Mentor Text Wednesday: My Three Go-To Personal Essays

Today’s guest blogger, Christina Gil has written for Moving Writers before. You can read her post about using satire writing as a tool for self-discovery here. Christina is a veteran high school English teacher who recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. 

Mentor texts: “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan; “The Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders; “Us and Them” by David Sedaris

Writing Techniques:

 

  • show don’t tell
  • vivid imagery
  • essay structure
  • grabbers
  • main ideas

 

Background:

I’ll readily admit that my students don’t have the longest attention spans.  The old style of long meandering essays, in which the author slowly and eventually stumbles upon some meaning after pages and pages of rambling and digressions, just won’t work with them.  So what I am looking for when I choose mentor texts is the most bang for my buck.  On the other hand, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  I also want to push my students—to read about people who are not like them, or to take on an idea that challenges their assumptions, or to see that personal essays don’t have to be about a set list of pre-chosen topics.  

I have three go-to personal essays that I have read to literally a thousand students at this point, and I use them extensively in my personal narrative unit.  Just the fact that I can continue to enjoy these texts after reading them hundreds of times speaks volumes.  

How We Might Use These Texts:

If I were to choose just one essay to read to my students as a mentor text when we do a personal narrative unit, it would be “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan.  I often joke that this essay is probably one that my high school seniors already read—in seventh grade.  It’s very short and so simple.  And yet I also call this essay “the perfect personal essay.”  

My favorite take-away from this piece is the way that authors can show rather than tell with vivid description and detail.  I always ask my students to describe the emotion conveyed throughout the essay, and they always answer “embarrassment.”  When I task them with the job of finding the word embarrassed or even a synonym of that word, they can’t find it anywhere in the essay.  And what I most love about this piece is that when I ask students how the author conveys the feelings of the narrator, which details go the furthest in helping the reader to share in the embarrassment, they realize that it is the vivid descriptions of the food that really help them to share in the experience.  When you find an essay in which the author conveys the universal teenage feeling of being uncomfortable with your parents via a description of cooked squid, you know you have found a masterful writer.   

For me, the other key pieces in this essay are the way that the author grabs the reader by giving a small piece of somewhat uncomfortable personal information but leaving some details out, and the way that the main idea of the essay is expressed via dialogue at the end of the piece.

“Inheritance of Tools” by Scott Russell Sanders is a favorite among a few students who appreciate its realness, its seriousness, and its honest discussion of blue collar values.  This is the one essay that breaks my short-as-possible rule.  It probably takes 15 to 20 minutes to read out loud in class, but it feels like it meanders much more than the others.  This essay is also a tougher sell for many of my students.  It deals with a middle-aged man’s reflections on tools, building, life-lessons, and death.  These are not subjects that are obvious choices for teenagers.  And yet, every year when I think about dropping the essay and finding something shorter and more relevant, I have students who tell me that it was their favorite essay of the bunch.

What I most utilize in this essay are its beautiful first line, its structure, and one especially complex and important sentence.  The essay starts in the middle of things with a vividly descriptive sentence (that also uses figurative language to grab a reader): “At just about the hour when my father died, soon after dawn one February morning when ice coated the windows like cataracts, I banged my thumb with a hammer.”  I could teach an entire lesson on that sentence alone.  The essay then goes back in time to discuss the ideas and memories that lead up to that day, and ends where it began but with more insight on the day in question.  This structure is a great one for students to and they often incorporate it into their personal narratives.  The sentence that I use for imitating, but only after students have some practice with simpler sentences, is this one: “For several hours I paced around inside my house, upstairs and down, in and out of every room, looking for the right door to open and knowing there was no such door.”  It’s complexity is impactful, but it is also something that students can incorporate into their own writing.

My wild card, my test of students’ understanding of irony and understatement, and my little treat to myself every year is to read “Us and Them” by David Sedaris.  I’m a big fan of Sedaris’ work, but it’s not exactly easy to find essays of his that are appropriate for school.  In this subtly hilarious piece, Sedaris does what all great satire does—he makes fun of society, and ultimately, most importantly, he makes fun of himself.  I should admit upfront that many of my less sophisticated readers miss the humor in this essay entirely.  And yet, the ones that get it really get it.  

My favorite aspect of this essay as a mentor text is the way that it makes a point—about conformity and insecurity and TV and Halloween candy—without ever really stating that point at all.  In fact, because of the dramatic irony in the essay, the reader is left completely to their own devices when it comes to finding a theme statement.  I like to push my students to work a little, and getting them to articulate not just what the author says but how he conveys that meaning to a reader is challenging but also doable.  

I also love this essay because of the way that it reinforces the requirement that the biggest take-away of a piece, the scene or line or image that readers will remember long after they have finished reading, should be the part that most strongly conveys the main idea of the piece.  And Sedaris’ image of a younger self stuffing his face with candy so that he doesn’t have to share it with someone else is about as memorable as scenes can get.

I do like to change things up on occasion, using new essays that I find or essays that I haven’t read in a while, but it’s also so nice to have my trusted pieces, ones that I know will help me teach the lessons that I want to teach about what makes good writing and how we can learn from mentor texts.

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