One of the books that my AP Lang students read is Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist (the other is 1984; they make an interesting pair). I actually had the opportunity to meet Kleon briefly and hear him speak when he came to my school district as the keynote speaker for our in-service day earlier this month. In his talk and in his book, Kleon argues that we tend to misunderstand what creativity is. When we think of creative geniuses throughout history—for example, the Beethovens and DaVincis—we tend to think of them as “lone geniuses.” These individuals were born talented and their work was the product of that individual talent.
But Kleon points out that the idea of the “lone genius” is really a myth, that genius isn’t only a product of great individual talent, but a product of a what Kleon calls a “scenius”—a network of others inspiring artists and thinkers who inspire and push and help those individuals become the geniuses they become. All creative work is the product of a “scenius” or ecosystem (v. egosystem) of collaboration. We all have a family tree of creative influence—so the question is, how can we help create a “scenius” of influence and inspiration for our students.
Of course, readers of this blog and teachers of writing know that one way we create a “scenius” for our students is through our work with mentor texts. After all, when we study the craft of other writers, when we imitate and play and ponder their choices, we are doing creative work.
We use Kleon’s book, and the companion Steal Like an Artist journal, throughout the year for writing prompts and other creative exercises. But one of my favorite ideas that I’ve “stolen” from Kleon is the idea of a swipe file. “Save your thefts for later,” Kleon encourages us. From Steal Like an Artist:
“Keep a swipe file. It’s just what it sounds like—a file to keep track of the stuff you’ve swiped from others. It can be digital or analog—it doesn’t matter what form it takes as long as it works. You can keep a scrapbook and cut and paste things into it, or you can just take pictures of things with your camera phone. See something worth stealing? Put it into the swipe file. Need a little inspiration? Open up the swipe file.”
In fact, in the Steal Like an Artist journal, Kleon includes in the back of the book a small pocket to use as a swipe file:
I took Kleon’s idea and in my class this year, my students and I are keeping swipe files for our writing study. I ordered black file folders, white paint markers, and silver sharpies from Amazon, and now these have become a home for all the small pieces of writing mentor texts that include some craft that we want to steal and save for later.
How is this swipe file different from what we have done before? After all, we’ve always studied mentor texts and kept them for future use. But what I’ve done a little differently this year with my students is focus more on small pieces of writing.
Each mentor text that goes into the swipe folder fits on a single page, and often times, the text is just a brief paragraph or two that’s been excerpted from a longer text. While we still read many, many longer full texts together, I’ve found that using small but powerful excerpts from texts allows me and my students to really hone in on a particular skill. For example, my students and I are working on definition writing right now, and just this week, I pulled the following excerpt from Dubois’ “Strivings of the Negro People” in which he explains the concept of double-consciousness:
By keeping the mentor texts small, we can more deeply analyze the discreet moves that writers are making, name them, and then add them to our swipe file for future reference. In the Dubois piece, we look at his powerful language, purposeful punctuation, his use of parallel structures, contrasts and antithesis.
When my students were working on writing a piece about a meaningful place, we filled our swipe folders with mentor texts that were rich in vivid description and detail. When we were working on introductions, we looked at several opening paragraphs, and after annotating, we talked about what we discussed what direction the rest of the essay might go: Where does this introduction leave us? Can I predict what the next paragraph will be about? When we actually go on to read some of the full essays later, students are happily surprised to see a familiar text and are more eager to dive in and dig a little deeper because they’ve seen part of it before.
As much as possible, I love positioning the text on the page so that we have extra wide margins to fill the space with our thinking. Students also stick post-its on the mentor texts they especially like, with a little note that serves as an “at a glance” reminder of what the mentor text illustrates.
Additionally, by focusing on excerpts and other small writing, I can also get many more mentor texts into students’ hands. In the past, when I’ve given students mentor texts, I often felt pressured to give them the entire thing—and there is just never enough time to read every essay in their entirety. I want students to be exposed to as many voices as possible. I start class 2-3 times a week with a close reading of one of these mentor text for our swipe folders. I’ve found that alternating between excerpts and full texts can give students opportunities to do close reading of sentence-level moves in the excerpts as well larger structural and organizational moves in the full texts.
The other great thing about using excerpts is that because they give students just a “taste” of a writer’s subject and style, students will often go on to read the rest of the essay on their own. In fact, by the time we move into full writing workshop mode when students must find their own mentor texts to read, they have already been exposed to many, many writers whose work they can now explore more deeply. For example, a few weeks ago, we read an excerpt from Roxane Gay’s powerful essay, “What We Hunger For.” Because the essay mentions sexual assault, I was hesitant about asking all students to read it. Instead, I pulled an excerpt near the opening of the piece for students to analyze. So many students loved her writing and commented, in particular, about her voice, the intimate style, the frank and unabashed self-deprecating humor.
(Also, the Venn Diagram is just all sorts of fantastic.)
Of course, excerpts from essays aren’t the only things that go into our swipe files. We’ve got some poetry, fiction, and, yes, illustrations, too!
To keep ourselves organized, one of my students volunteered to keep track with a list on chart paper, so below is a partial list of the mentor texts we’ve swiped:
Of course, ultimately, while we are compiling our mentor texts together as a class right now, as we all know, what we really want is for students to do this work independently, too. We are just beginning the work of cutting and pasting “beautiful sentences” they have been finding in their own reading (right).
Finally, perhaps what I love most about our swipe folders is that they’re just fun. There’s a playful spirit to them, and I cannot wait until my students start adding their own texts, building their own “sceniuses” of inspiration.
So that’s it! And if you happen to be at NCTE this year (I’m blogging from St. Louis right now!), stop by the Moving Writers panel on Sunday where I’ll talk swipe files and everything mentor texts with the team. Either way, I hope you’ll consider stealing this idea and if you do, please let me know how it goes! Feel free to comment or Tweet me at @triciaebarvia! 🙂