Mentor Text Wednesday: Reviving Biographical Writing

Mentor Text: Swindle magazine Icons issues

The Time 100 Issues

The Time: Person of the Year Issues

Tributes to Merle Haggard from Rolling Stone magazine

Excerpts from Brad Meltzer’s Heroes for my Son & Heroes for my Daughter

Profile of Frederick Law Olmsted from Nick Offerman’s Gumption

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing biography
  • Focusing presentation of research
  • Including opinion in presentation of research

 

Background:

It’s May, which means I’m dusting off one of my favorite projects to do with my Grade 10 students – The Rebel Project. I teach thematically, and in Grade 10, we focus on Heroism & Facing Adversity. In The Rebel Project, we discuss what rebellion means, and what it has brought to our society, focusing on the positive impacts that rebellion has had on our world. Students create a great piece that incorporates writing, a quotation and some street art inspired visuals honouring a rebel of their choice.

I’ve been developing and refining this project for years, and I’m really excited about what this year’s Grade 10 class is going to create. The refinement that I feel has undergone the most important transition is the writing piece.

See, the first iteration of this project had the writing piece as a separate document. Not only that, but I feel like as a teacher of writing, I had yet to emerge from my chrysalis. To accompany their awesome visuals, my writers were simply writing that dreadful biographical research essay that we’ve all written ourselves, and alas, have assigned. A few pages of chronological, paraphrased regurgitation of research without character or spirit. Seriously, how do our writers manage to make Wikipedia less interesting in the transfer to their papers?

Last year, I really evolved this by incorporating elements of another project that I often did with my Grade 12s – The Self Reliant Individual project, which had a better, less official (read: not on the report card) title – The Asskicker Project. Now that I’ve come around to the notion of mentor texts, I realize that The Asskicker Project was a mentor text project. Inspired by Swindle magazine’s Icons issues, I had students write a profile of someone who was a self-reliant individual, who had achieved great things through their efforts. We paired it with an image, and they looked pretty good in portfolios.

The Swindle profiles were great, because these mentor texts pushed my writers to focus on the elements that made their subject so awesome. These profiles didn’t give the whole life of the subject, just the pertinent information that reinforced what the writer thought of them. Essentially, it cut through all the details of a life, focusing on what matters to the writer!

As I approached The Rebel Project last year, I knew I didn’t want to read 20 or so of those old biographic research essays. My Icons issues of Swindle met the copier. I knew, also, that I wanted to give them a variety of things to choose from, aware that some of my writers might not hit the bar set by the Swindle pieces. Time magazine’s 100 list was great for this. These were even more tightly focused pieces, often only a few paragraphs that cut right to the chase. We looked at these as well, and students were able to choose what worked for them. My only instruction was that when I flipped over their awesome looking piece of art showcasing their rebel, I would find a page glued to the back that featured a profile of the rebel.

image

A few things from the shelf

This year, I plan to add other mentor texts for the students to draw from. Based upon Brad Meltzer’s amazing Heroes For my Son and Heroes For my Daughter, I have had students work to create a Heroes For Our Class project, following his template. It requires much more focused writing, as it is a brevity based model. One of my favorite elements of this mentor text for profiles is its use of quotations in communicating the ideology of the subject.

As a music fan, 2016 has been hard. It feels like every issue of Rolling Stone has featured a lost icon on the cover. The upside, as a teacher of writing, has been the profiles and writing about these artists. As I read the tributes that other artists had written about Merle Haggard in Stone, I knew I’d be dropping that page into my mentor text file for The Rebel Project. Tom Waits’ tribute was especially touching. Additionally, the cover stories on these icons give me a long form version of biographical writing to share. (The Prince issue is next… kind of dreading that one.)

As I shared last week, Nick Offerman’s Gumption was a phenomenal  trove of long from biographical writing. Though, like the Stone material, a number of his pieces relied on interviews, he also showed how we dig into a subject, learn about it, and present what we’ve synthesized from what we’ve learned.

How We Might Use Them:

Writing Biography — In my opinion, this is a rich set of mentor texts. Working from this, we could move away from what we’ve received in the past, that unfortunate rehash of facts without voice. Even those that presented chronologically, such as Stone’s profile of Merle Haggard, run tighter than what we usually receive from our writers, as it focuses on key details, not everything. It’s actually kind of amazing, that assignment isn’t it? We give them freedom to choose their subject, a person who matters to them, and they turn in dry pages of writing that lack the passion that drove the choice. Mentor texts will no doubt be our saviour here.

Focusing presentation of research — In all these mentor texts, the writers communicate what matters about their subject. They’ve set criteria for themselves, which we do in The Rebel Project, and they outline why, and how, their subject meets that criteria. In the longform pieces, they have more space to do that, more time to communicate the important stuff they’ve found and feel.

The Meltzer model is such an abbreviated model of the biographical profile, key words summarizing the subject’s impact, a very brief piece highlighting their story, and the use of quotes and an image in the presentation. It’s a tight model, which could be incorporated into other projects, or stand on its own.

Including opinion in presentation of research — The Time 100 pieces, as well as the tributes to artists from their peers, are wonderful for showing our writers how to express their appreciation for someone’s contributions. If we lose the passion a writer may have for their chosen subject in the traditional piece, we get it back tenfold in these pieces. The brevity of them is what I like about them when considering them as mentor texts for The Rebel Project.

Offerman’s profiles, however, present a longform version of this. In short, that’s what Gumption is, Offerman expressing his affinity for a variety of people that he thinks are awesome. The fact that Offerman is such a great humorist adds an extra level to this, demonstrating how voice can be incorporated in this.

As I began writing this week’s post, I wanted to revisit this mentor text set for the purposes of getting ready for The Rebel Project. However, it made me realize the value of mentor texts in our work with writers. Simply considering one writing task, biographical writing, pulled me through three different projects that I do, making me wonder why I was marking that bland biographical essay so recently.

What are your go-to mentor texts for biographical writing? How do you get students to write biographical pieces that are strong? What other purposes do we have for biographical writing? What projects do you do that incorporate biographical writing?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay

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