The beauty of Jay’s Mentor Text Wednesday posts is that they give us an instant idea — something to take back into our classrooms immediately, something to tinker with and fit to our students’ needs, and something to expand the way we think about mentor texts and the possibilities for our students’ writing.
It’s easy to read educational blogs, feel the wave of inspiration, and quickly forget it in the sea of swirling lesson plans. I always mean to remember them, but I don’t. (Jay had a smart idea to write inspiration from blog posts in his notebook! So simple but clever for remembering all of the wonderful things that we read! )
However, knowing my tendency to forget all of the brilliant ideas I read, I grabbed a Post-It as soon as I read Jay’s post about having students write anthology introductions and taped a note to my desk so that I wouldn’t forget. I knew this would be the way I would end my year with my senior English students:
I wanted my anthology assignment to do two things: to review my students for their upcoming IB exam (on which they would have to respond to a question with an essay on 2 of the 40 poems we studied this semester) and to review their ability to use mentor texts with independence.
To that end, my students chose 8 focus poems — two from each poet we studied. The criteria for choosing poems was their own; some students chose their favorite poems, some students chose strategically by aiming for a variety of poetic techniques. The students typed each poem (No cutting and pasting! I wanted them to get the poems into their fingers!) To that, they added an introduction.
Now, as Jay’s post shows and as my experience has borne out, an anthology introduction can mean a lot of things. Some are very academic and dry. Others are whimsical, so cooky that it is almost difficult to see the connection between the introduction and the texts that wait inside. The best introductions are works of art themselves, as beautifully crafted as the literature featured in the anthology.
Typically, we read mentor texts together as a class, debrief together by creating lists of techniques that students might want to use in their own pieces. But not this time.
This time, I set them free. I provided students with the three excellent mentor texts that Jay linked to in his original post. I also set out a stack of anthologies that I found on my bookshelf. And I told my students to figure it out. They needed figure out what anthology introductions might include, what tone they might take, and what kind of introduction they wanted to create.
And better than any review packet I could provide for them, the anthology assignment required the highest order of thinking, serious written synthesis of poetry that might otherwise have no apparent link.
Students demonstrated the writerly voices they discovered and developed over the year.
One of the things that delighted me most about my students’ products was that I could have picked each one out of a lineup and matched it with its author. Each one showcased a unique voice and writerly perspective.
Mike, an avowed hater of all poetry ever, showed his wry humor and earnest change of heart:
Ken, who is just silly, was silly in his introduction:
Garrett’s was characteristically heartfelt, thoughtful, and sincere:
And students really thought about poetry: how poems connect to other poems …
…and how poems connect to their own lives.
Even at the end of the year, even in the throes of of deep, dark senioritis, anthology introductions helped students make connections that will matter far beyond their exam and into the rest of their lives.
Other Options for Using Anthologies
While I used this anthology assignment to review for a high-stakes, end-of-year exam, you could use this in any situation in which you want students to synthesize understandings from an array of texts. Maybe …
- An anthology of most significant passages from a whole-class text – This could be a great wrap-up to end a literature study. Maybe your students have read The Catcher in the Rye. What did they learn? What was meaningful to them? Have them select their favorite passages from the text and write an introduction reflecting upon their significance.
- An anthology of favorite mentor texts — This is one I’m dying to try. Which mentor texts have made the biggest difference in shaping your students as writers? Have them collect the most important mentor texts of the year and introduce the ways that they have influenced, instructed, and inspired their writing.
- An anthology of passages from independent reading — What an interesting way to assess independent reading? Have students select favorite passages from the semester (or the whole year!) and then write an introduction. They might consider what the pieces have in common, what these passages say about them as a reader, why the passages move them.