Mentor Text: Ode to my Kitchen by Jacqueline Woodson
- Merging Narratives
- Delivering a Message
Background- The internet is kind of a perilous thing for teachers isn’t it? I find myself alternating between excitement at how many resources it flings at me, and being overwhelmed by that very same thing. It can feel like a constant loop of, “Ooooh, that’s cool. Where does it fit in my courses?” I feel like I’m always flagging stuff for future use.
Such is the case with this week’s mentor text. It came across my Twitter feed, and I glanced at it as I scrolled – “A nice brief piece, and, oh, an ode! I can file that in my folder of odes which I won’t be looking at for awhile.” I retweeted it, with my hashtag attached, and thought nothing of it.
Then, it made it’s way back into my feed and I read it. Wow. This is SO MUCH MORE than I thought at first glance. It is still an ode, and still brief, but my goodness, what is contained in that brief piece is jaw droppingly powerful.
It’s a dream mentor text, tightly focused, powerfully written and tailored to hit a few different things we might want our writers to look at.
How We Might Use This Text
Tone – This is a master class in establishing tone. Woodson begins by describing a place, her kitchen. The use of imagery communicates much more than a place, but gives life and vibrancy to the kitchen, making it sound like an experience than a place. If the goal of an ode is to celebrate something, that goal is met in the first paragraph. It is clear that this is a beautiful, beloved place. This paragraph alone would make an outstanding mentor text.
There is a tonal shift as the piece continues. The light of the first paragraph is shut out, creating a contrast that highlights the shift in the focus from the kitchen to the events of the previous night. The darkness of that event is so prevalent, imagery again adding to that the sombre tone.
Returning to the light of the kitchen, a light dimmed by the darkness of the events outside the kitchen brings this piece to a powerful conclusion. The love tinged tone of the opening paragraph is echoed, but it is impacted by the darker tone of the middle section.
With tone in mind, this is what I love about this piece, that it shows how tones can blend, and often, in life, this happens. Joy and sadness, hope and fear are emotions that overlap in this piece, echoing reality. Often, our writers will pick a tone and hold it for a full piece. Or they employ jarring shifts in tone, almost shocking a reader. This piece shows how tone can be blended, how a writer can flow between tones smoothly.
Memoir – My Grade 12 students read and write a fair bit of memoir. That was one of my initial reasons for flagging this piece, to inspire odes to places that matter to them.
Obviously, this is a much stronger memoir mentor text. That blending of tones I talked about above is a powerful consideration for the writing of memoir. Many of our memoir writing activities focus on a single emotion. We do enough memoir writing that we are able to capture a cross-section of emotion, but this piece made me realize that too often, we’re really compartmentalizing emotions. It makes perfect sense to be happy in a place that we feel safe, and in that safe place, recall a place that wasn’t safe, and feel those awful emotions alongside our happiness. It’s a very real, human thing to do, and if we’re writing memoir, something that should be a consideration.
Merging Narratives – Again, this piece is a mentor text for how seemingly disparate things can flow together in a piece. Woodson captures a very human moment, reflecting upon an awful moment while at rest in a safe place. She does this with great impact, not because of a jarring juxtaposition of the two narratives, but by embedding one inside the other, showing the impact the awful moment has, even in a safe place.
I adore this piece, because often, we have writers trying to do this very thing, to tell two connected stories in a single piece. They rarely do it as seamlessly as Woodson does here. That being said, this is what mentor texts are for, showing our writers how it can be done. Woodson’s model – establish the safe place, reflect on the awful moment, return to the safe place with the weight of that moment = is one our writers could find success following.
Delivering a Message – My Grade 12s write a provincial assessment that features a writing task. They are tasked with writing a piece that they feel communicates what they have to say about a given theme. Depending upon the theme, many students feel compelled to try to drive home a message, to make an Important Point. It too frequently comes off heavy handed.
This piece is an exemplary model of how to do this with impact. The message in this piece is communicated strongly, yet is delivered in a way that almost seems subtle. The fact that it’s written like a memoir is part of that impact, but it is the fact that the awful moment that communicates the message is presented within a context of a safe, and beloved, place highlights just how awful and unfair the situation is. Instead of screaming the message through a bullhorn, it is presented simply, and sadly, as a fact of life. This highlights the inequity of the situation, making it so much more impactful than the bullhorn approach. This might be even more so when one considers how much the bullhorn approach is used nowadays.
Like I said, this text surprised me. It looked like it might be useful for a single purpose, yet upon examination, yielded riches. It made me reflect upon some things I’ve been asking of my writers, and how I can, and should, ask more. It’s a powerful piece that will find a place in my classroom, not only for the riches it yields as a mentor text, but for what it says as well, the peek into a life that it gives us.
How else might you use this rich mentor text? Do you know of any others like it?
Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!