Mentor Text Monday: Engaging Students with HUMANS OF NEW YORK

Mentor Text:  Humans of New Yorkblog and book by Brandon Stanton

Also: LIttle Humansbook by Brandon Stanton

Writing Techniques:

  • Effective interviewing
  • Fusing images and text
  • Concision & drilling down to the essentials

Background:

While I’m off, I am dreaming of the mentor texts and units of study that will fill my second semester when I return to school. One text that keeps popping up is Humans of New York, a popular storytelling blog-turned-book by photographer Brandon Stanton. On his blog, Stanton features a photograph of someone he encounters on the streets of New York. The photo is accompanied by the subject’s brief response to an intimate, probing question posed by Stanton. Both the portrait and the accompanying quotation capture something truthful — often raw — and essential about the subject.  The result is captivating, as evidenced by Stanton’s millions of followers and imitators around the world.

Beyond the interesting visuals and quotations that will capture students’ attention and the blog’s huge relevance and popularity, one of the greatest  things about Stanton’s work in the context of a classroom is that he is neither professional journalist nor professional photographer. In a way, he’s just like our students. While his work is great fodder for mentor text work, this fact makes him a great mentor for our writers as they uncover his process and become inspired by his craft.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 8.51.54 PMHow We Might Use Them:

There are so many ways these images and interviews might become rich soil for mentor text study and inspiration.  Sprinkling these into daily notebook time invitations would undoubtedly grab students’ attention, provoking them to continue the story of the subject depicted or to craft a longer interview in their notebooks.

On a larger and more in-depth scale, students might study the interviews and images (more details below) to compose their own “Humans of [insert the name of your school here]”.  This could be an introductory study of mentor texts or a prelude to a longer interview or profile genre study.

Here are some ways this mentor text could serve your students:

 

  • Studying the interviews –  Allison has written about having students interview one another. Interview is not only wonderful ground for genre study, but it also teaches students important discussion skills that will be useful far beyond the English classroom. Stanton has a lot to teach here. While we don’t get a transcript of all of the questions he asks, we do often get to read the one incisive question that elicits a telling response from his subject. Some noticings and imaginings about the art of Stanton’s interviews could provide great class discussion. Some possibilities are:
    • What about the person made Stanton ask this question?
    • What are some follow-up questions you might ask based on the subject’s response here?
    • If no question is listed in the profile, what question do you think Stanton asked in order to get this response?
    • Is there a pattern to the kinds of questions Stanton asks? For Stanton – and for us – what makes a strong interview question?

 

  • Studying the imagesStanton’s images are simple, beautiful, and often haunting.  Judiciously choosing just the right portrait for each profile is challenging.  (And it’s the same kind of thinking our students need to engage in to choose just the right word for their writing.) How are these images composed in a way that tells a story? We want our students to be close readers of all texts — including visual texts. The questions we ask of these images are many of the same questions we would ask of films and other visual media.  In discussing how these images are composed, we might consider

 

    • From what angle is the image shot? From below? From above? What is the effect?
    • What are the dominant colors in the photograph? What do they communicate?
    • What is included in the photograph that helps tell a story?
    • What is left out of this photograph?
    • What does the image make you wonder about?
    • What would you know about this subject if there was no accompanying text?

 

  • Studying with little writers While Stanton’s blog and first book include images of children, they are, in general,  geared more toward older students. However, Stanton just came out with a children’s version called Little Humans.  Elementary teachers, this can be a mentor text for you, too! How exciting is that?

 

A close study of both the images and interviews included in Humans of New York has potential to yield deep thinking about what we include and what we leave out when we compose. They can help students think about what makes a strong question and how to follow-up on the responses of others. They can push students to imagine and infer. And since the text is incredibly concise, each portrait is a perfect morsel of mentor text study — engaging, relevant, manageable.

Have you used Humans of New York with your students? Are there other ways this mentor text could be used? Is this something you could conceive of using in your classroom? Leave me a comment or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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