4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

3. Shakespeare Uncovered on PBS

What if students created their own mini documentaries contextualizing a topic and uncovering a subject?

My friend and mentor Kevin Mooney @Moonekev has long talked about the value of this series as a mentor text. First off, these episodes are cool and interesting and they’re great for class, mentors or not.

But for our literary analysis mentor text study, I might have my students focus on the first few minutes of a Shakespeare Uncovered episode. To open the show, the host contextualizes the topic, offering relevant background information for the audience, and then provides a clear claim, one in which you can expect to be explored and – uncovered – during the episode. 

I wonder if this might give students a way to rethink the purpose of analysis. This mentor shows how the writer’s job is to do more than just cherry pick quotes for the sake of “evidence,” how real writers writing about real subjects are out to uncover ideas. 

4. Saturday Night Live, Lobbyist” from The Atlantic

What if students gave their latest Netflix binge the lit analysis treatment?

SNL‘s political sketches are of the moment, and as Allison and Rebekah say, the best mentor texts are “current, engaging, and relevant.” With that, what better way to show students mature and sophisticated analysis than by letting them read fresh-off-the-presses essays about topics and trends they’ve seen or heard about?

“Saturday Night Live, Lobbyist” is complex and provocative and really, really interesting. It’s an excellent example of the analysis of satire. I’m imaging students who read The Importance of Being Earnest or Slaughterhouse Five and how an essay such as this mentor could provide so much more than just tips on craft. This mentor shows students how to aim for insight, depth, and sophistication in their work. 

I’m wondering what might happen if students explored and analyzed an episode of a current television show. Because the students would be intimately familiar with the content, it could free them up to focus on the maturity and sophistication of their writing. I’d be eager to see how students could run The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones through their literary lenses.

Finally, if you haven’t checked out yesterday’s post by Rebekah, 3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic, you should. She makes a compelling case for why students need mentors for literary analysis.

What texts might make great mentors for literary analysis? What other ways might we show students how analysis exists in the world outside of standardized testing? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!





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