I’ll be signing there on Friday, and they’ll happily mail your books so they arrive next week. You can also order online & just make a note in the comments about how you’d like it signed. I’m happy to personalize books for your class or school, and if you mention that you’re part of Teachers Write, I’ll do a special inscription for you as a fellow writer! 

Okay…now on to today’s mentor text! 

Often, when we hear the word “mentor” we think of larger-than-life figures like Albus Dumbledore. But the truth is, finding a mentor is as simple as asking the question “How are you doing that?” And as writers, we can ask that question of books we love as well as people. We call those great books “mentor texts,” and we can learn so much from them by spending a little time picking them apart and looking at how they’re built.
 
Today, we’re going to take a closer look at We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, written by Traci Sorell and illsutrated by Frané Lessac. It’s a beautiful and lyrical picture book that’s won a pile of awards, including a Sibert and Boston Globe Horn Book Award Honors.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Written by Traci Sorrell &
illustrated by Frané Lessac

One of the first questions a writer of nonfiction has to ask herself is “How do I want to tell this story?” Let’s take a look at how Traci structured this look at the tradition of gratitude in Cherokee culture.

She leads with a clear, simple explanation of the book’s title and its refrain: Otsaliheliga.

And from there, the book winds its way through the seasons, looking at expressions of gratitude in fall, winter, spring, and summer. Each season begins with a similar refrain…

When cool breezes blow and leaves fall, we say otsaliheliga…

As bears sleep deep and snow blankets the ground, we say otsaliheliga…

When showers fill streams and shoots spring up, we say otsaliheliga…

As the crops mature and the sun scorches, we say otsaliheliga…

That structure – grouping the many expressions of gratitude by season – gives both author and reader a way to organize all of that information, and all of those vivid images. It’s a structure that was actually inspired by a mentor text that Traci read when she was studying picture books herself.

“I loved the structure and concept in Joann Rocklin’s 2015 fictional picture book, I Say Shehechiyanu, illustrated by Monika Filipina (Kar-Ben). It follows a child’s first experiences through the four seasons as a new sister, going to school, etc. with her saying the Jewish blessing ‘Shehechiyanu’  each time something new is experienced.”

The books are very different from one another – one fiction and one nonfiction – but that structure provided the foundation on which Traci could weave the language that paints Cherokee culture.

You’ve probably already noticed some of that carefully chosen language in the lines shared above – the way the alliteration of phrases like “cool breezes blow” and “showers fill springs and shoots spring up” evoke what’s happening in nature in that season. Did you notice the way, when you read the words “bears sleep deep,” those rhyming long-e sounds force you to slow down? Just like nature slows down when it’s time for creatures to hibernate. While this is a work of nonfiction, it’s also utterly poetic – something that makes for a magical read aloud.

In fact, if you have the book, read it aloud right now. (It’s okay. I’ll wait…) And as you do, jot down the phrases that feel particularly evocative, the places where the word choice really sing. What did you notice?

Here’s one more assignment for today. Try a little writing of your own about gratitude. Choose a season and using Traci’s structure as a mentor text, write a few lines about that season and what it means in your world, what you’re grateful for, and perhaps how you express that gratitude. Consider a repeated refrain. Consider word choice. Make that season sing.

40 Replies on “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga – Studying a Mentor Text

  1. I’m working on a variation of the seasons structure, in this case the seasons of the school year. I’ve got New season, Boo Season, and Flu Season, but I don’t have my last one…Adieu Season? It’s meant as an appreciation of our own particular cycle, affected by the seasons of nature, certainly, but with the calendar New Year as the mid-point.

    The New Season
    We pose by a mailbox, fortified by summer, new backpack slung over our shoulder, smiling sun-splashed face. Snap.

    We open doors to a yellow bus, grasp a silver railing, and head farther back than last year. Shuffle.

    We walk through opened doors in groups, in pairs, and on our own, butterflies in our belly and memories on our mind. Mingle.

    We inhale the mysterious school scent. What is it? Board cleaner? Floor shiner? We wonder as our new sneakers squeak up the hall. Sniff.

    We enter a new room, new world, new neighbors, and new routines. Read a new message and adjust to new voices. We relish the promise of sharp-pointed pencils and unwritten entries. We’re ready to make our mark. Stroke.

    1. I love all these images you paint in my mind, Peter. Yes, Adieu Season sounds great. Once Spring Break is over, that’s all anyone seems to have on their minds. How many days left? I know I always did as a child and my little guy does now too.

    2. I posted earlier, not sure where it went but I love the single word at the end as a pithy summary. so good! The questions on the scent lines took me out of the rhythm however. Thanks for the reminder that school is my grateful place!

    3. What a great idea to divide the school year into seasons! I really like the pattern with the one word statement at the end of each section. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Love the description then the single word sums it up. so good. The school scent one with questions though takes me out of the rhythm. Maybe make those statements. I love the smell of new supplies!

  3. Was not sure where the idea of gratitude would take me but it took me to the first day of school . We may lament the summer and talk about how hard days are but we love it and I am so grateful to have this job and this life because of it.

    First Day of School

    Every single one of us

    is pins and needles

    sharp nerves

    new scratchy clothes and roles

    not quite comfy yet

    Every single one of us

    has an inner voice bursting

    squealing tamed excitement

    in the reunions

    new and old

    Every single one of us

    is vibrating with short uneven breaths

    harnessing anxiety

    toeing the cliff of unknowns

    together and alone

    Every single one of us

    is mindless mumbling plans and checklists

    organizing, collecting, unpacking

    entire worlds

    easing into our chores

    Every single one of us

    is high fives, hugs, robust hellos

    spreading relief

    in new rooms, supplies, class lists

    renewal, potential and a wish

    1. Nice! I like the repeat of “Every single one of us”. Love the last lines, too. potential and a wish.

    2. Every single one of us is a great refrain for how we are all a little uncomfortable, yet excited, on the first day of school.

    3. Love your word choices (“toeing the cliff of unknowns”). The refrain “Every single one of us” is lovely.

  4. Great opening stanza “every single one of us” – what a great way to introduce the collective to students, Diane! It helps them realize they are not alone in what they are feeling, seeing or experiencing that first day. Hope you’ll share this with your students when school starts again.

  5. I know it’s only day 2 but I think I’m already learning a lot and getting a much better sense of what we ask students to do on a regular basis! This was a great mentor text and I appreciated Kate’s teaching points very much. I based my writing on the pattern used in the book and the was hesitant to share … but there are oh so many things I’m grateful for each summer break and decided to just go for it. After all, stories are better when they are shared.

    A bit of backstory: I really haven’t known a year without a similar type of summer vacation – since starting kindergarten as a student in 1990, I’ve always followed the school year cycle of the months (technically in university “summer break” was May-Aug and I was working part-time or full-time), but for basically 29 years summer has been the in-between school year time (as a student until 2007 and then as an elementary school teacher since). And certainly for my adult years from about 2002 to now, my summers have been quite similar and a source of great joy.

    — Summer —

    When the temperature rises and the sun settles in, I feel grateful.

    As books are read and football games are watched,

    As my body relaxes and my brain lets loose,

    As brown skin deepens and dark hair lightens,

    As to-do list items get checked off in between lazy days on the couch,

    As memories are made with close family and far-away friends.

    These are the ingredients of a summer vacation, and I am grateful.

    1. This pattern works well for your poem. I especially enjoy when my body relaxes and my brain lets loose. That leaves space for new learning.

    2. You captured that summer feeling so well! I especially like the comparison of “brown skin deepens and dark hair lightens.”

  6. So many beautiful word choices, but these really spoke to me:
    “burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the Great New Moon Ceremony”

    “While we collect buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets to remember our ancestors who suffered hardship and loss on the Trail of Tears.”

    I took a Native American class at Northern Arizona for my Masters in English and I loved that class. I was introduced to so many new and amazing Native American authors. My great great grandmother was a Canadian Indian – Shuswap, British Columbia. My mother was always so proud of her ancestry, as I am. I am 14% Native American according to my DNA. Here is my attempt at gratitude and although sloppy and quick, thank you Traci Sorell, as I used your “template.” I based this on our first granddaughter who was born this year. We have 5 grandsons, and it was so fun to finally have a granddaughter.

    When new life is placed in your arms and names run through your head, we thank God.
    as our ancestors nod, cousins smile, and grandparents cry, and lilacs sweet scent floats around outside during the Christening Ceremony.
    as we clean the house, wear our church best, enjoy a celebration meal, and forget past hurts and quarrels.
    while we each take turns holding the new infant, each hypothesizing who she looks like most…
    and have hope as our Nana cradles the newest babe of the family and smiles because the girl holds her name.

    As she sleeps deep and summer arrives, the baby fattens, and the sun beams, we thank God.
    when we watch the stars and wade in the creek camping next to the cool mountains.
    as we sink our teeth into the juicy watermelon during the Fourth of July fireworks.
    while we scramble to chase a baseball that Grandpa hit over in right field.
    when we recall our forefathers sacrifices to preserve our way of life, her future life.

    When fall leaves fill the sidewalks and a cool breeze blows, we thank God.
    While baby girl sits up and her wide eyes look all around her, we gather the last of the pumpkins and squash
    and we practice patience as baby’s first tooth tears through, first cold, and sleepless nights.
    as we hold hands, gathered around the sumptuous feast, and younger ones fight over the wish bone, and mom’s sweet-smelling rolls reminds us not to argue with each other.
    as we embrace our nephew back from Iraq, serving our country.

    As the toddler sleeps and snow envelopes the ground, we thank God.
    While great Uncle shares stories and we savor hot chocolate and cinnamon toast.
    When we create caramel corn, and Christmas cards.
    As older brother teaches younger sis to sing eency weency spider, and play cars.
    While we gather to remember our Savior’s birth as dad cuddles the newest member of our family and we sing traditional Christmas carols, especially Rudolf the Red Nosed reindeer.

    Every day, every season. Thank God.

  7. Taking a break from the heat outside, I listened for the sounds of summer.

    When the heat calls cicadas to buzz, summer’s song is near.
    When hummingbirds hum for sweet water, summer’s song is near.
    When an ice cream truck jingles “Mary Had a Little Lamb” slightly out of tune,
    summer’s song is near.
    When high-pitched squeals amid water splashes, summer’s song is near.
    When thunder rumbles from a looming cloud, summer’s song is near.
    Summer’s song blends and blares,
    Summer’s song shouts and snares
    Summer’s song is here!

  8. I love this stanza, Rachel. It definitely oozes summer. I have not yet had any time for a summer like this, but I hope I can make up for it in the next two months!

  9. So mine is about our summer home in door county wisconsin – this is a very rough draft so I don’t really have the repetitive line down yet but seeing all the other posts is super helpful.

    When school is out and Texas sun is blazing hot, we think Fish Creek

    While packing the car for a 2 day trip to get to the place where time slows down

    When the only thing we have to do is enjoy the house that our ancestors built 100 years ago.

    Where the water can be scuzzy and refreshingly cool or clear and frigidly breathtaking depending on how the wind blows

    As older children teach younger ones how to play without batteries… board games and card games, games like Spud and Freezetag

    Where the stone steps are a place for conversation and cocktails while dinner is grilled and the annual “step picture” is taken to show how the family has grown

    As 3 generations gather for dinner at a table that extends each year as the family welcomes babies and friends who become family

    While the sun descends and paints a picture of reds, pinks, orange and purples we have seen thousands of sunsets from the house, but no two are a like

    Stories are told on the porch at night of summers that have passed and the shenanigans of grandparents and uncles and cousins

    Where the sound of the waves hitting the rocks is our nightly lullaby as we drift off to sleep, we think Fish Creek.

  10. Summers on Martha’s Vineyard always made me happy. There were fields of white daisies and yellow buttercups. Sometimes the clouds were puffy, other times they were a streak of white above sandy beaches. The sunset made the ocean look like orange paint on a blue canvas. And the night sky was often one of those dramatic skies with shades of red and orange only God could make. It was a welcome change from the smoky city of Boston and my concrete playground. How could you not be happy!

  11. I love your book. So many beautiful word choices, but these really spoke to me:
    “burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the Great New Moon Ceremony”

    “While we collect buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets to remember our ancestors who suffered hardship and loss on the Trail of Tears.”

    I took a Native American class at Northern Arizona for my Masters in English and I loved that class. I was introduced to so many new and amazing Native American authors. My great great grandmother was a Canadian Indian – Shuswap, British Columbia. My mother was always so proud of her ancestry, as I am. I am 14% Native American according to my DNA. Here is my attempt at gratitude and although sloppy and quick, thank you Traci Sorell, as I used your “template.” I based this on our first granddaughter who was born this year. We have 5 grandsons, and it was so fun to finally have a granddaughter.

    When new life is placed in your arms and names run through your head, we thank God.
    as our ancestors nod, cousins smile, and grandparents cry, and lilacs sweet scent floats around outside during the Christening Ceremony.
    as we clean the house, wear our church best, enjoy a celebration meal, and forget past hurts and quarrels.
    while we each take turns holding the new infant, each hypothesizing who she looks like most…
    and have hope as our Nana cradles the newest babe of the family and smiles because the girl holds her name.

    As she sleeps deep and summer arrives, the baby fattens, and the sun beams, we thank God.
    when we watch the stars and wade in the creek camping next to the cool mountains.
    as we sink our teeth into the juicy watermelon during the Fourth of July fireworks.
    while we scramble to chase a baseball that Grandpa hit over in right field.
    when we recall our forefathers sacrifices to preserve our way of life, her future life.

    When fall leaves fill the sidewalks and a cool breeze blows, we thank God.
    While baby girl sits up and her wide eyes look all around her, we gather the last of the pumpkins and squash
    and we practice patience as baby’s first tooth tears through, first cold, and sleepless nights.
    as we hold hands, gathered around the sumptuous feast, and younger ones fight over the wish bone, and mom’s sweet-smelling rolls reminds us not to argue with each other.
    as we embrace our nephew back from Iraq, serving our country.

    As the toddler sleeps and snow envelopes the ground, we thank God.
    While great Uncle shares stories and we savor hot chocolate and cinnamon toast.
    When we create caramel corn, and Christmas cards.
    As older brother teaches younger sis to sing eency weency spider, and play cars.
    While we gather to remember our Savior’s birth as dad cuddles the newest member of our family and we sing traditional Christmas carols, especially Rudolf the Red Nosed reindeer.

    Every day, every season. Thank God.

  12. Read the assignment before going out on my morning walk with my dog and ended up having phrases run through my head as I went. So I wrote them down and did a few edits but really tried to not stress over making it into something special. I tend to get immobilized by wanting to write something good that I never get anything down. I also am setting a personal goal to share beyond my private journal this year.

    Walks with Rue

    Chipmunks scatter

    birds chatter

    winds whisper 

    paws softly pad to add to the clatter

    morning walks with Rue.

    “Good Morning,

    Pretty Dog”

    Regale posing

    Wheels whirling whiz on by 

    morning walks with Princess Rue.

    Shadows cast

    as the sun beats past

    cool breeze brings some ease

    Head on back to follow tracks

    morning walks with Rue.

  13. Here’s what I came up with though I may not have all four seasons (there may be repeats) and they are not in any kind of order. Still in drafting stage.

    When I see a family of hares scurry through the grass, I say gracias.
    When I see the rain pelt the roof of the house across the street, I say gracias.
    When I watch the light of day turn to night, I say gracias.
    When the distinctive sound of the ice cream truck bell sounds, I say gracias.

  14. From my rough draft – The Season of Full Hands, a Full Plate, and a Full Heart – organized in those categories and following a day in the life of a teacher-mom in the summer.

    “It doesn’t feel as delicate and fragile as it truly is, so we have to remind ourselves its fleeting.”

  15. I loved this assignment and I’m so glad to be taking this class.
    My favorite season has always been spring. Having two little ones and teaching first graders, I feel like spring reenergizes me and I am so thankful for it!

    When my body begins to thaw.
    As my spirits begin to bloom.
    As I see smiles and hear laughter.
    When I smell love.
    I am grateful for spring.

  16. Spent all day driving from northern Virginia to Erie, Pennsylvania, with my 23-year old son. Between rest stops, I’d write in my head while playing car games and listening to music At every rest stop I’d rush jot down the phrase I’d worked on. No repeating phrase yet, and I stuck close to nature and one season — spring:
    Sleepy worms snuggle deep underground waiting for warm rain.
    Fiddleheads, forest deep, uncurl, unfold, flutter and stretch.
    Evening peepers sing a sweet lullaby from every tree top.

  17. Grateful for Summertime

    I’m grateful for summertime
    Slow mornings
    Longer lunches
    Ice cream afternoons
    And reading past ten

    I’m grateful for the tastes of
    Chick-fil-a nuggets
    Chased with cold lemonade
    Or a McDonald’s cheeseburger
    As we eat our Happy Meals

    I’m grateful for the smells of
    Beef on the grill
    Fresh cut grass
    Rain soaking the concrete
    After another shower

    I’m grateful for the sounds of
    Disney princesses
    Belting out ballads
    My own ice queen
    Singing “Let It Go”

    I’m grateful for the visions of
    Paw Patrol pups
    Playing at the dining table
    Assorted stickers
    Decorating the doors

    I’m grateful for the feelings
    Of warmth and sunshine
    Longer days
    Even the humidity
    Because the midwest is home

    I’m grateful for these days
    When writing is my work
    A toddler, my only pupil
    The playground is our classroom
    And the minutes make memories

  18. Here is my take on seasons/gratitude as a busy mom of 4 with my first summer off in 10 years! I’ll be returning to the classroom as a 1st grade teacher this fall from doing above school level curriculum work for the last decade! I am so thankful for this time and thought about what summer means in the big picture and then walked through the things that have been filling our days for the last couple of weeks. Hope you enjoy!

    Summer – A chance to live a little happier

    A break in the beat – home, school, practice, home, school practice, home, school, practice-

    A chance to breathe a little deeper

    Weekday mornings with no lunches to pack, notes to sign, people to deliver-

    A chance to snuggle a little longer

    Sunny afternoons with lakes to visit, paths to hike, bugs to discover –

    A chance to grow a little closer

    Crisp evenings with smells from the grill drifting inside, new recipes to try, and extra friends at the table –

    A chance to share a little more

    Quiet nights with books to read, paintings to paint, movies to watch, and sleep to find –

    A chance to dream a little sweeter

    Summer – A chance to live a little happier

  19. I focused on the season of spring and how it arrives here in the Missouri Ozarks. After I finished, I realized that I never did talk specifically about gratitude, but hopefully you can feel it as I felt it when writing.

    Here It Comes!

    When the spring peepers begin their tune up for the season’s first sweet song,
    even though the air is still crisp and the ground is crunchy…

    a thrill of hope dances inside me
    and I open my bedroom window.

    I lie in bed and feel the pulsating refrain

    It’s coming.
    It won’t be long.
    It’s right around the corner.

    When the purple crocus lifts its head through patchy snow,
    brazenly greeting the sun’s first hopeful rays…

    a melody takes shape inside me
    and I breathe in deeply.

    I raise my face skyward to drink in life and nourishment.

    It’s stretching.
    It’s getting stronger and longer.
    It’s right next door.

    When the shining faces of the daffodil choir, row upon row, begin their happy chorus,
    and buds burst forth on oak and hickory…

    a symphony swells inside me
    and I stretch out my arms and twirl.

    I gather the golden goodness to share with others.

    It’s happening.
    It’s blooming.
    It’s HERE!

  20. I did my gratitude poem but I had trouble finding how to post it. Better late than never!

    It’s Summer!

    Lazy mornings when I can wake up when I’m ready and stay in pjs as long as I want…it’s summer.

    The day stretched ahead of me with no specific plans and endless possibilities….it’s summer.

    Leisurely sipping a mug of warm coffee and deciding what to do with my day…..it’s summer.

    Chilling in the air conditioning with a good book or by the pool with family and friends on a hot afternoon….it’s summer.

    Sipping something icy cold as I watch fluffy clouds drift by in a brilliant blue sky and listening to the wind chimes, songbirds and croaking frogs…it’s summer.

    Scents of someone grilling delicious things fill the air and mix with the smell of freshly cut grass and sunscreen….it’s summer.

    Lying in a hammock watching the sun slip slowly beyond the horizon and turning the sky into an abstract painting glowing with crimson, amber, coral and rosy hues….it’s summer.

    Enjoying a scrumptious s’more toasted over a crackling fire sharing stories with loved ones and watching nature’s fireworks…the fireflies…blinking on and off around you…..it’s summer.

    Staying up way too late because you don’t have to work tomorrow and crawling into bed with precious memories and itchy mosquito bites…..it’s summer.

    Dreaming of upcoming vacations and family reunions fill my semiconscious mind as I drift off to sleep….thankful it’s summer.

  21. Spunky Springtime
    Anxiously anticipating a wonderful warmth;
    From the ground grows sweet sprouts;
    Pleasing packages unfolding, releasing vitality;
    Afresh the land with new life!

  22. A few lines about summer, as I sit inside waiting out a thunder storm at the beach.

    Thunder rumbles over rolling crests
    Cooler air caresses bare legs

    Lighting lashes while rain crashes
    CRACK! BOOM! CRACK! BOOM!

    Wind sweeps away the wild weather, shows
    Sun-drenched sand with scattered shells

    Let’s go to the beach!

  23. I love all of these! Wado (wah-doe or thank you in Cherokee) for sharing these with me. So many wonderful ways you provoked all five senses for me as I read through each one. Grateful for your sharing!

  24. I think gratitude is implicit in mine, inspired by some of the things we’ve done today as a regular Thursday in the city.

    Summer splashes in the city:

    In park fountains, where we fling ourselves into the dancing water, feeling it splash against our sweaty skin

    In the drip drip we hear from our air conditioners above, forming puddles below the windows

    In the taste of icy coco helado sold from carts, freezing our tongues into red orange yellow blue green purple rainbows

    In the smell of concrete sidewalks, wet from a thundery afternoon

    In the sight of a tugboat pushing a barge up our river, water parting before them in a smooth wave with no end.

  25. I’m a week late to this assignment because I was at Nerd Camp MI last week! This is my summer of stepping outside my comfort zone, so I am going to share a bit of today’s writing, even though it’s hard for me to be brave enough!

    When the day awakens I listen
    to birds chirping
    chattering from tree to tree
    and welcoming the sun
    to the sky.

    When butterfies’ beauty
    brightens my garden
    I watch them flit
    from flower to flower
    sipping sweet nectar.

    When the day is done
    I lie in my hammock
    with a book in my hands.
    I read my way
    into other worlds
    before I rest for another
    sun-kissed summer day.

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