Mentor Text: Monday, November 4, 2013 from The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
- Infusing Narrative Into Informational Writing
Background: Our washer died a couple of months ago.
This is relevant because it means that since we haven’t taken the time to buy a replacement, I’ve been spending time at the laundromat each weekend. And generally, I take a coffee and whatever I’m reading with me.
Last weekend, that was Dashka Slater’s powerful The 57 Bus. If you’ve not heard of it, it is a powerfully written non-fiction piece that tells the story of two young lives, that intersect on the titular bus in Oakland. Sasha, who identifies as agender, is wearing a skirt that Richard, an African American youth from a poor part of Oakland, holds the flame of a lighter to. Sasha awakes in flames. The book tells their stories.
The first chapter of this book serves as an introduction, and is the best kind of introduction. It grabs you, and compels you to abandon your plans to read the book. The book uses narrative to drive its exploration diversity, gender, race, the justice system, incarceration and other elements of society. This introduction establishes the story.
And in doing so, it makes for a hell of a mentor text.
How We Might Use This Text:
Introduction – Teaching introductions is hard. Do you focus on exposition? Is it all about the hook? Do you focus on information? Can those things be combined?
Obviously, the purpose of an introduction changes depending upon what we’re writing. What really makes this a great mentor text is, like I said, that it compels you to continue reading. There’s enough story given to intrigue you as a reader, especially when taking into consideration that this is a work of non-fiction.
I’d give my writers this to read and discuss. There are a lot of things that work, but it might be more valuable to look at it as a whole, and take into consideration the impact of these few pages. And then we discuss that impact.
Firstly, it actually pretty much tells the whole story. There’s not much detail, true, but the core is there. There are many questions that come as a result of this, which you want to continue reading to have answered.
It speaks directly to the reader. “Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.” Doing this at the end of a narrative that is largely impartial, just a telling of the events makes it resonate. How could we impact this terrible things from happening?
There is a thing I call “bad magician” that I talk about with students. It’s my term for when they explain the things they’re going to do in their writing. Using bad magician, The 57 Bus would start with this story, but we would be told that we would learn more about the story of both of these young people, that we would learn about gender identity, about race, about Oakland, about incarceration, about hate crime, and some other things. Slater implies those things, and we’re not surprised when we read them later in the book, but it’s not a list. That makes this a wonderful introduction.
Infusing Narrative Into Informational Writing – A few years ago, I saw Penny Kittle present on the feature article that one of her classes wrote. I adapted it for my courses, because I loved the scope of the project – asking students to become well versed in a topic, and writing a piece that feels more substantial than an essay. I also liked using mentor texts that showed that informational writing can be something besides the dry, pure academic writing that students expect us to want.
I believe that as a species, humans are driven by story. The best feature articles recognize this, and as a result, are driven by narrative writing. The narrative piece is often a feature of the introduction, the story acting as a hook to pull the reader in. The narrative, the information, and often persuasive writing, are interwoven. This is what is so great about this particular piece is that it models how that narrative can be an effective way to begin a piece. (It helps that this book is expanded from an article. The first paragraphs of that article might be neat to look at too, almost as an early draft of this introduction.)
When you read something, and pause for a second to mutter appreciative profanities under your breath, you know you’ve found a powerful text. Powerful texts need to find their way into our students’ hands, to read, and to write alongside. I spent Saturday’s laundry time, as well as any other time I could find during the weekend devouring The 57 Bus. This introduction was a big part of that. Not only is it a great mentor text, but if you’re doing a book talk, this passage is all you’d need to read to hook readers.
What are your mentor texts for introductions? Do your writers struggle with introductions too? What other strategies do you use?
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