How Mentor Text Study Makes “Big Magic”

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It’s Tony Awards season and I’m writing about magic–of course I have Pippin on the brain!

It was 9:45 on a Thursday night with two weeks left in the school year and I was crying. My eyes welled up as I read a mash-up of Death of a Salesman and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Years after the death of their father, Biff Loman was inviting Happy to join him on a quest for gold. It should not have worked. It should have been ridiculous. But in the hands of one of my quieter students, a writer whose work had slowly but surely improved and grown, month by month, semester by semester, it worked so, so well. Of course the Loman brothers would band together on a treasure hunt! The scene unfolded so beautifully, and the late hour made me feel like I’d stumbled upon one of those once-in-a-lifetime nighttime blooms. It was magical. And so I cried.

Like Rebekah, I found it extra difficult to say goodbye to the Class of 2016. One of the elements of the International Baccalaureate learner profile (and, let’s be honest, any good learner profile) is risk-taking, and these seniors were my risk-takers. Whatever detour or or alternate route I wanted to take, they went along for the ride. I’ve never had a class as game for challenges as this one, so my heart, too, was heavy when they threw their graduation caps into the air a few weeks ago.

This class proved over and over again that teaching with mentor texts WORKS, and nowhere was the truth of mentor text magic more evident than in the seniors’ final projects, creative pieces that didn’t start in a revolutionary place but are inspiring a revolution in my classroom. 

The month of May can put any senior through the ringer. Some seniors might struggle to stay focused and do their best while the promise (or dread?) of life after high school looms ever larger. Others, like my IB seniors, endure a brain-melting battery of cumulative assessments for college credit and other advanced courses. Because I know how tough May can be for my seniors, I promise them that our work after their IB exam will be light. In the past, that meant enjoying some course-related parodies and films and writing two essays: an essay that compared our semester’s literature to an end-of-the-year movie and a “long view” of students’ experience in IB English and the IB diploma program, an “exit interview” of sorts. The essays were easy to write and easy to grade; they made all of us happy.

But last year I had a group of seniors who I knew were capable of (and itching to do) more. Since many of them were involved in theatrical extracurriculars and we study drama during our final semester, I offered a performance-based replacement for the movie/coursework analysis.

And then came this year’s seniors–fewer performers but plenty of thoughtful, funny, risk-taking young women and men who made deft work of literature-based analyses like a George Orwell-style essay and a pastiche of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. And we had one more week in the school year than normal. That’s an awfully long time to focus on a movie. They could do so much more.

Goodbye, comparative analysis. Hello, creative writing option.

I decided that this year, students would write the “exit interview” during our final exam period, but for the first portion of the final assessment, students could perform a scene or respond to a creative writing prompt: write an epilogue/sequel to one of our dramas or an absurdist scene in the style of our trickiest play, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Most of my students chose the creative writing option (and those who didn’t performed heart-rending and hilarious scenes from our dramas). With very little instruction from me other than a description of the available writing options (and an invitation to develop their own prompts), the seniors produced an incredible set of sequels, epilogues, and absurdist scenes. During the three weeks after our exam, the seniors filed into my classroom, popped open their laptops, and placed their mentor texts next to their computers. After two years of approaching our class readings like mentor texts, the students observed and absorbed the “moves” of Arthur Miller, Athol Fugard, Tom Stoppard, and their genre without much coaching from me. They did not have to write another essay to show me that they could analyze and interpret dramas or appreciate writers’ choices.

Since so much of drama depends on dialogue and character, it was almost as if students had absorbed characters’ “moves” as well, sometimes subconsciously. Many of my students were really upset with the Lomans when we finished Death of a Salesman, but that didn’t mean they didn’t understand them. I was impressed by how well some students mimicked the family’s cadences and speaking styles. Or, in the case of the example below, how students carried the symbols of Miller’s play into the scenes from their sequels.

Here, a student imagines how Linda Loman, overwhelmed by grief over Willy’s death, might descend into madness like her husband did in Miller’s play. She talks to Willy in the garden he failed to cultivate:

Linda is seated at kitchen table. A small light illuminates the dark room.

Linda: Willy? Willy are you coming?

Silence

Linda: Oh, Willy, where are you?

Sound of hurried feet echoes throughout the house

Biff: Mom, what are you doing in the kitchen at 2 AM? Get to bed!

Linda: I am waiting for your father.

Biff: He’s been dead for two weeks! Now get back upstairs and go to bed!

Biff guides Linda towards the stairs, but Linda hesitates.

Biff: Go on…

Linda: How do you know he is not outside? Surely he is coming back?

Biff: For crying out loud he’s DEAD! He is NOT coming back!

Linda begins sobbing uncontrollably and runs out the kitchen door

Biff: Get back in the house!

Linda falls and lands in a pile of dirt. She sees a small torn white package. On the front in faded letters is the word CARROTS.

Linda: Oh Willy…sobbing…aren’t these growing so nicely?

 

Students who wrote absurdist scenes sometimes created their own characters. In the excerpt below, Carrie responded to a friend’s observation that her family deserved their own sitcom by turning a family dinner into one of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fruitless question games:

The family has sat down for dinner. The parents are on each end, and the children are in the middle. The mother is standing by the table dishing out the food. They are having breakfast for dinner. Dinner includes eggs, toast, and bacon.

Mark: to Carrie “Do you want any bacon?”

Carrie: “Do I ever want any bacon?”

Mark: “I don’t know, do you?”

Carrie:   “Don’t you know I don’t like bacon?”

Mark: “How would I know if you never answer my questions?”

Carrie: “How am I supposed to answer your cryptic questions?”

Mark: “Do you want bacon is not a cryptic question.”  

Carrie: “Statement. One love.”

 

Click here for more examples, reflections, and my assignment prompt.

The Magicians Reveal Their Secrets:

Writers ended their assignments with reflections explaining their choices. Seth, who wrote an absurdist scene, kept a quote from the play in mind as he wrote:

I use word play fairly often, usually one of the characters saying something and confusing it with a homophone. (Like the conversation of “Great” and “Mr. Grate” and the confusion of “right” as in correct with “right” as in the direction). I always came back to the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quote “Now we’ve lost the tension.” I wanted basically every moment to build tension, and then immediately lose it. Like when they’re talking about getting someone to fix the window, but they end up both knowing the same guy even though neither of them outright said they did.

Jay, the writer of the Linda Loman scene, was interested in carrying on Miller’s conflicts and themes:

The sequel to Death of A Salesman is called Death of A Housewife because Linda dies in the end. I feel that Linda should die because she is full of grief and suffering after the death of Willy. During the requiem Linda is in a state of shock and sorrow. These struggles need to continue in the sequel because it demonstrates how Linda loved Willy and her sons. In my sequel Linda is killed during the fight between Biff and Happy, however, it is never clear who is responsible for her death. Instead, I wanted to focus on the fractured family and the wide range of emotions by the characters, rather than how she died. The sequel expands on the theme of tragedy and the common person because Linda dies and the family is divided. Willy and Linda wanted their sons to achieve great success, but Biff and Happy struggle to achieve success. Instead the men argue with each other and little is accomplished.

Ethan, the mash-up writer, called his scene The Rancher, The Lawyer, and the Salesman. As he explained in his reflection, Bernard, the son who made good and thus made Willy Loman jealous in Death of Salesman is the Loman brothers’ rival once again:

In my sequel, Biff’s character parallels the good, Bernard’s character the bad, and Happy’s character the ugly. Because of the requiem at the end of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I made Happy a Salesman just like his father, as the requiem makes him seem determined to make sure Willy’s struggles and perseverance were not in vain. In contrast, Biff’s character is always interested in being happy with his life, unlike Willy was, and consistently contemplates moving west in the play, so I decided to let him follow his dreams and become a Colorado rancher. This gave me the perfect opportunity to transform Biff into a spitting image of Eastwood’s character Joe, commonly referred to as “the man with no name,” fedora, cigar, facial hair and all. Seeing as I still needed a “bad,” I was forced to make Bernard the bad, as he becomes the Loman brother’s only competition en route to the retrieval of the precious treasure worth twenty-thousand dollars, which also appears in Sergio Leone’s film.

On one hand, what I’m sharing here might feel a bit redundant. Sequel or epilogue writing assignments aren’t new, but sequels, spin-offs, and parodies themselves are reminders that art begets art. All of the amazing teachers in the Moving Writers community have stories and examples of how well teaching with mentor texts has worked for them; nevertheless, I felt compelled to share these examples and mark this particular moment because what was supposed to be a final assignment for my seniors has become an ongoing assignment for me: live and work creatively so my students will respond in kind.

Sometimes, the demands of our work (be they standards, universal assessments, state tests, or insert-your-hurdle-here) make it difficult, even frightening, to be creative, but I think we have to keep challenging ourselves and our students to exercise and cultivate our creativity.

24453082One of the books kicking off my summer reading list is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In addition to promoting  mentor text study (Gilbert says “No living writer has ever taught me more about plotting and characterization than Charles Dickens has taught me […] All I had to do in order to learn from Dickens was to spend years privately studying his novels like they were holy scripture, and then to practice like the devil on my own” (109)), Gilbert’s book and its companion podcast, Magic Lessons, assuage readers’ and listeners’ fears that they aren’t talented enough or trained enough to pursue their creative passions. I wonder if classroom experiences (or lack thereof) lead to some of that fear. Studying the masters without giving their art a try is enough to make anyone feel unworthy.

I’ll (sheepishly) admit, in my first few years of teaching, I saw creative writing activities as “fluffy” alternatives to analysis or the sorts of activities I would love but my students would hate and fail, so I rarely offered them. But how could a student know if she is the next Arthur Miller if she doesn’t get a chance to write a scene? How can a student be sure he isn’t a poet if he never writes a poem? As summer starts and ideas for next year marinate, I am challenging myself to find more opportunities to make my students feel like the writers, artists, makers, creators they are. Not all of our students will write regularly once they leave our classrooms, but the world will challenge all of them to think creatively. As Karla noted in her recent post, students sometimes feel boxed-in by the expectations of a style or discipline, and our task as teachers is to find ways to help them develop their own voices. My class of risk-takers reminded me, over and over again, that, to paraphrase Pippin, “they’ve got magic to do,” and my classroom ought to be the place for it.

Want to work on my assignment with me? Here are a few other thoughts I have about how to make “Big Magic,” what Gilbert calls the discoveries that happen while exercising our creative capabilities, next year:

  • Though parodies, tributes, sequels, and spin-offs have been around for a long time, I feel like there’s greater interest in those genres at the moment. They’re also reminders that art begets art! It might be useful for students to see how others have used great mentor texts to inspire their own projects (see Curtis Sittenfield’s Eligible or Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, the short story collection Reader, I Married Him, Daveed Diggs of Hamilton‘s #BARS Mixtape Project (some sections might not be classroom appropriate), or the Hogarth Shakespeare series) before trying their hand at their own spin-offs, sequels, or re-imaginations.
  • I’m not done reading Big Magic, but I already know that it will impact my classroom work next year. The short chapters and meditations might lend themselves to Writer’s Notebook prompts.
  • Allison’s recent posts about children’s book projects and nature writing remind me to check in with other artists in the building and explore opportunities for collaboration.
  • Hattie’s recent post about re-imagining personal statements as infographics has me wondering what other traditional assignments or tasks could be re-imagined. Maybe I’ll ask my students to brainstorm new approaches along with me!

What were your most magical moments of the year? Have you used creative writing to demonstrate literary analysis? I’d love to hear how “Big Magic” happens in your classroom, so please share a comment below or tweet @msjochman. 

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