Mentor Text Wednesday: Five Truths and a Lie about Paxton Avenue

Mentor Text: Five Truths and a Lie about Paxton Avenue by Jose Olivarez (pdf)


  • Writing Memoir
  • Using a Structure

Background –  In the first paragraph of this column, I usually reference my Twitter feed. I follow a lot of poets, not only because they share their work, but the poetry community is wonderful at sharing the work of their peers. As I was deciding what I’d share this week, poet Danez Smith dropped this gem into my feed.

The title hooked me right away. I was just commenting to a student recently how sad it makes me that we let a lot of the play, and fun stuff, of learning slide away in high school. “Two Truths and a Lie” in high school is solely the domain of icebreakers, and working at a small rural school, we usually don’t bother with those, since everybody knows everybody. I always seek ways to try to reclaim some of that fun.

The author and his roommate via Chicago Magazine

When I read the piece, I was delighted to see that it’s a piece about place. One of my colleagues and I had our notebooks out, sketching out a mini-unit where our writers are going to write about place. In Grade 12, we do a fair bit of memoir writing, and writing about place fits there.

I really like that it’s a piece we can take into class almost immediately, with very little preparation. (I also like, that if one goes to Chicago Magazine’s site, that this is part of a series, easily for a mentor text set.)

How we might use this text:

Writing Memoir – My students, this year, are writing numerous “smaller” memoir pieces. (We’re actually writing numerous memoir poems, to edit into chapbooks at course’s end, but that’s another story.) I like having pieces that we can deal with as quickwrites, or are easily rough drafted in a class or two. This fits that bill.

One of the reasons that my colleague and I have been developing our unit on place based writing is that we all have places to write about, good, bad, special and so forth. Things happen in places, and they resonate. Our Grade 12s are approaching graduation, and many will be leaving those places. The emotions attached to this are fuel for these pieces.

What strikes me about this piece is that it is simultaneously about place and the things that define places, and make them resonant. The overlap between those is important, in my opinion, as place is often defined by the experiences and interactions in that place. It deals with race and culture, and how they connect with a place. It deals with the routine of a place. It deals with the things that make that place special. Using this as a mentor text, our writers have a good model to explore the things that make a place resonate for them.

Using a Structure – Sometimes, it’s tempting to give our writers mentor pieces based upon a structure like this because the structure almost serves as a checklist. When we’re in the busy times of the year, something with a worksheet vibe provides a bit of relief, doesn’t it?

I feel, however, that this works better than some structures, as it’s based upon a game that most students know, and may not have played for a while. A familiar structure, especially one that hasn’t necessarily been used for writing might be a catalyst for some risk taking, and stepping outside of comfort zones. Sometimes, something that seems silly does that for us, and actually results in some wonderful, strong and serious pieces.

I especially like the length of this piece. These are manageable sized pieces, a paragraph per truth and lie. It’s also malleable, because we can use this as a first draft, and each of those paragraphs can become moments, or elements, that we expand and explore in the creation of a longer piece. In my classroom, each paragraph will likely be edited into a poem, creating a small series of poems, or, for those that find that overwhelming, a stanza, giving us a poem of six(ish) stanzas.

It’s also a pretty transferable structure. Add an introduction and a conclusion, and you’ve got a personal essay. (Sure, they might need some transitions added, but that gives an opportunity for some editing minilessons right?) If we change lie to counterargument, it can be used as a model for persuasive writing. It’s a structure that can travel to other courses as well, where research is presented as “Five Truths and a Misconception.”

One of the best things about reading widely, and being connected is that mentor texts find their way to you. Sometimes, a piece shows up that inspires lessons, or a piece comes along that allows you an opportunity to do something with your writers that you’ve been trying to figure out. That’s what happened this week with this piece.

Are there elements of “play” that you bring into your classroom to facilitate writing? What are some other applications of the “truths and a lie” structure that you can think of? Aren’t you glad I decided not use that structure to write this post?

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

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