Mentor Text Wednesdays: Let’s Rank The Things We Love

Mentor Texts: All 115 of Taylor Swift’s Songs, Ranked by Rob Sheffield

School Days and Parisian Nightsuits: Every ‘Freaks and Geeks’ Episode, Ranked by Jennifer Wood

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Considering Appropriate Length
  • Recognizing good writing

Background:

 

Freaks and Geeks.jpg

Love this minimalist Freaks and Geeks poster via Etsy

One of this week’s mentor texts was a total must read for me based upon the subject material. My Grade 12 classes study Freaks and Geeks as part of our look at Identity, Individuality and Independence. It’s a wonderful text, giving us lots to ponder, and explore, while being entertaining and engaging. There’s a reason you’ve seen it on so many lists of the shows you must watch.

 

The other was a must read for me as well, but because of the writer, not the subject material. I am a huge fan of Rob Sheffield’s writing, having devoured his memoirs and beautiful book on David Bowie in the last year or so. He’s a music fan, and writes about it so unabashedly that I will gladly read any of his writing about music. This is significant, because I am not a Taylor Swift fan. I do enjoy her songs as performed by others, and I’m listening to Ryan Adams’ wonderful full album covering of 1989, but her music doesn’t do it for me.

I’ve long been fascinated by these epic rankings of the creative works of people. Every special edition that Rolling Stone publishes featuring an artist I love has one of these features. I read the lists fanatically, in my head reordering my own personal list. I’ve never actually taken the time to put pen to paper, but I’ve solidified a few Top 10 lists while killing time.

We live in a pop culture saturated world, as well as a world which is constantly ascribing value to things. Top 10 lists are standard fare, and there are those among us who may still apply Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 to our appreciation of music. If you’re a fan of anything, you are expected to be able to name the favorites – songs, albums, episodes, seasons, games, levels, novels, scenes, comics, artists, or whatever it may be.

What draws me to the lists I’ve chosen as mentor texts this week is the spectrum. To look at an entire body of work, criticize and rank it is a pretty big undertaking. And what a fantastic undertaking it could be for our writers.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Criticism – The process of ranking a body of work is inherently critical in itself. Decisions need to be made about criteria, about what is valued and being measured. There needs to be a rationale for each choice. This is potentially some pretty deep work.

The rationale, and sharing of it is where the writing of criticism lies. In looking at Swift’s songs, Sheffield dealt with lyrical content, performance and the musical elements of each song. Very quickly, ‘Bad Blood’ ranked 115 is dismissed as “Melodically parched, lyrically unfinished, rhythmically clunky” There doesn’t necessarily need to be an application of all criteria to every song. Some songs are ranked high because of performance, as is the case with covers. It seems that a number of the selections from her Christmas album don’t fare as well in that regard however. Sheffield is adept at sharing the highs and/or lows of each tune.

In Wood’s ranking of Freaks and Geeks episodes, she adheres to a tighter set of criteria, focusing on the merits of the plot of each episode. It is the story, and what it reveals about the characters, and, if we’re honest, about us through them, that she uses to rank the episodes. It’s an effective tool, giving her, like we’d want for some of our writers, a way to make the decisions, and a specific element upon which to focus their writing.

Considering Appropriate Length – So, if we give our students these two texts, and tell them they’re going to be tasked with something similar, their reading of the mentor text will, I believe, yield some interesting conversation about length.

Sheffield’s analysis of Taylor Swift’s body of work encompasses more 103 more titles. There will be those amongst our students who would use that as an impetus to choose an artist with a smaller body of work.

However, when they look at Wood’s piece, they’ll see that although she has a far smaller number of pieces to deal with, she has written more about each one. There will be students who will look at 115 “sentence or twos”  as a more preferable amount of writing than 18 paragraphs.

It also gives us a chance to talk about the length of a piece of writing. Their choice of work being ranked can dictate how much they have to write. This decision is an important one, as it dictates what aspect of honing their craft they may be working on. On the surface, a longer series of sentences, like in the Swift ranking, may seem easier, but it should become clear that these are finely crafted sentences, as they need to communicate their rationale succinctly and effectively.

Though there are many lists like these around, the fact that these two popped into my feed this week is serendipitous. If students are looking at these before deciding what they’re going to choose to rank, they’ll be making a decision about the length of the pieces that they create. This gives us, as teachers, a readymade situation for some specifically targeted direct instruction related to crafting sentences, and/or paragraphs.

Recognizing Good Writing – In both of these pieces, the writers pull a line, or quote, from each of the pieces they’re ranking. I love this notion, as it encourages a closer reading of each “text.” A part of our work with mentor text is asking our writers to look for the best elements in writing, things like golden lines. Though they’re not taking those lines directly into their writing, they’re looking for them from the work of a single artist, or team of creators. Not only are we asking our writers to find the best lines from a writer in what is held to be their best work, but we’re also asking them to do the same in that writer’s least spectacular efforts. That, in itself, gives considerable value to this pursuit!

Rob, the main character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, played so wonderfully in the film by John Cusack has always resonated with me. Pop culture matters, to us as fans, and it does to our students. Giving them an opportunity to go for a deep dive on a subject they’re passionate about is a potentially very engaging exercise. When it allows us to explore elements of craft, as an audience and creator, it is possibly even more important to try.

Have you had students rank things like this? Do you have other lists that you have, or could use in your classroom? What would you rank?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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