Mentor Text: The Breakfast Club’s letter from The Breakfast Club
- Choosing Form
Background: This time around, I have something different for you. In our English department, we teach thematically. Each course has an overarching theme which connects the things we do. It’s a wonderful way to organize a course, and has paid numerous dividends over the years.
Grade 11 students are currently working within the theme of Society: People and Power. Within that theme, we’re approaching the end of a pursuit we’ve taken to calling The Ruckus. We’re studying youth empowerment through the films of John Hughes. We started with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then The Breakfast Club and are watching Sixteen Candles this week. (My colleague is taking a different path, and watching Don’t You Forget About Me, a documentary about Hughes instead of Sixteen Candles.) We’ve discussed the flicks, and done some responding and writing. (Linda Christensen’s wonderful book Rhythm and Resistance provided some wonderful mentor text lessons.)
This week, I’m assessing pieces from our Breakfast Club work. And I’m loving it. Right from the planning stages, we knew that after watching that movie, our students would be doing the assignment that the Breakfast Club was given, telling an authority figure who they are.
We pulled together our varied collection of “This Is Me”and “I Am” writing lessons. I put together a graphic organizer that distilled a lot of the prompts, and suggested a number of areas of identity that they could explore and express. Knowing that stereotypes and labels is significant in the film, we made sure to discuss that before this writing. And, blasphemous for a mentor text column, we decided not to give them mentor texts for this initial writing piece. We had them on hand, but decided to see what would happen if they were given the opportunity to brainstorm and the freedom to express themselves.
After those pieces were done, the detention assignment was given. As in the film, I wanted them to explore who they were both collectively, and individually. I talked about it with my students, but left the task for a couple of classes when I was away. There was some “happy accident” at play, because I actually forgot to make groups for the sub. (My intention was to “mix” up the usual groupings that occur in the class.) Luckily, I had a great sub, familiar with the students, and he threw together some groups that were right along the lines I was thinking of.
This week, I marked the pieces they wrote, and it was better than I expected.
How We Might Use This Text:
Self-expression – This is kind of obvious, and the purpose of the individual task is essentially brainstorming for the larger task, but the pieces that came out of the “This Is Me” assignment were very strong. Giving them a topic, ample prompting to brainstorm and freedom to write seemed to work out quite well. As they wrote, there were a lot of authorial conversations happening. What was really cool was having these students go back into previous writing assignments to “recycle” elements of past pieces. One student used elements from her Long Way Down inspired chapbook from last year.
Choosing Form – Often, with our writers, we take this choice from them. They’re told what they’re writing, and adhere to the conventions of that form. Not giving them a form seemed to work well. How to express themselves, considering the form that made the most sense was definitely part of their authorial conversations. It was actually in this moment that mentor texts became more useful. A large number of them chose poetry as their form, and we looked at the works of different poets to help them problem solve some of the issues they felt in their pieces. One student was struggling with ways to shift between tones in her poem, so we looked at a couple of examples. We looked at some of Hanif Abdurraqib’s work, and how he uses slashes instead of line breaks to create an intensity. One student chose to use colour in her poem, using different colours to highlight a contrast between what she wants and how things actually are.
In short, this was a nice reminder of the importance of letting our writers make their own choices sometimes.
Collaboration – I always tell my students that learning is a social act. That being said, it really feels as if we often strive to see writing be a solitary act. There are moments in the process where we confer, but rarely do we collaborate. Using the film as a catalyst for this collaboration seemed like a good idea during planning, but on the other side of it, it seems like it was even better. The pieces I’ve read are strong, and like the piece in the film, the best bear the voice of a group. Some of them used it as an opportunity to discuss the struggle of the assignment, the challenge of finding a common ground.
The nature of the way this happened, without me in the room, meant that I’ve had a number of conversations about the assignment. Upon my return, a number of students came to express their concerns about their group’s pieces, feeling that the collective response wasn’t as strong as they felt it could be. Others wanted to talk about the struggle, and how they got through it. Even talking to the sub on his next visit to the school was revelatory, as he shared which groups struggled, and what the talk was like when they were writing.
I loved The Ruckus. The films inspired great thought and discussion, as well as some great writing. As a pop culture fiend, I always look for ways to use non-traditional texts to engage students. Hughes’ work is seminal, and if our intention was to explore youth empowerment via his work, the students’ writing I’ve seen thus far shows me that we met out goal.
What “homework from the movies” have you given? What non-traditional texts have you used to inspire student writing? How much nostalgia are you feeling right now, thinking about John Hughes’ films?
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