Mentor Text: Coat of Many Colours by Dolly Parton
Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, the woman I love fell for Dolly Parton. I know it wasn’t a childhood thing, because that’s not really what her folks listened to. But she’s a fan. And I get it, Dolly is an amazing songwriter, and just comes across as such a genuine person. As teachers, her support if literacy is something we admire greatly.
So, for the past few months, as I dig in record crates for myself. I’ve kept an eye out for some Dolly records for her. While we were in Nova Scotia, I found myself in one of those awesome, and terrifying, small used bookstores. You know, the ones that seem to have a little bit of everything crammed into a space that’s about half the size it should be. And I came across a copy of Dolly’s 1971 album, Coat of Many Colours.
Now, we’re home, and as we settle back into routines, my wife is doing stuff around the house, and I’m looking for inspiration to write. That Dolly album has been our soundtrack for the last few days, as stuff gets done around the house, and I find this week’s inspiration.
The song is famously autobiographical, as it tells a story from Dolly’s childhood. It has been covered many times, been turned into a tv movie, and is also a children’s book. As that record spun so frequently recently, I started thinking about how it could be used with writers.
How We Might Use This Text:
Memoir – This is kind of obvious, isn’t it? Dolly tells a story from her childhood. The obvious prompt would be to ask students to write about an artifact from their childhood that means something to them.
However, That is only a single layer of what’s happening in this song. Dolly also looks at this reflectively, looking back as an adult. She has added a social message in her retelling of this story, as the others mock her poverty, she reflects “That one is only poor/ Only if they choose to be.” Not only is she relating a story from her life, but she is dropping wisdom on the listener.
I would love to have students take the memoir piece of an important artifact, and explore ways to give it significance greater than it actually holds.
Symbolism – See, the coat in this song becomes more than a piece of clothing. For Dolly, it is important because it is an example of her mother’s love for her. This is an obvious level of symbolism that our writers can compose and create.
There is another level of symbolism here though, that the coat represents to Dolly a sense of pride in who she was, and to her peers, an indicator of the level of poverty she lived in. I’d love to use this to have students explore the meaning of objects in their writing – what does the item mean to you, personally, and what might it say about you to others?
Allusion – Dolly’s mom tells her the story of Joseph and his multicoloured coat as she is making the coat for her daughter. It would be neat to have students explore this other story, and look for the parallels.
Though it may be challenging for them, it would be neat to explore adding some allusion to their pieces. Can they find other works that their writing might connect to? How can the item they’re focusing on connect to another work, and how can that other work highlight some significance about that item? At the very least, they can come up with a hamfisted first attempt at using allegory, with us supporting them.
Revision- As I researched to write about this song, I discovered that at some point, another, final verse existed. It has never been recorded by Parton, but was published in the printed lyrics of 1975’s Best of Dolly Parton LP.
- Through life I’ve remained happy and good luck is on my side.
- I have everything that anyone could ever want from life.
- But nothing is as precious as my mama’s memory,
- and my coat of many colors that mama made for me.
This means that at some point, this verse ended her piece, a coda of sorts to the story. I’ve advocated recently that there is something to be gained by showing students drafts that belong to famous writers. There is much to be learned about the revision process by looking at examples like this, and discussing what impact the material that’s been removed has on the piece. (I feel like Parton realized that this verse simply repeated the moral of the story, and restated her mother’s love for her.)
This wasn’t the post I thought I’d be writing this week, but that record spent a lot of time on the turntable, and well, honestly, both my wife and I found ourselves humming the tune when it wasn’t. I’m launching into memoir study and writing when school begins, and I like throwing stuff to the kids that they might not be familiar with. Luckily, my wife is kind of obsessed with a master songwriter, and popped a great mentor text into my lap.
What mentor texts do you use in the “write about an object” memoir piece? Are there other songs we could use in this activity? How do you encourage students to try writing allusion?
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