How Batman Made Me Fall In Love With Comic Books by Neil Gaiman
Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie
- Writing About Literature
It’s the last week of school. Report cards and marks were submitted this morning. I have a couple of days to return my classroom to something I would post pictures of, and to do some preliminary planning for next year.
And I have one more column to write before a bit of a hiatus from this space.
I knew what I wanted to write about to… and I realized that I didn’t really have the mentor texts to back it up. Probably not the best way to approach a column called Mentor Text Wednesday.
See, in my Literary Focus class, I often assign a last essay piece that I call “Lessons Learned From Literature.” I give wonderfully vague directions that essentially involve me restating, or paraphrasing the title of the assignment, and I get some pretty good reflective pieces.
But I’ve never approached it as a mentor text kind of piece. I thought I had a good mentor text for it in my favorited tweets, but when I read that piece, I realized that it had other merits I’d be using in a whole other column.
Twitter didn’t let me down though, because this Neil Gaiman piece popped into my feed. Then, I remembered the Alexie piece, which I used as a mentor text years ago, before officially becoming Mentor Text Wednesday Guy.
I realized, yet again, that the core of another mentor text set had fallen into my lap. I know I could make these fit the Lessons Learned assignment, but I realized that these pieces were about something more important – they were about falling in love with literature. We can’t learn those lesson if we’re not reading, right?
How We Might Use These Texts:
Writing About Literature– We get students to write about literature all the time. Often, literary analysis is the piece of writing we spend the most time on. For many of us, every text comes with an essay attached. These are long linked academic tasks, read the book, write the essay, rinse and repeat.
We don’t get students to write about what fires them up about reading as often as we should. Maybe we’ve tried it and gotten canned responses. Maybe it’s not worth the fight with the staunch non-readers glaring at us from over their unopened novels. I think we need to do it.
Both of these pieces do this so well. Alexie’s piece talks about how literature opened a life for him, and how he sees it as a key to many doors for young people. Gaiman talks about how one title made him love a whole form.
I believe, deep down for some, every person has a book that matters to them. I want them to write about it. They could follow Alexie’s lead, and share how that title led them into a reading life. They could follow Gaiman’s lead, and talk about what appealed to them about a title, and how it made them appreciate a form. (It is also likely important to note that both of these readers became writers!)
Part of the magic of Gaiman’s piece is that, if you read it, you’ll notice that he focuses on what drew him to Batman. Yes, he does get into the storytelling involved in Batman, the connections to Gothic literature, and the fact that all interpretations of Batman are Batman, but his initial focus is on how the covers, and art, pulled him into that form of literature. For many of us, that’s where we know Gaiman from originally, the comic book world. Many of our self-identified non-readers likely have a similar story. Maybe they only read stuff that’s based upon games, or movies. Maybe they read graphic novels or manga. Maybe they only read whatever hot dystopian teen trilogy is being marketed at them pervasively. They probably have a reading life that is not considered Real Reading. Gaiman vaildates that for them in this piece.
Writing Memoir — I’ve used Alexie’s piece before as a mentor text for students writing a Reader’s Autobiography. It’s a powerful mentor text for that. He traces his whole reading life in there. Gaiman does a similar thing, but focuses only on the comics. These pieces are a great mentor text for that assignment.
What’s fantastic though, and the best memoir bits here are the personal stories that are attached to the reading. Both men include their fathers. Alexie talks about his ethnicity, and how his reading made him an anomaly. Gaiman’s story about being physically removed from the shop makes you grin. In these pieces, they show that a memoir piece about reading doesn’t just have to be about reading. When I had students write based upon Alexie’s work, parents played a role in their pieces, as did other family members, and teachers. Reading, for many of us is connected to people. Perhaps we love it because of the person, but it becomes part of us too.
One of the best moments of Alexie’s piece is this paragraph:
This might be an interesting story all by itself. A little Indian boy teaches himself to read at an early age and advances quickly. He reads “Grapes of Wrath” in kindergarten when other children are struggling through “Dick and Jane.” If he’d been anything but an Indian boy living on the reservation, he might have been called a prodigy. But he is an Indian boy living on the reservation and is simply an oddity. He grows into a man who often speaks of his childhood in the third-person, as if it will somehow dull the pain and make him sound more modest about his talents.
When he breaks from the first person narrative, to tell this piece in third-person, it had an impact on my students. In fact, they spotted it, and pointed out the impact. Many of them copped this move for their own pieces. This is the best thing about mentor texts, because those writers have that move now!
We model the love of literature all the time as teachers, when we book talk, or work to match student and book. In our system, we have a terrible habit of saddling reading with baggage that takes away that love for students. Maybe we’ve had that thing happen where we’ve delineated what reading is, and isn’t, and they feel they’re on the wrong side with their choices. I can’t help but wonder if we got them writing about why they fell in love, or conversely out of love, with reading, could we maybe rekindle that love? Seems worth a try to me.
How do you get students to reflect on their reading lives? Do you have any mentor texts that we could use to get students talking about their relationship with reading? Ummm, if you have good mentor texts for that Lessons Learned piece, could you send them to me?
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