Mentor Text: Dead Game by Andrew Vachss
- Using Story to Explore an Issue
- Focusing a Narrative
I pulled this story out in my class this week, not as a mentor text, but as a tool to help us discuss our writing variables. There is a question on my Grade 12s’ upcoming provincial assessment that asks them to explain the writing variables they’ve chosen for their writing task. They need to explain how their central idea, form, purpose, audience and context are connected. In past years, students have faced some challenges in answering this question. My hope was that in discussing this story, we could look at Vachss’ variables, and discuss what the connections are, hopefully seeing how we could do the same.
And then I remembered how much I love giving this story to students, and watching them react to it. As we discussed it, we also talked about how a piece such as this one could be a good mentor text for them as they wrote their assessment. They’re asked to write a piece that explores a central theme, and this piece could certainly allow them to do this.
I used to read a lot of Vachss. He’s a very visceral writer, and pulls elements from his work as a lawyer in his work. It can be a tough read. He’s also an advocate for the “bully breeds” of dogs, and firmly believes that dogs are only a danger when they are trained to be. We talk about this belief as we talk about the story.
Though it may impact my ability to use this story to talk about the writing variables in the future, I plan to use this piece as a mentor text.
How We Might Use This Text
Using Story to Explore an Issue – In my Grade 11 and 12 courses, we deal with global issues, exploring these issues in our discussions and writing. As a result, I am always on the lookout for mentor texts that allow us unique ways to write about such issues.
The beauty of this piece is that the realization that it’s about a specific issue, in this case dogfighting, doesn’t happen until the last line of the story. As a visual person, in our discussion of the story, I used a Venn diagram to discuss how Vachss was able to do this. Simply, he wrote about another type of fighting. As the story is read for the first time, until that last line, it could be a boxer’s tale we’re being told. Vachss exploits the similarities between these two things to make this happen.
I foresee using a similar model with my writers, encouraging them to find something that overlaps nicely with the issue that they want to deal with. Like Vachss does, I’d want them to be able to write a piece that could be about a topic that is not their issue. In the reveal at the end, they could drive home the point that this piece is about their issue.
The impact of the reveal is a key feature in putting forth the issue. I love watching people read this story for the first time, reading that last line, and suddenly realizing what the story is really about, the issue that Vachss wants us to think about. It’s a pretty sophisticated writing technique, and very impactful.
Foreshadowing – When I teach foreshadowing, this is one of my go-to pieces. Since it’s such a short piece, “the search for clues” is manageable, and students are excited to pore over the piece again seeing where they can claim they knew it was a dog telling the story. This might also because they were fooled, and weren’t expecting this twist. They want to point out how early in the piece they knew.
In using this piece as a mentor text, we can show them a way to lay in clues. If they’re using Vachss’ model, then they’re going to talk about something else, intentionally using language that can be interpreted in different ways. Once the reveal is made, the interpretation becomes obvious. Vachss’ piece does this so brilliantly, and could help us have our writers craft that use this device to write foreshadowing using a great model.
Personification – Though it’s not clear until the end, our narrator is a fighting dog. Though he’s using a bit of misdirection to make this happen, Vachss has given our writers a model for crafting personification that they can use. Since he wrote things in such a way that, until the reveal, the narrator seems most definitely to be a human, the personification is deeply rooted in the piece. The voice reads like it is that of a human, not a dog.
Focusing a Narrative – This story is a short and powerful piece. There is no meandering, there is no filler. It is brief, and to the point, and it makes that point strongly.
That’s another reason I like it as a mentor text. Though my intention wasn’t to show it to my students as a mentor text for their written task on their assessment, it’s a good piece for them to consider. In this writing task, they work under time constraints. This bumps pretty hard against the belief that the more one writes, the better their mark will be. This piece gives them a mentor text for a way to put forth an idea about a theme with focus and impact. Though they may not master it like Vachss has, as they approach it, they will be writing pieces that are focused.
This is a short and powerful story that I’ve had in my bag of tricks for other purposes, and when I pulled it out this week, it certainly wasn’t with the intention of using it as a mentor text, and sharing it here. However, as we discussed the story, and as I shared it with my colleagues, it was obvious I had to. There’s a reason I read Vachss so fervently when I discovered him, he’s a master of the craft. Isn’t one of the goals of using mentor texts to allow our writers to learn from such masters?
Do you have any old favorites you’ve just realized are great mentor texts? How do you teach foreshadowing? How do you teach personification?
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