Mentor Text Wednesday: Say Something Nice

Mentor Texts:

The Say Something Nice series at Birth.Movies.Death

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Counterargument
  • Tone and Voice

Background – Our students consume a fair amount of pop culture. They’re able to budget their time in such a way that they’re consuming media at an insane pace, binge watching like mad, and watching everything Netflix has to offer in their favorite genre.

So, it stands to reason that they watch a lot of crap.

When we’re talking about these things, at some point during the bashing, I make a point of pointing out that the things we hate the most are someone else’s absolute favorites, and vice versa. It kind of blows their minds, but it highlights a point I really want them to think about as consumers of media, as participants in work with texts of all kinds – there is good in the bad.

As a fan of pop culture, and as a teacher of literature, it’s second nature for me to note the positive aspects in things. I’m either justifying my investment in entertainment, financially, my time, or looking for the teachable moments in a piece. It’s a practice I enjoy personally, but it’s also a thing I think is important for my students to adopt as well. I want them looking for golden lines, magic moments and things that they enjoy, even if the text they’re in stinks.

BMD SSNThe Say Something Nice series is a nice set of mentor texts for this. (BTW, if you’re a pop culture fan not reading the work at Birth.Movies.Death., you’re missing out. There is a fantastic community of writers laboring there, and I’m sure this won’t be the last appearance of a BMD text in my column.) The text that opens a number of the Say Something Nice posts summarizes things nicely:

“Movie fans know all too well that you have to wade through a lot of disappointment to find the good stuff. And it’s not always some binary pile-sorting of “good movies” and “bad movies”; sometimes there’s quality material smack in the middle of the muck. Say Something Nice is dedicated to those gems – memorable, standout, even great moments from movies that…well, aren’t.”

How We Might Use These Texts:

Criticism – Here’s the thing, in the process of defending elements of these films, the BMD writers have to outline exactly what’s so bad about the films. This is the “easy” part of the criticism, especially in movies that are routinely considered bad. That being said, there’s some nice mentor text support for discussing a text we don’t like. Evan Saathoff’s entry on Rocky V does this well:

“Rocky V isn’t perfect. It’s plagued by bad casting, lame touches that date it to 1990 way too much and an unfortunate family storyline that never quite works. … Maybe it’s not a great Rocky movie, but it’s certainly more of a legitimate Rocky movie than the action cartoon offered by Part IV. Granted, Rocky IV is fun. But I want emotion with my Rocky films more than I need great boxing, and I can’t help but suspect many Rocky IV fans are only in it for the ironic ‘80s lulz.”

Contrasting Rocky V with other Rocky films is a tool that Saathoff uses to good effect, considering the esteem that they are held in. Criticism, perhaps moreso when dealing with filmed pieces, relies heavily on the critic’s reaction, their opinion and bias. This series allows them to identify that bias, and write from there. This model gives our writers a model for their criticism.

Counterargument –  Moving from outlining the less savory parts of the film into highlighting the bright spots in the films is a good exercise in counterpoint for our writers. I often feel like this is one of those pieces we teach our writers to do, well, kind of badly. There winds up being this one token paragraph, so clearly put there by teacher edict that doesn’t flow in the least.

Part of this is a result of purpose. That counterpoint is often a token piece, an forced attempt to show an appreciation for the other side. I really feel like the overall purpose of this piece lends itself to a more authentic application of the counterpoint in writing. The core purpose of this piece is the counterpoint! A lot of the body of the texts is used to establish context, setting up how bad the film in question is. It is then necessary for the writer to identify and explain how there is treasure in the trash.

Hopefully, this exercise would encourage our writers to consider structuring their pieces similarly to this, considering the big picture of their essays, as opposed to writing from a checklist.

Tone and Voice – Often, when I write about mentor texts, it’s a text or two in question. They’re generally pieces that have popped, and inspired me to think about things that I’d like my writers to try, or to explore doing with greater success.

This week, however, I’m sharing a series. As I began rolling this post around in my head, it struck me that a regular feature such as this one not only gives us a continually expanding mentor text pool, it also allows us to sample a cross-section of writers doing the same assignment. I love that our writers could explore a variety of ways of doing the same thing. There are pieces of different lengths, as well a variety of distinct tones. Film Crit Hulk’s Dogma piece serves as a reflection on an era of film, as well as looking at that film.Evan Saathoff’s Rocky V piece contrasts pieces within a single series, discussing those which fans hold with reverence. Brian Collins’ piece about A Good Day To Die Hard has a distinct memoir feel to it, making it a bit more bittersweet. Maybe it’s because it came out at the height of my film buff life, but Jacob Knight’s Gigli piece made me laugh. It’s funny, and kind of savage.

I think this may be my favorite thing about this set of mentor texts – the versatility. It feels like we’re often giving them a small selection of pieces to inspire them. How great is a growing set of mentor texts that we can just send them to? The idea that all our writers may find a piece that resonates for them, that feels close to their voice? That helps them find their voice? Priceless.

Pop culture gives us a great source of inspiration. All the ways creators have to tell stories gives us so much. There is also something special about the writing about pop culture. Birth.Movies.Death. consistently features great writing, and this series is no exception. It’s a gift to teachers, however, because not only do we have a writing task we could assign tomorrow, complete with a bank of mentor texts, but we have a series of mentor texts to use should we ask students to write about the best part of any text they didn’t like, from Shakespeare to Spielberg.

Do you know of any other regular columns like this that would make great mentor texts? Do you have bigger sets of mentor texts that you use to give your writers a broad range of mentors? What bad movie would you be able to find a good part in?

As always, connect with me on Twitter, @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below to connect.

-Jay

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