- Writing pop culture criticism
- Structuring a critical piece
- Utilizing tone and voice
- Incorporating media into a digital text
This will mark Nathan Rabin’s second appearance in this column in a short period. It likely won’t be the last, as there are at least two other things that he’s written that I want to use.
This one, however, came across my Twitter feed a couple of weeks ago. (I can’t strongly enough recommend having a Twitter feed that branches outside of education for this purpose, amongst others.) I read it, recognized myself in it a bit too much, and laughed. And promptly earmarked it for mentor text use.
In this piece, Rabin offers us a really great critical analysis of our beloved Sesame Street. As a parent, I connected right away, but as a teacher who uses media texts, as, well, texts in his classroom, I knew I had a great piece to use in my classroom.
I want to have my students do the kind of writing about media texts that they’ve traditionally done about books. I want them to look at these texts critically, to analyze their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their cultural relevance, and to express that using their voice.
This is what Rabin mentors very well in this piece.
How We Might Use This Text:
Writing About Pop Culture– Honestly, this piece is a good mentor text for any kind of text, but I like its focus on a non-traditional text.
Beginning with humour, Rabin gets right into his analysis. He presents himself as a fan, and explains why. We want this kind of admission, especially a passionate one from our writers. Instead of the reader sensing a bias, there’s strength in laying it out there. Sometimes criticism, especially of pop culture, is dressed up as something different than a person writing their opinions down, working from a bias. This tired device, in my opinion, hobbles critical writing. Lay it out there, and then explain why. You know a good critic is going to throw in some counterargument anyway, right? Will that counterargument carry more weight when it’s written by the author of some fanboy, or fangirl, hyperbole? I’m hoping yes.
Rabin does write using humour, and his references to other media use this well. In fact, the fact that he refers to the current state of Adam Sandler’s career in highlighting positives of the show serve to make his references to Donald Trump land more seriously. Perhaps this is more about tone, but it is the way in which Rabin connects this one show to over a half dozen other pieces of media shows a depth of consideration, a level of comparison and contrast that our writers could draw some very helpful inspiration from.
A big part of the success of Rabin’s piece is his efforts to elevate the standing of his subject. Yes, the Street has a solid place in the hearts and minds of many people, but ultimately, it is written off as a “kids’ show.” Rabin does a fantastic job of highlighting exactly how much more this show is than that. Consider that he:
- connects it to vaudeville and theatre traditions
- highlights the absurdism of segments like “Elmo’s World”
- shows how the show works as satire and parody
- explains how the Street doesn’t sacrifice the core goal of education for entertainment
- reminds us how deeply the show celebrates diversity
- tells us how the show has presented strong allegorical elements to broach big picture issues with its core audience – children
Rabin’s piece works as a piece of pop culture criticism because her has thought deeply about it. Like a great mentor text, it not only inspires a way of writing, but one hopes, a way of thinking. I’d love to see students thinking deeper about media texts as a regular part of our work.
Structuring a Critical Piece – In many ways, Rabin’s piece follows a format students will be familiar with – introduce your thesis, make your key arguments, throw in some counterarguments and conclude.
Rabin’s introduction is lovely in that it is different from the typical introduction to an essay that students write for us. It is not simply background and thesis in a single paragraph. It’s a couple of paragraphs, and really, though it gives us background and thesis, it actually serves more to establish the tone of the piece.
When I encourage students to plan their pieces, to outline their writing, this piece is kind of what I’m seeing them working towards. The introduction sets it up, and then they’ve organized their arguments. Rabin’s piece is a great example of building up to your biggest, most important argument. The crux of his argument in favour of Sesame Street is its somewhat prescient treatment of Donald Trump via Donald Grump. The satirical breakdown of Trump as reality star shows Sesame Street at its strongest. What’s great is that Rabin also takes an opportunity to take a shot at current media, such as Jimmy Fallon, not doing this very thing as effectively, thereby boosting what Sesame Street has done.
Utilizing Tone and Voice – I’ve alluded to it a couple of times already, but a core piece of what makes this piece work is Rabin’s tone and voice. Yes, he drops some salty language right from the hop, but it is so clearly his voice. I really enjoy that part of his writing – a self aware, self deprecating sense of humour that permeates much of his writing.
Another thing that makes Rabin’s humour work so well is his use of language. Rabin is a smart guy, which is clear in his use of language. There is a pervasive thread in society that being crass is what makes things funny. Many of our writers might be tempted to roll with the cussing after seeing Rabin’s single f-bomb. However, Rabin doesn’t use the device of foul language to add more humour than that one single joke. This juxtaposition is neat, but when Rabin gets into his analysis, talking about “absurdism” and satire, it’s forgotten. Basically, Rabin sounds like a funny smart guy, which is something we’d love to see our writers emulate, no?
And again, Rabin writes as a fan. He says it right away, and he defends that fandom in his piece. Even when he throws out some counterarguments, he does so with respect. I think students need to explore using an honest voice. Often, they are asked to do a lot of writing that is essentially an academic exercise. They work within an arcane system of rules for writing, and as such, struggle to express a voice. By showing them a piece like Rabin’s, one that speaks from the writer’s heart, with their bias openly on display, they can explore that voice.
Incorporating media into a digital text – This is a thing I haven’t played with yet, but I’m quite intrigued by the notion of having students publish their writing in some sort of digital format. Rabin, and many pop culture writers create digital content. Our writers work there too.
A beautiful thing about this form is the ability to embed content. Instead of quoting, we can drop in the evidence we need. It’s quite simple. Which, of course, presents potential problems. It would have been very easy for Rabin to liberally pepper his piece with numerous Sesame Street clips and segments.
Instead, he chose one segment. He chose the one that supports what he feels is his key argument. Much like we would in a literary analysis essay, Rabin “quotes” something that serves to strengthen that argument, that illustrates his point.
Rabin has made a career out of these kinds of pieces, writing about popular culture. Like many, I feel that pop culture pieces serve as texts, and writing about them can be a rich and important part of our literacy journey. I bring these texts into my classroom regularly, and keep my eye out for pieces like this one, strong mentor texts for my writers to use to grow.
Do you have go-to writers that you use to try to inspire your writers? How do you get students to write openly, using their own voices?