Mentor Text Wednesday: Difficult Conversations

Mentor Text: from King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry

Writing Techniques:

  • Dealing with controversial viewpoints
  • Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)
  • Developing character
  • Creative presentation of learning and research

Background:

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. I’ve referenced him as editor of a pair of great X-Files anthologies. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I suggest his Rot & Ruin series for young adults at every opportunity. (Trust me, it’s genius! If your kids love zombies, turn them on to this series.) He also writes one of my favorite series for bigger kids, like me, the Joe Ledger series. The new entry in that series, Kill Switch, comes out next month. Essentially the series is about Ledger, a Jack Bauer-esque character who leads field operations for the Department of Military Sciences, an organization that deals with all kinds of crazy science fiction terrorist stuff. Great action, great writing, great fun.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 2.14.19 PM

Image via jonathanmaberry.com

The last book in the series, Predator One, featured a plot in which the bad guys managed to use drone technology, and autonomous vehicle software against us. It struck me then, that Maberry may have been using his great little action novel as a bit of a soapbox of sorts to comment on our society’s reliance on technology. As I embarked on a re-read of the series this winter, mostly to psych myself up for the new one, I realized that Maberry had peppered many such moments throughout the series. The books are frequently written form Ledger’s viewpoint. He has to rationalize many terrible things he must do, and try to makes sense of the terrible things others do. His voice, if we read it as Ledger’s or Maberry’s, shows the reader how he does that. There are actually many instances of this via Ledger, and other characters, throughout the series.

While re-reading King of Plagues, a passage struck me. In this passage, Toys, top henchman of an evil genius, and Santoro, vicious assassin serving another evil genius, discuss the nature of evil, and the idea of morality in their work. In their chat, they discuss, to compare things, the relative evils of Alexander the Great and Adolf Hitler. In short, they discuss the subjectivity of calling something evil. It is based upon comparisons, as well as the views and values that one holds.

Now, I’ve heard students making the same kinds of arguments in discussions about tricky topics. When we were studying society through literature this year, there was a lot of discussion about totalitarian regimes, such as the Nazi party. It takes a lot of confidence for students to share their thoughts. Part of this is because they’re young, and haven’t totally figured those thoughts out. I think that a writing exercise in which two characters discuss a topic is actually a strong way for students to work through these difficult ideas.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Dealing with controversial viewpoints––In this mentor text, two characters discuss something pretty controversial. Though we, as readers, assume that these thoughts belong to the writer, that isn’t necessarily the case. This is where one of the most promising aspects of this mentor text lies for me. The students get to write in character. They can use a character’s voice and opinions to express the idea. They can ruminate, and remove themselves from it to a certain extent. One of the tricky things about young people is that they’re in flux. Their ideas are evolving, and though some are very confident, many aren’t. An idea I love about young people writing, is that their writing is a process of thinking out loud, on paper. They can try things on, and see how they fit. And ultimately, they can distance themselves from the thoughts, if they see fit, because they have written in the voice of a character.
  •         Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)––Though Toys and Santoro are both bad dudes, they explore different sides of an issue. This exploratory element is another of this mentor text’s strengths. When we teach debate, one of the hardest things we do is to get the students to see past the opinion that they already hold. However, the act of writing this conversation would necessitate looking at a different viewpoint. Again, because it is fiction, it may be easier to do this. Their hero could write the opinion the student holds, and they could write a villain that feels otherwise. This simple act of disassociation could be key in having a student express a different viewpoint. Using a different voice than their own, that of a Devil’s Advocate, is not only a good exercise in writing, but it is a vital exercise in critical thinking.
  •         Developing character––There’s that old expression about not discussing politics and religion right? If you think of it, part of the reason that expression persists is because it is in our sharing of how we feel about certain controversial topics, we reveal aspects of our character. So, why wouldn’t we use this in our writing?

MINOR SPOILER WARNING! The character Toys struggles a bit with the morality of what is being done, and what he himself has been a part of. In contrasting him with Santoro, Maberry is able to start Toys onto what may be a path toward redemption. At the very least, Toys isn’t the worst bad guy at that table! END SPOILER

I love the notion that our writers could have a character take a stance on an issue to help establish their character. Perhaps I love the notion, because like so many things we do as teachers, this isn’t really about what shows up on the page, but the critical thinking our writers would have to do to make it happen — they need to have done enough critical thinking to know what expression of ideas would create the desired feelings about their character.

  •         Creative presentation of learning and research–– Writing is a fantastic way to express our learning. However, we sometimes do it a disservice when we tie ideas to a single kind of writing. Academic writing is often seen as the place to discuss contentious issues, and to choose and explain the sides. But looking at the mentor text, it’s clear that this piece is based upon knowledge. Maberry knows about Hitler and Alexander the Great. He’s aware of human rights violations in China, and what Confucianism has to say about them. Could our writers not do the same? Choose any hot topic, and have the students write a conversation between two people on opposite sides of it, fueling that conversation with their research. Imagine, a pro-lifer and a pro-choicer get stuck beside each other on a crowded plane, and calmly discuss the issues. Supporters of two idealistically divided political parties get trapped in an elevator at a convention. A pair of people on either side of the gun debate are stuck together at a kid’s birthday party. (Clearly, I’m aware that differing opinions don’t always mix well, since I’m trying really hard to put them into situations where they can’t have a fistfight.) I’ve made a point lately of connecting the research process to other tasks than standard academic essay info-dump.

Obviously, Maberry isn’t the first writer to have his characters have difficult conversations. However, I’m a huge fan, and it was his work that inspired me to use this type of conversation as a mentor text. Critical thinking is at the heart of much of what I do as a teacher, and Maberry’s work often gives me food for thought of my own. It would be selfish not to share it with students, wouldn’t it?

What kinds of difficult conversations do you want your students to write? What issues can they write about that would establish their characters? What other texts can you think of where a character shares their ideas in a similar way?

––Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

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2 thoughts on “Mentor Text Wednesday: Difficult Conversations

  1. Hello Ladies! I met you at a table read-around at NCTE. . . I thought of you as a resource for this question as I approach April as a first year teacher. Do you have any resources for spoken word poetry or poetry teaching? I would really appreciate any help people can give! evwusk@gmail.com

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