Detroit teachers have been on my mind a lot lately. They’ve been in the news quite a bit recently as they fight for safer conditions and learning environments for their students and as they expose financial mismanagement through controversial sickouts. Their headlines aren’t the only reason I’ve been thinking about Detroit teachers, though. I used to be one of them. I got my start as a middle school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, and now, as I finish up my tenth year of teaching, I find myself looking back and reflecting on my first year in the classroom.
I had a lot of qualities of any good first-year teacher. I was dedicated, I was energetic, and I was wildly optimistic. Looking back, though, there are very few lessons I’d even consider using again. I was new. I was passionate, but I was unpracticed. I tried a lot of creative ideas, and I worked to engage my students, but I certainly didn’t know much about the research behind learning and literacy.
My first year, I was assigned four sections of eighth grade Language Arts, one homeroom, and one elective. Every teacher was assigned one elective in their subject area, and when I was asked what I’d be interested in teaching, I said I’d take on anything: journalism, creative writing, Shakespeare, mythology – just NOT drama. So what did they give me? Drama. Of course.
Aside from being in the pit orchestra of my own high school musicals, I knew squat about drama. But, like I said, I was dedicated and wildly optimistic, so I dove in. I decided I should start small with speeches and monologues to give me time to work up the courage to tackle something like a play. I bought books of monologues for the students to try out, but something just wasn’t connecting for me. I knew I had to teach them how to do it well, but I had no idea what it meant to “do it well.” Now, I’m positive that as a new teacher, I had not yet crossed paths with the term “mentor texts,” so what I did next was not intentional, but I dug into mentor texts to figure out what made a good speech.
Using Mentor Texts to Find our Voices
I brought in an audio of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as well as the transcript, and we set out to figure out what made it great. We talked about his repetition, his cadence, alliteration, and most of all, his specific imagery. That conversation propelled some powerful discussions about what those dreams were and if, all this time later, they’d come true yet, so we decided to try writing our own “I Have a Dream” speeches using some of the techniques that we observed in Dr. King’s masterpiece.
The students drafted, and when I started reading through their writing, I was floored. What I was reading sounded more like poetry than it did speeches. They were clearly mastering imagery, but the formal tone that they were trying to adopt just wasn’t ringing true.
So, the next week, I brought in some examples of modern spoken word poetry, most of it from poetry slams, and we analyzed that. They also brought in some poetry mentor texts of their own, most of it from rap and hip hop. Together, we were figuring how to update not only the content of the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the genre too, so that they could use voice that was more authentic to them.
We ended up combining forces to create one class spoken word poem. Each student took a part to read in performance, but as we drafted, we worked together. We debated style and punctuation, word choice, and repetition. When we weren’t sure, we went back to our mentor texts – both Dr. King’s speech and the more modern poetry. I loved the project then because the students were more than engaged; they were excited. It was real and it was relevant. Now, looking back ten years later, I love it even more because of what I know about the research behind using mentor texts to guide our writing. I hadn’t considered trying the project again with any of my other classes because I thought that it had started so organically from the students’ own passion. Now, I realize that while that may have been true, given choice about subject matter and good mentor texts, that same passion can still come just as naturally.
I’m excited about it, too, because of the relatively new emphasis on reading foundational texts in our standards. The Common Core State Standards ask students to read and analyze speeches and other foundational documents throughout secondary grades. What better way to make these difficult texts relevant than to read, analyze, and then write our own updated versions?
Today’s Context for Genre Hopping
I can’t help but think that right now we have the perfect context for this, too. The Broadway hit musical Hamilton does just that. This year, I’d been peripherally aware of its popularity, but it wasn’t until the past few weeks that I’ve gotten on board as a full-fledged fan. While I was on maternity leave with my daughter Charlotte, my sister-in-law gave me the CDs to listen to. (Yes, I know that it’s 2016. I own a smartphone and have an iTunes account. I just prefer to listen to CDs in the car. Someday I’m sure that will make me retro and hip; for now, I’m okay with being passé.)
It’s no wonder this musical is so popular. Its modern take on history is nothing short of musical and poetic genius. I knew relatively nothing about this particular point in our history, and now I find myself wanting to read more and talk with others about the political dynamics of our early government. Even my two (almost three) year old son loves it. While we’re driving, he’s been known to clap along while singing “Rise up!” I don’t know how much he’s actually understanding, but the kid’s got rhythm. (And before you mom-judge too harshly, I do skip the tracks that are too salty when he’s in the car with me.)
It’s got me thinking, though, that I want to resurrect this old project and update it with Hamilton as context – and a mentor text! Here are some possibilities for my classroom or for yours:
- Historical Biographies: Some of the tracks (“Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” for example) are great if you want to have students read about a historical figure and then write their own hip-hop biographies or “autobiographies” from the historical figure’s point of view.
- Craft Dialogues, Debates, or Disputes: To get a little more complex, the cabinet battles in Act II offer the opportunity to write about historical disputes in the genre of a rap battle.
- Remix Historical Documents or Other Texts Some of the play’s songs even incorporate the actual language of historical documents. “One Last Time” has a portion that is almost word-for-word from George Washington’s Farewell Address.
The possibilities seem almost endless, and I can’t wait to start working on some concrete plans this summer.
Have you ever used mentor texts to genre hop? Have you worked with foundational documents as mentor texts? Or hip-hop? I’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.