Mentor Text Wednesday: Ron Swanson on Using Quotations

Mentor Text: Barney Frank & Frederick Law Olmsted excerpts from Nick Offerman’s Gumption

Writing Techniques:

  • Integrating quotations into writing
  • Essay Writing
  • Voice
  • Highlighting an Opinion or Personal Connection

Background:

The thing about being a teacher on the lookout for mentor texts is that you never know where that inspiration will come from. Pretty much every book that I read winds up with sticky notes sticking out of it. Some of the books on my desk full of flags are surprising.

gumption-3d-hi-res

Image via: penguin.com

One such book that I read recently was Nick Offerman’s Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers. I’m a fan of Offerman’s standup, as well as his brilliant satirical portrayal of Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation. I’ll admit to being a tad worried that it might read like a piece of propaganda, I brought it home anyway, curious about what might be inside.

The book is a series of brilliant essays profiling 21 different Americans who embody strong spirit, a fearlessness or other qualities that made them stand to Offerman. From founding fathers to entertainers, he shares their stories and achievements, discussing lessons that can be learned from them. Faults are addressed as well, and in these informative, humorous essays, Offerman takes a critical look at the world we live in.

There were many “mentor text moments” that I flagged as I read this book. A key one for me though, was the way that Offerman worked in quotations, not only from the subjects of his essays, but from other sources as well. It was one of those moments when I had just finished work with students who had not done this as well as I would have liked. As I reflected a bit, I realized that though I was teaching students the importance of quoting material in their writing, particularly essays writing, both personal and academic forms, I hadn’t been doing that great of a job of showing them how it could be done well.Offerman does this well. He is phenomenally well-read, which allows him to pull strong quotes to back up what he has to say. In his essay on Fredrick Law Olmsted, recognized as the chief landscape artist of New York’s Central Park, amongst many others, Offerman has a wonderful, albeit colorfully worded, digression about our overconnected world. He weaves in a quote from Herbert A. Simon. When discussing Barney Frank, considered by many to be America’s most prominent gay politician, a quote from a Wendell Berry essay allows Offerman to discuss the distasteful path the modern political path has taken.

How We Might Use Them:

Integrating quotations into writing — In each of the excerpts I’m focusing on, Offerman does what I tell my students to do. Include the quote and explain it, connecting it to an idea that supports his thesis. However, he’s able to do it in a way that flows, and drives home that point, much like I want my writers to do.

In hopes of highlighting this for my students, I’m actually planning an exercise in which we will focus solely on using a single quote, looking at expanding our writing around it. Using aphorisms, I hope to have them practice writing smaller pieces sharing their thoughts around a single statement. We did some ground work on it last week, working collaboratively on deconstructing an aphorism using the says/means/matters model.

Offerman integrates this model, I feel, into his use of quotations in his pieces. He assumes his audience understands the quote, so he doesn’t spend much time reiterating what it “says,” the literal meaning of it. I think it’s important that we keep that element for our students, however, as they may need to do that things you’re asked to do in school sometimes, and simply make it plain that you understand what you’re talking about. At the very least, like Offerman does, our students need to put the quote in context.

It’s Offerman’s integration of “means” and “matters” that makes these great mentor texts. In each case, he shares his interpretation of the quote, highlighting what he thinks it means. This, he bridges quickly into why he feels it matters. In the case of the Simon quote, his point is driven home by contrasting the changes in society’s connectedness since 1971, when Simon shared his ideas. The Berry quote serves a similar purpose, by focusing on a single negative aspect of our modern political process. Both of these quotes highlight a single idea that serve to argue the outstanding nature of the subject of the profile.

My hope is that by looking at Offerman’s examples, and by practicing this in isolation with aphorisms, my writers can see how to expand and explain their ideas through the use of quotations. Depending on what they have to say, they could be looking at expanding their current single paragraph with a quote in the middle to a minimum of three paragraphs, one each for says, means and matters. I think of this in the academic writing realm they may face, and I know that this tool in their writer’s toolkit could be very useful when it comes to academic writing with length requirements attached.

Lest I seem shallow, let me assure you that the thing that I love most about what I plan to do is that they will be explaining and expanding an idea they want to communicate, considering evidence to help them do that. So they’ll be thinking, which I love.

Essay Writing— I want my writers to explore ideas. I want them to express their ideas. I want them to know that they can use the ideas of others to reinforce what they have to say. Offerman’s example would be a powerful mentor in this. By focusing on this discrete skill of integrating quotations into their writing, their essays, whether personal or academic, should be strengthened. I can see using this model to help them craft essays.

If we need a five paragraph essay, this says/means/matters strategy gives them their three body paragraphs.

If we need more, then they can use this as an element to help them get there.

Voice– Offerman writes as a humorist. It was a neat experience to read this book, laughing while learning. The passage I’ve included with this column about Olmsted highlights that a bit. In between some saltier language, Offerman writes: “Oh, and by the way, ol’ Herbert blew that particularly salient jazz in 1971.” I’m sure our writers will find other words in the passage funnier, but Offerman’s dry wit in this passage drives home his point for me.

In the Frank excerpt, it is clear that Offerman is fed up with the business of modern politics. As a voter, a member of a democratic society, he has become quite disillusioned with the system, and we can feel that frustration in his words. Offerman uses profanity throughout the book, and in this place where it might fit, he chooses not to use it. Instead of reacting with a vicious anger, he purposefully expresses his frustration, highlighting what he sees as a troubling issue.

Highlighting an Opinion or Personal Connection — In both cases, Offerman inserts his opinion into the work overtly. He commits what many of our writers feel is the cardinal sin of saying “I.” As I try to prepare my writers for the provincial exam that they face in their Grade 12 year, I need to tell them that often, when they’re completing questions that ask them to respond to text, the difference between a 4 and a 5 is the ability of the writer to appear perceptive. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if you can connect what you’re writing about to your ideas about a larger topic, express how you feel about it, or connect it to your thoughts about some other issue, then you’re approaching a perceptive response.

So, this week, I’ve discussed a thing that I’ve seen as a shortcoming in my own writing instruction. I’ve shared what I plan to do about it. I’ve pretty much said that I’m teaching my writers a strategy that will help them write better, but I’m also telling them it’s a good way to pad their essays if they need to. I’m telling them they should use their voice, and I’m encouraging them to say “I think….” Hm. I think I can sit back with a bit of pride, as I’ve honoured the source of this mentor text, and am teaching with a bit of gumption.
What are other ways we can help our writers more effectively integrate quotations in their writing? What guides, or mentor texts, do you use with students to model the use of quotations in their writing? How do you get your writers to expand and explain their ideas and opinions?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

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