Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Introductions

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts:  

Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015

Introduction to X-Files: Trust No One by Jonathan Maberry

Launching Rockets,” Introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 by Joe Hill

Writing Techniques:

  •         Justifying editorial choices
  •         Expressing opinion
  •         Pop culture analysis
  •         Expressing thematic connections

Background:

I buy a lot of anthologies. Sometimes I buy them for work, for obvious reasons. Others, I buy as a reader. As I tucked into my newest purchase, the X-Files anthology Trust No One edited by Jonathan Maberry, I realized that I was holding a potential mentor text.

I flashed back to my time at teachers’ college, and an assignment I had that I really enjoyed. In a poetry course, we were tasked with creating the table of contents and writing the introduction for an anthology. I’m a big music fan, and was listening to a lot of Springsteen at the time, so I decided the world could use an anthology of the lyrics of story songs. The prof was a tough one, and getting an A on that introduction was a highlight in my life as a student.

Looking specifically, however, at the new anthology I was tucking into, I realized that I had a bunch of anthologies around various themes, like the X-Files, the land of Oz, zombies, post-apocalyptic worlds, and dystopias. A common theme running through the introductions was that the editors, and authors of these intros are fans of what they’re curating.

How We Might Use Them:

Justifying editorial choices – Obviously, we could have students creating introductions to anthologies that they curate, much like I did years ago. I’ve actually done versions of this in classes, asking students to pull together a list or piece around a theme or idea, and having them explain their choices. The biggest challenge in this was not actually the introduction, but the fact that many students may not have a deep enough reading history to pull together a “collection” to introduce. I teach thematically, and this kind of exercise also gives the students a way to express their thoughts around the theme we’ve focused on: to pull together arguments from a variety of places.

  •         There’s a gorgeous mentor moment in Alexie’s intro to The Best American Poetry 2015. Essentially, he lays out his criteria for selecting poems. If students are curating, then this would be a fantastic exercise for them to go through, individually, or collectively.

Expressing Opinion & Pop Culture Analysis – I’ve said before that a lot of our students are fans. A great use for these pieces would be to discuss that fandom, what it means to them, and their fan community.

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Maberry does this very well in his X-Files  intro:

We want to believe.

We want to know.

Watching a show as intelligent as The X-Files allows us to be partners in the conversation between those who want to know and those who are trying to keep that knowledge secret. And we let the relentlessness of Scully and Mulder drive us forward for nine seasons, two movies, comics, games, novels…

We still want to believe.

  •         Building on the expression of fan community, these introductions sometimes extend into explaining why the subject of the anthology is culturally relevant. I’ve seen numerous ones that begin with a brief history, or explanation of their subject, and then move on to illustrate the cultural resonance of the material the anthology focuses on.
  •         There is a passage in Maberry’s introduction where he aligns himself with the two principal characters of the show. This, I think, is a valuable mentor moment for students. When we engage with texts, be they written or otherwise, we often look for ourselves in them, or try to decide who we align with in the piece. (You’ve all decided which Harry Potter house you belong in, right?) Maberry shows students how to do that, and although briefly, and simply stated, it’s actually well rounded out.
  •         I know that a lot of times, we have students working on pieces of writing around a single text. We wind up with collections of essays, stories, poems and fan fiction-esque material on our desks. When I started thinking about using these introductions as a mentor text, it struck me that this would be a great way to reflectively wrap up this work. As I write this, I’ve just had students creating Illustrated Blackout poems using speeches from Macbeth as we finished studying it. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had taken the time to gallery walk those pieces, and I had my students write an introduction that would accompany that collection? Could we do that for any pieces of writing that we’ve all done?
  •         Often, in these introductions, the editor takes a moment to explain their affinity for certain pieces. I don’t know about others, but sometimes, I have a heck of a time getting my students to express their affinity for a piece. I can see their excitement for the piece, but it’s frustrating that it doesn’t always get past, “It’s awesome.” Taking a look at an editor expressing their reasons for choice could be helpful for students.

Expressing thematic connections – As I mentioned above, I have a tendency to teach thematically in my English classes. As a result, I’m often pulling together what feel like disparate pieces, justifying how they fit under the umbrella of a single big idea. What these anthologies intentionally do is what I try to do in my classroom. They pull together a whole bunch of pieces, and unite them under a theme. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, but there are other times that the editor spends part of their introduction explaining the connections. They justify the choices they’ve made, and often, personalize the connection that they, as readers, made as they pulled the collection together. I don’t know about your classes, but getting my students to think about their reading on paper, making text-to-text connections, can be challenging, and if a model can help…

Obviously, as a reader, and as an English teacher, anthologies are part of my life. I’m noticing, however, that the way that I look at them has changed. They are no longer just collections of good things to read, or collections of potential teaching resources, but actually those things and more. Pulling things together around an idea, theme or topic is a thing that we would expect our students to do as part of the learning process. These anthologies just give us a vehicle to mentor that process.

Oh, and I’m not done with these anthologies. Remember, as you read this that I’ve really only talked about the introduction. Next week I’ll share the mentor moments inside.

–Jay

@doodlinmunkyboy

Do you have any favorite anthologies? Are you aware of any anthologies that embody your students’ passions? How might you use these cultural artifacts to inspire your students and lift their writing?

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3 thoughts on “Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Introductions

  1. I’ve used the intro to The Best American Sports Writing (2002) by Rick Reilly as a mentor text. Reilly has a great voice and teaches us about good writing as he justifies his choices!

    • The Best American Series feel vital to me. I usually snag poetry and non-required reading. SF/F was a must buy for me. Sports would be good to have on hand too!

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