Mentor Text Wednesday: Encouraging A Critical Pen

Mentor Texts:

Fandom is Broken by Devin Faraci

Ghostbusters, Frozen, and the strange entitlement of fan culture by Jesse Hassenger

Yes, Disney Should Have A Queer Princess by Devin Faraci

Fandom isn’t ‘broken’—it’s just not only for white dudes anymore by Charles Pulliam-Moore

Writing Techniques:

  • Informative or Explanatory Writing
  • Writing Opinion
  • Connecting texts
  • Responding to media

Background:

If you’ve read my Wednesday posts, then you’re aware that I lean towards the geeky side of culture. I’m a fan of many things, and get pretty excited. I went into a bookstore this weekend, and only came out with a superhero pet book for my daughters, because they love animals, and I love superheroes.

As a result of this, my Twitter feed is inundated with all manner of geekery. And that is what brought the core mentor text this week across my screen. Devin Faraci, of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., a great source of pop culture mentor texts, wrote a fantastic piece about the somewhat troubling trend in pop culture these days in which fans go to distressing lengths to share their opinions, and ultimately, try to exert control over the very things they love. From anger over the gender of fictitious paranormal professionals to a superhero revealing he wasn’t so much of a hero, fans have had much to discuss and debate.

Working with young people, we’ve no doubt heard them express their preferences, and share their thoughts about their favorite pieces of pop culture. Many of them have great insights. Others parrot the stuff that they read online. It’s a rich source of critical dialogue that we should work to tap into.

One of my core beliefs in education is that we encourage students to explore, and critically think about things. This series of mentor texts, which includes a couple of responses to Faraci’s piece, is a good way to mentor this process.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Informative or Explanatory Writing — Faraci’s piece is the kind of essay I want my students to write. It expresses a big thesis, and goes on to explore it. Even if we take away the expression of opinion that he includes, we still have a heck of a great piece. It does so many of the things we want our writers to do in this kind of piece.

I’ve struggled with the introduction with my writers. Perhaps it’s their belief that the introduction is a first paragraph that contains a handful of things, but really, only serves the purpose of being the vessel of the thesis statement. Faraci uses the first few paragraphs to establish context, and to develop a hook, before dropping his thesis on the reader. The strength in this is that his thesis statement almost becomes an implied thesis, as opposed to the Thesis Statement, created in virtual isolation and inserted into the introduction as a concluding sentence to that we can get to the importance stuff. Look at Faraci’s piece. If we were to only give someone until the end of the third full paragraph, they would actually have a thought provoking little excerpt to read.

This piece focuses on one key example, fandom’s response to an interesting storytelling gambit, that Captain America was a Hydra agent all along! However, Faraci works to build a larger context for his argument by highlighting other examples that are akin to what Cap’s writers have done. For our writers, this is a great lesson. Firstly, it expands the context, and makes it appear as a much larger issue. As well, it appeals to a broader audience. If I encourage my students to think big, then I want them to write big too. In the connected world we live in, I doubt that many of the things that our writers would be writing about would exist in isolation. They need to explore, and find the larger context, and bring it into their writing.

I love the organization of this piece. The examples I referred to that build the context are shared before the reveal of the death threat received by the Marvel executive. This is a tricky strategy to teach, though, gosh, I’ve been trying it. Are your writers, like mine, ranking their key arguments in order of effectiveness, leading with the strongest, and then including as many of the others, in lessening importance, until they’ve got an essay that they feel meets what you want in length. Funny thing, although I started reading this piece for the content, it was the organization aspect that made it a mentor text for sure!

Another strength of this piece is that it shows the importance of research to back up what you’re saying. Faraci links, and refers, to other articles and texts. When discussing this kind of writing in class, I sarcastically (sort of) tell my students that I don’t need them to paraphrase Wikipedia, or any other site for me. Facetious yes, but what I’m stressing is that I want them to read more, read deeply, to explore ideas that challenge each other, as well as support each other. For me, as a teacher, the thought and exploration is vital, and the essay should be the artifact that shows and shares that thought.

Writing Opinion — This piece does a fantastic job of marrying the informative writing with Faraci’s opinion. His personal experiences as a pop culture writer have the most profound impact, as it is him speaking about his own experiences in the very thing his piece is about. I know that many of the things I’ve seen my writers write about in the past year have been things that they have experience in. When we give them a chance to choose what they’re writing about, that will happen. I think we do a disservice to them as developing writers when we insist that informational and personal writing exist as two separate entities. There are times when that is the appropriate course of action, obviously, but it is not the hard, fast rule that many would have them believe.

Another strength in the writing of opinion is that it gives the writer, as Faraci models, a chance to comment on the facts they’re sharing. This is the meat of this kind of writing for me. This is where we get to see evidence of their thought, critical and otherwise, on paper! This, in my heart, is why we teach writing, to give students a voice for the things that live inside them, their stories, ideas and opinions. Allowing them to express their thoughts adds much to the process, is what would make a task like this engaging, and for us, is likely more interesting to read than a cold, simple sharing of the facts.

Connecting Texts– In this piece, Faraci does something that, as an English teacher, I adore. He connects the situation that he’s discussing to an example from literature. Yes, that example is an previous incarnation of the thing that he’s talking about, but the connection is made. I think this is a powerful idea to have our writers tap into. If we’ve studied a text, could we not have them speculate what a character might say about a current trend? It’s a device that’s mined quite often in the media, particularly with Orwell’s writing. Would it not be a great strategy to help our writers find an “in” for their piece, or perhaps a voice. I, for one, am now stuck thinking, about Holden Caulfield and the comments.

Responding to Media– Obviously, this is the core of Faraci’s piece. I put together a mentor text bundle here though. I’ve included the AV Club piece that Faraci references focusing on the female Ghostbusters controversy. I’ve included his own further statement on criticism of his original piece. I’ve also included a piece that is critical of the stance that Faraci takes.

This is the beauty of finding mentor texts online, as well as the challenge. The search is easy. All of these pieces basically fell into my lap. Two come from a website that I regularly visit, one was referenced in my original read, and the other I found while I looked for a link for this column. The challenge is the volume of material. There were more responses than I have time for in June!

Each piece is, in essence, a response to something else. In a media driven world, I think it’s vital that we expose students to various ways to make these responses. I love the piece from Pulliam-Moore, because I know that it comes from a place that will speak to many readers. Many of these angry acts of fandom deal with diversity, and advocate for furthering diversity. His piece reacts to an element of Faraci’s, and responds to it from a different bias. This is valuable, and could be a mentor text for students writing from a strongly held belief.

As I read Faraci’s “Yes, Disney Should Have A Queer Princess” again to prepare for writing, I cooked up another crazy plan. If our writers are reading, and commenting on each other’s work, would there be a place for a piece like this? Could we ask our writers to write a piece in response to any criticism that their original piece faced? How valuable would this be in having them think about, and consider what they’re writing? Think of the dialogue, on paper that this would create. Think of the potential for our writing communities in that exercise.

As a fan, I care about things. I get frustrated too when I feel that the product created misses the mark. However, as a lover of storytelling, I love that creators feel safe taking risks. I don’t want all stories to be safe and inoffensive. As a teacher, I want my students engaged in discourse, battling with ideas and opinions, but doing so with respect. So many things in our world need deep consideration. As a teacher of writing, I want my students to hang it out there, and put themselves on the page. I think this mentor text cluster could encourage these things.

How do you get students to approach informational writing? What is your stance on the insertion of personal bias and opinion into that kind of writing? Who’s a character who you think would give interesting insight on the world we live in now? What things in the world do we need to have our students explore, and write about?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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