Mentor Text Wednesday: (And Other Things)

Mentor Text: Basketball (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano

Techniques:

  • Writing About Sports (or Pop Culture)
  • Engaging Non-Fiction Writing
  • Using Footnotes

Background – Like many Canadians, I got caught up in the Toronto Raptors’ championship run this past spring. I haven’t watched basketball since high school, really, so it was neat rediscovering the game.

At the same time, my appreciation for the work, well, mainly the tweets, of Shea Serrano was growing as well. Those two things dovetailed quite nicely, as I finally grabbed his 2017 book, Basketball (And Other Things.)

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Image via BuzzFeed

Serrano’s book is a treasure trove for mentor text work. The conceit is that Serrano explores, in a series of essays, various question about, and sometimes, tangential to, basketball. There are essays about obvious things, such as which NBA championship is the most important one, or which era Michael Jordan was the best, as well as essays about which players you’d want to be with if The Purge were a real thing, or who you’d dunk on.

I know, kind of random, right? The thing is, Serrano is such a strong writer, with such a strong voice, that it works. It really works. Not that I know the dude personally, but in these essays, I’ve come to feel like I do. (Other writing he’s done at The Ringer, and his tweets have put Serrano pretty high up on my list of people out there in the world I really want to hang with.)

As I write this, Serrano is actively in promotion mode for the upcoming companion piece to BAOT, Movies (And Other Things), and has been sharing bonus chapters online. I’d recommend either of these books for their mentor text potential.

How we might use this text:

Writing About Sports (or Pop Culture) – The genius in Serrano’s writing is that it is very real. The essays in BAOT are like one sided conversations. The thing is, they’re conversations that fans have. Literally, at least three of the pieces in that book read like a transcript of conversations my basketball loving Grade 10 boys had last year.

When we look at engaging students in writing, tapping into their interests is key. Writing about sports is something that I’ve never really pursued with writers, as there are so many variables – the diverse interests of the students, the fact that sports doesn’t engage everyone, the fleeting nature of sports moments and the temptation to write as a reporter.

Serrano’s essays offer many ways into this. There are focuses on specific players, on specific elements of play, specific moments and things related very closely to sports. There are fun side trips, like the piece about The Purge, what it would be like if a player and a bear switched places, and what makes for a basketball villain. I love the idea that students obsessed with sport have mentor texts for their writing in here, while those that might not have that same level of interest have a way to explore sports writing as well. The fact that some essays deal with the public persona of players, especially in our celebrity obsessed society might be a way into sports writing for others.

Engaging Non-Fiction Writing – A lot of Serrano’s essays are fantastic presentation of research. Some of that research is watching game film, but there’s a lot of reading referenced as well. Serrano, in many of these pieces, actually lays out the criteria that guides the research and decisions he makes in ranking things. It’s a great model for organizing the research and writing.

As I’ve already mentioned, Serrano uses his voice, and is open about these essays presenting his ideas and opinions. I feel that this is a thing that many of our writers need to see in non-fiction writing. It doesn’t have to be a bland presentation of facts, but can dovetail with things that interest and excite the writer, connecting to great sports events, and in some cases, to their lives and memories.

An example of this that I think might be interesting for a lot of students might be the essay exploring who you would dunk on. In following the example of this mentor text, there is analysis of the individual being dunked on’s life, career, as well as projecting what the impact of the dunk, an embarrassing moment, might be. This gives a guide for the research, the writing, but also, presents a piece students could write using humor or in a serious manner, which I think is what makes it the best kind of mentor text.

Another aspect of Serrano’s pieces that make for engaging non-fiction is how he uses personal elements to illustrate the importance of the topic of the essay. His love of basketball comes from his family. Many basketball moments he discusses are connected to memory, and he explores this.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the chapter related to “memory heroes,” in which he, and some guests, revisit individuals who they consider heroes, and why it is they do so. The conceit is that the individual may not have warranted that hero status, but there is something in the way the writer remembers them that elevated them there. (This particular piece would be a good piece all its own, transcending the category of basketball, or sports.)

Using Footnotes – Serrano makes wonderful use of footnotes in his writing. Obviously, they’re used in the academic sense, connecting material in the text to the source material, or offering further academic context.

Where Serrano absolutely crushes it, in my opinion, is how he uses the footnotes to include witty asides, like quotes from players that are entertaining, but not entirely relevant, or to remind the reader which players he doesn’t particularly like. This actually feels like a very relevant mentor text for me for this reason, as I’ve noticed many of my writers struggle to find a way to include these asides. I’m tempted to show them one of these pieces just to give them a mechanism for doing that.

I love it when a book is fun to read, and engaging, but you’re mentally flagging the whole darn thing and making lesson plans using it as a mentor text. Serrano does this in BAOT, and I know it continues in MAOT. His voice is strong, and in so many ways, would be a great one to expose students to as they explore writing personal essay. (I feel I should warn you that he does use some bad words in there, so that might impact which students you give his pieces to.) If you haven’t grabbed this book, pre-ordered the movie one, followed Serrano on Twitter or tracked down some of his other writing, I’d suggest doing that. He’s a treasure trove of mentor text material, writing the kind of stuff a lot of students will want to read and write.

What “(And Other Things)” questions have you, or your students, explored lately? What author’s work is going to feature prominently in your classroom this year? Who’s on your Purge squad?

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

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