Harshman Students Recognized for Personal Narratives: Unique Slaughterhouse-Five Pilot Program Helps Young People Cope with Adversity

Six students from H.L. Harshman Magnet Middle School were recognized for their writing at their school’s end-of-year ceremony and at an Indy Eleven Professional Soccer match on Saturday, June 17, 2017. Eighth graders Charles Boston, Jairo Garcia-Cruz, Yoselin Hernandez, Johnny Israel, Katie Levi and Said Perez Venegas wrote personal narratives about overcoming adversity. Their work best demonstrated the use of writing as a tool to heal.

The students, along with 260 other classmates at Harshman, participated in a unique Slaughterhouse-Five narrative pilot program sponsored by the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML), Indy Eleven, Eskenazi Health, and Penguin Random House. The partnership was a response to the stark reality that Indiana leads the country in teens who contemplate suicide. Poverty, lack of mental health services and sporadic or no support in some schools and homes exacerbate the problem. Teens can feel isolated and don’t know where to go for resources or help.

Rebecca Townsend, a KVML member, Indy Eleven supporter and a local girls’ soccer coach, came up with the original idea for the pilot program.

“As a soccer coach, I work with teens most every day,” said Townsend, “The pressure comes from all sides: parents, academics, sexuality, sports. In addition, some students struggle with poverty, substance or physical abuse, or bullying from peers.”

The partners met with a Harshman team of administrators and faculty to design a plan centered on Hoosier Author Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The fictional book is based on Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during World War II. It took Vonnegut 25 years to write of his war experience, but when he did, he found the process cathartic. In fact, writing can be very healing for people who experience trauma such as war, riots, abuse or other trauma.

As part of the program, Indy Eleven created a short video, and Penguin Random House donated 270 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, which the students annotated. According to English Teacher Idalmi Acosta, student reaction to brand new books was one of the successes of the program.

“I got the funniest and most heartwarming reactions to this,” Acosta said. “Reactions like, ‘Wait, we get to keep this book forever and ever?’”

KVML Curator Chris Lafave visited Harshman to introduce students to Vonnegut’s life, which was peppered with tragedy, including hardships from the Great Depression, mental illness, the sudden death of family members, war and financial stress. Jill Hunsberger, a clinical program coordinator with Eskenazi Health, talked to students about best coping practices. While reading the book, students crafted their own narratives as a way to work through the challenges in their lives.

“As the mother of an eighth grader and having been one myself, I know being an eighth grader is not easy,” said KVML CEO and Founder Julia Whitehead. “The partners and the Harshman teachers and staff spent a lot of time in the classroom helping young people turn their personal struggles into works of literary art. We want these students to learn that through writing, they can start a path to healing, they can grow, and they can learn more about themselves and each other. Vonnegut would like that.”

Some students entered their work in an essay contest judged by KVML and members of Indy Eleven’s Slaughterhouse-Nineteen fan support group. Bianca Velez, Indy Eleven community relations and camp manager, awarded all Harshman participants a free voucher to attend a game at Carroll Stadium. The six winners won a certificate, an Indy Eleven shirt, a Slaughterhouse-Nineteen scarf, a Kurt Vonnegut doll and tickets to and recognition at the June game.

“We hope this Slaughterhouse-Five narrative program empowered students at Harshman to take control of their stories and listen to others with empathy and compassion,” Whitehead said. “It was a pleasure to work with these bright young people and their dedicated teachers. And we are grateful to the individuals who donated to support this program. We wish these students all the best and hope they will continue to stay engaged with the Vonnegut Library in their high school years and beyond.”

For more information about the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, go to www.vonnegutlibrary.org. For Year of Vonnegut events, go to www.vonnegutlibrary.org/events.

The Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library champions the legacy of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut and the principles of free expression, common decency and peaceful coexistence he advocated. www.vonnegutlibrary.org.

 Harshman students honored for narrative writing by Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library’s CEO and Founder Julia Whitehead, Peter Evans of Slaughterhouse-Nineteen and Bianca Velez with Indy Eleven. Left to right: Peter Evans, Johnny Israel, Charles Boston and family, Katie Levi and family, and Julia Whitehead (in white pants). Not pictured: Said Perez Venegas, Jairo Garcia-Cruz, Yoselin Hernandez and Bianca Velez.

Harshman students honored for narrative writing by Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library’s CEO and Founder Julia Whitehead at H.L. Harshman Magnet Middle School on June 7, 2017. Left to right: Charles Boston, Johnny Israel, Julia Whitehead, Said Perez Venegas, Jairo Garcia-Cruz, and Katie Levi. Not pictured: Yoselin Hernandez.

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