Mentor Text Wednesday: A surprising essay collection that helps students get at the “root” of the matter

Today’s post comes from our Twitter friend Brett Vogelsinger. When he is not digging in the garden, Brett teaches ninth grade English at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. You can connect with him on Twitter @thevogelman.

Mentor Text:  The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-8-24-08-amWriting Techniques:

  • Powerful syntax and diction
  • Intense brevity
  • Getting at the “roots” of something


Looking for a book to read on a trip to Maine, I stumbled upon a brief review of the book The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden.  A quick trip to the library, and it was mine for the week of travel.  I looked forward to a break from reading books to recommend to students, a little private “grown-up” reading that appealed to one of my other passions in life: gardening.  

But as teachers of reading and writing, we all know that we cannot so easily shed our teacher skin and read books as normal folk.  So only three essays into the book, I found myself not just admiring the well-crafted nonfiction, the brisk pacing, the powerful voice of each essayist, but also longing to take those lessons back to my students, to hear them write about their passions written with similar finesse.

Moreover, each essay in the book took a just a few minutes to read, yet each sounded unique to its writer and each crackled with wonderful wording.  I know these were professional horticulturalists and botanists and landscape designers, most of them with their own books already published, public speaking resumes replete, adept at turning their ideas into words, but I could not help but think, “This is the kind of excitement I want to feel reading my students’ work!  This is the kind of spark I want to help them to throw!”

Use these mentor texts to teach:

Powerful Diction and Syntax

Here are a few of the favorite lines I discovered in this book.  Each could make an excellent mentor text for a student looking to craft a memorable line in their nonfiction writing.

“My favorite part of winter is spring.” — William Cullina, “Spring Fever”

“Plants adopted me, I think.  My parents did their best, but with six kids and their own drinking problems, I was up for grabs.” — Thomas Hobbs, “It All Began With An Oxygen Mask”

“Whatever else might be happening in my day, or in the world, the garden is always there, carrying on its unhurried, miraculous business in the bee-humming, earth-splitting Now.” — Susan Heeger, “Homegrown”

“Perhaps I garden for all that accompanies the act of gardening: the nutty-sweet fragrance of black locust blossoms, on a rainy afternoon in May, when the silver-gray clouds make the trees look like gray-green ghosts laden with white blossoms; the flash of a sky-blue wing, as a bluebird flies from its next in the hollow of a tree and swoops, in that particular bluebird way, over the field where I’m planting my tomatoes.”

As I write this I am suddenly aware that my mentor sentences get longer as I write them (give me enough space in this post and I’ll start quoting entire paragraphs!) but each offers its own lesson in craft from the short, quick, surprise twist in the first one to the dense, lush, hyphen-heavy description in the last.  These are lines that will stretch our student writers.

Intense Brevity

The average essay in this book runs just a few pages long, readable in minutes.  Sometimes our student writers need to hear from us and see in mentors that writing can be deep, meaningful, and important without being Dickensian in length and complexity.

Examining how these writers pare down their lives into one or two moments and then pare those moments down into key images and meaningful epiphanies can help inspire our students to return to revise by reduction, trimming, shaving away.  

Getting at the “Roots” of Something

The whole idea behind this essay collection is that the writers are seeking to discover what is at the “root” of their obsession with gardening.  The metaphor works especially well in the title of a gardening book, of course, but it can be applied to anything.  A student who is obsessed with snowboarding or cars or ballet or graphic novels can trace these interests back to their roots too, and doing so in an essay can be a means of self-exploration.

Katherine Bomer, in her book The Journey Is Everything, calls for teachers to move students towards this view of the essay, to perceive the genre as a means of discovering something new, not simply state and restate what is already known to a tightly scripted formula.  Challenging students to explore the roots of their obsessions in brief essays implies some digging and exploration, some unearthing is involved in their writing process.  The writers in the collection have done this work and the excitement in their thinking shines  Even students with no interest in gardening could find in one of these essays an excellent mentor for the “sound” of exploration in an essay, the thrill of the dig.  

I admit that when all these ideas came flooding in on me my first thought was “Hey, this is my summer!  What happened to my me-time reading?”  I had to quickly remind myself that it is precisely this “reading as a writing teacher” that makes my work so endlessly interesting and engaging for myself and my students.  It gives me and my students mentors to spend time with.  This type of reading might well be tangled in the roots of my obsession with teaching English.  And I wouldn’t want it any other way.  

What book collections have you found useful as mentor texts for essay?  What texts emphasize the power of brevity for your students?

Connect with Brett @thevogelman!


1 Comment

  1. Brett, I laughed when I read ¨ a little private grown-up reading.” I too started reading a book just for me, but quickly found I was marking the text and making plans to use it in my next lesson.
    I am about to order ¨The Roots of My Obsession¨

    Thanks for the great ideas!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s