Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft.

Mini-Mentor Texts

Allison wrote about mini-mentor texts in one of our very first blog posts. Mini-mentor texts zoom in on a specific skill — making a claim, using supporting evidence, etc. — in a larger piece of analysis.

Rather than using a cluster of whole mentor texts, we parse out snippets of larger articles as we teach specific skills. We don’t give students the entire article — just the relevant paragraph or two that demonstrates the technique we want to see in student writing. Because these are bite-sized mentor texts, we use them most often with our younger writers who are new to analysis.

Take, for instance, this David Edelstein review of the new Spongebob Square Pants movie — a “text” from childhood that our students would be amused to revisit.  Edelstein gives a charming synopsis of the movie that can help my students as they write meaningful, engaging context for a piece of literature in their analysis. I might pull just this paragraph as a mini-mentor text:

It begins as all “SpongeBob” episodes do, with a hairy pirate who’s there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he’s live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he’s on an “Indiana Jones”-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you’re thinking – this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you’d be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe – I have a feeling I’m losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.

Notice how Edelstein paints a scene, gives the gist of the plot, and connects with his audience.  I can use it for more than just teaching context, though. This excerpt from Edelstein’s review also makes an allusion to Indiana Jones — a helpful skill to teach students as they work to draw connections between the literature they are studying and the world around them. I can also use it to teach making a claim about a text; Edelstein makes a claim at the end of this paragraph that he will spend the rest of the article unpacking: “The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained.”

This mini-mentor text has the potential for use in three mini-lessons perfect for the writing of literary analysis.

Whole Mentor Texts

While mini-mentor texts are perfect for teaching literary analysis skills, whole mentor texts are great for teaching skills melded with voice and style in analytical writing.

My students love the casual-yet-authoritative style of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, whose piece “Candy Girl” — a character analysis of Kimmy on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — we studied as a mentor text for their own analytical piece on a character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Nussbaum’s piece bears all the essential skills students need to include in a work of literary analysis: a claim, reasons that support that claim, copious evidence that props up those reasons. But, from this text, students also explored how to sound expert and human at the same time (my students often swing between sounding like a robot with a thesaurus or a tween chatting with friends at the mall). They noticed the effective use of parentheticals to hold extra information and commentary. They picked up on Nussbaum’s use of dashes for emphasis and to quicken the pace of her argument. They examined her skillful and clever transitions — pulling the idea from one paragraph down into the next paragraph to deepen her nuanced argument.

Whole mentor texts are perfect for our older writers who are already familiar with the essentials, and thus can more easily digest and translate an entire article. These students are ready for something more — ready to take their writing to the next level.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how we think about finding mentor texts for studying literary analysis, Wednesday we will dive into a workshop analysis unit — a technique-based study comparing/contrasting two pieces of literature.

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12 thoughts on “Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

  1. I am so glad I found this. In my classroom, I discuss with my students–quite often–why I am teaching each skill that we go over. And, as you said, its easy(er) to find real-world examples of these types of reading and writing in the real world. Except for the literary analysis. Its a very domain-specific type of writing that only exists if you become an English major or college professor. This is a great way to make it real for my students. Yes, analysis exists everywhere–we’re just doing it with literature because its English class. Just like you analyze historical documents in social studies or scientific studies in Biology.

    • Thanks, Erin! I wholeheartedly agree. And analysis of literature exists in the real world, too, but definitely not in a 5-paragraph essay. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Lindsay! This week, I’ve even been using single sentences as mentor texts with my freshmen (mini-mini mentor texts) to help them craft a claim, a description of a poem, topic sentences, etc. I’m so glad you found this helpful! Let me know if I can help you and your teachers down the road!

  3. Your point on the vastness of analytical writing is very thought provoking. You turned the idea of literary analysis on it’s head. I also like the idea of using mini-mentor texts. This would work well for the middle school teachers I coach. Thanks for an interesting post! 🙂

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