Mentor Text Wednesday: A Letter from Montreal

Mims First Snow

The author’s first snow–Image via The Concordian

Mentor Text:  A Letter From Montreal Maisonneuve Winter 2015

Writing Techniques:

  • Memoir – discussing a first
  • Writing about experiences
  • Writing around a set theme
  • Using various elements to tell a story
  • Writing strong conclusions

Background:

I’m a recovering magazineaholic.

Part of it is curiosity. I feel compelled to know what each magazine has to offer me. There are fascinating articles, cool images and design, and new learning hidden in each and every one of those periodicals.

Part of it is professional. I can archive stuff that can add to what we’re doing in class. Differing perspectives, challenging ideas, layout and presentation inspiration, to say nothing of all the mentor text opportunities… all in one package?!

I still walk into a book store, and want them all.

Being a father drove me into recovery. I have to feed the Meddling Kids, you know, and cloth them and whatnot. Also, if you’re a parent, you know that there’s not really time for anything at all. And if you’re a parent reading this, you’re likely a teaching parent, so well, you know where I’m at.

I’ve got the regular magazine purchases down to three, Rolling Stone, for rock and roll and the other stuff that shows up in there,  Juxtapoz for my monthly dose of “I should make more art” guilt, and Maisonneuve, an awesome Canadian quarterly. I was pretty excited to discover this magazine a few years ago, because it gave me Canadian writing to bring into my classroom. Canadian writing has a fine history, but much of what we have to use in the classroom is the same stuff that I read in high school myself. I mean, I love Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen, but there’s some great new stuff too!

Maisonneuve has a regular backpage feature, Letter from Montreal, a column in which various writers write about their Montreal experience. I’ve had it earmarked as a potential mentor text for a long time, for obvious reasons. Having students write their “letter” to their hometown is pretty darn obvious.

The most recent (Winter 2015) issue of the magazine had a “Letter from Montreal” that especially screamed mentor text at me. It was by Mim Kempson, an Australian writer who lived in Montreal for eleven months. In that time, she experienced her first-ever snow.

How We Might Use Them/Mentor Text Teaching Points:

  • Writing about a first: So, this snow experience mentor text will be used in my Grade 12 course. We do a lot of work with memoir, and I’ve been looking for a good example of a piece about a “first.” This piece works for me in that, because of the way it actually dances around the first. Look at the piece: she spends more time telling stories about others’ experiences than her own, or telling little winter anecdotes. Her experience is the hook, but it is about a more universal idea than simply her first snow.
  • Writing about shared experiences: It is those side trips that make this a fantastic memoir piece. How often do our aspiring writers dwell on a single aspect, or viewpoint of an idea they’re developing. In this brief piece, Kempson shares her, and her mother’s, fears and questions, her tutor’s stories, her tutor’s disfiguring experience, a list of experiences and advice and a reflection. In essence, to tell the story of her first snow, she collects a shared experience of winter.
  • Saying what needs to be said–no more, no less: Focus now on her introduction. The intro is the “first.” It’s a tiny, magical moment. The brevity is actually what makes it beautiful. Instead of a long drawn out, overly descriptive piece that feels labored over, it is stated simply and beautifully. I know that often, our challenge with students is getting them to write more, and perhaps, in doing so, we lose the simple beauty that can come from brevity and focus. A moment captured, as opposed to a moment exploded.
  • Powerful conclusions: Skip now to the conclusion. She steps out of winter to reflect on another first. As I write this, I realize another magical moment of this piece – Kempson actually deals with two firsts, the first snow, and the first winter! The piece, ostensibly about her first snow, is actually about her first Canadian winter. She reflects on the whole experience, and writes a wonderful conclusion that sums up her  first winter in Canada, managing to capture what was lovely about it, yet admitting that it would be all right were it to be an only, not a first.
  • A “Letter from…” writing opportunity: As I mentioned already, the idea of a class doing an assignment like this, the “Letter from…” piece for where we live is appealing. I’d love to give them the whole collection of Letters from Montreal to look at, take a walk through our town, and think about what our letters could be. The beauty of the pieces is that they straddle that fine line between public places, and personal experiences. As someone who lives from “home,” working with Grade 12 students, many of whom are on the verge of leaving home, this could be an incredibly poignant piece. (I have some great pictures of art I saw in a sandwich shop that would be amazing visual accompaniment to the writing I would have my students do, incorporating buildings, and/or maps from the city.)

Letter from Montreal has become one of the first things I read each time I get an issue of Maisonneuve. Even though I’ve only spent a couple of days in the city, I know, like every community, it has its magic and meaning for the people that live there. Everyone has stories about where they live inside them, and this column may very well be the mentor text that helps them find their way out.

–Jay                                                                                                                   @doodlinmonkeyboy

How might you use Kempson’s piece as a foray into place-based writing? How do your students’ own towns, cities, and homes make appearances in their writing? How might Kempson help them think about home in a new way?

Leave Jay a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find us on Twitter to keep the conversation going! 

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3 thoughts on “Mentor Text Wednesday: A Letter from Montreal

  1. Thanks! This one makes me think of writing I want my Grade 12s to do. We focus on identity and individuality through memoir. It’s easy to push them into the future with their writing and thinking at that time, and I try to have them reflect a bit, and enjoy being on the edge of that significant change that is Grade 12. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. What a great post! Love the thought of mirroring this type of writing in the classroom. Most of the time, high school kids have their sights set on that faraway place…away from parents and the struggles and pressures of their last years in their hometown schools. This gives them a last chance/fresh-eyes approach to their old hometown. It also gives them that deep focus of setting, but in a connected, real-world way!

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