Mentor Text Wednesday: No Man’s Land

Mentor Text:

No Man’s Land – an album from Frank Turner

Tales From No Man’s Land –  a podcast series from Frank Turner


  • Presenting Research
  • Non-fiction Narrative
  • Podcasting

Background –

Looking through my Mentor Text Wednesday posts, or scanning my Twitter feed will no doubt reveal the fact that I’m a music fan. A favorite artist of, well, our whole family, recently gave us a mentor text set that, literally, rocks.

Frank Turner is a British singer-songwriter. In the past few years, he’s been both reflecting upon and refining his craft. Last year he released Try This at Home, a book exploring the writing of a number of his songs, inspired by his revisiting his back catalogue for his now annual festival. He has stated many times that he prides himself on his craft, and as a fan, I’d say with good reason.

via Wikipedia

I was pleasantly surprised when he announced in June that he would have a shorter period between releases when he released No Man’s Land in August. He makes no bones about the fact that as well as caring about songwriting, he’s a “massive history nerd.” These two things resulted in No Man’s Land, his most recent album. The album has a concept inspired by his historical interests, as it is comprised of songs that tell the stories of women, some we’ve heard of, and others we’ve not.

I was pretty happy to have a new Frank album to spin, but when he revealed that he was going to do a podcast series accompanying the album, and further exploring the stories told on the album, I knew that this post would be happening.

The songs are, as usual, great. They tell diverse stories, and in crafting them, Frank borrowed not just musical stylings, but like many writers, and well, like the young writers we hope to inspire with mentor texts, found phrases in their words, and the things written about them to work into his writing.

The podcasts were wonderful as well. In them, he shared what he learned, and how he wrote, but also had fascinating conversations with others who had a connection to the stories, often fellow researchers. They serve not only as potential mentor texts, but there a neat look at his writing process in some of them as well.

How we might use this text:

Presenting Research – Research writing falls into the responsibilities that many of us have in our schools. Sure, the history folks take some of it on, but often, we’re lumped into that vaguely nebulous “humanities” category together. And we’re expected to teach research skills, as well as the obligatory research essay. I know that if you’re haunting Moving Writers, you’ve likely put in the work to try to elevate that essay to something better than its usual status as an arduous academic task, but it’s one that hangs on.

These songs, and the accompanying podcasts present a pretty attractive alternative to that task though. In writing the lyrics for his songs, Frank has distilled the research that he’s done into a narrative, focusing on what it is that makes these women he’s chosen to highlight noteworthy. From their historical significance, to their notoriety and intriguing natures, to the fact that they’re Frank Turner’s mum, he’s found something in his research worth crafting a song around. (In the podcasts, he actually discusses some of the challenges in this, as well as noting a couple of instances where the research didn’t necessarily bear such creative fruit, even though the story was compelling.)

Research skills, in my opinion, have evolved, and are now about being a discerning explorer and critical thinker. This makes them more important than they may have been when I was learning them. I think having engaging tasks at the end of the research is important, and Frank’s work gives us those.

Non-Fiction Narrative – In the past year, I’ve done some really cool work inspired by Linda Christensen’s Rhythm and Resistance, particularly in creating narrative poetry pieces based upon research. I was quite tickled with how wonderfully this aligned with No Man’s Land, with Frank supplying a dozen or so mentor texts for this.

What’s quite wonderful about the mentor text set that No Man’s Land offers is the variety. There are songs that work as first person narratives, where Frank sings in the voice of the subject, such as ‘Eye of the Day,’ about Mata Hari, or ‘A Perfect Wife,’ about serial killer Nannie Doss. Other times, he tells their story, like in my duaghter’s favorite, ‘Sister Rosetta,’ about musician Rosetta Tharpe, or mine, ‘The Lioness’ about Egyptian feminist Huda Sha’arawi. ‘Silent Key,’ about the teacher astronaut Christa Mcauliffe or ‘Rescue Annie,’ about the young woman whose death mask became the face given to CPR dolls border on historical fiction, wherein Frank takes some creative liberties as he tells the story. ‘Rosemary Jane’ is probably closest to his usual songwriting, in that it is more personal, with his mother as the subject. Each piece offers our writers a way to talk about figures that they have researched, and having those options is good for their writing, good for engagement, and truthfully, good for us, the teachers that will be reading these pieces.

Podcasting – Two things I’ll admit up front. The 13 episodes of the No Man’s Land podcast represent almost all of the podcast listening I’ve done. As a result, it’s not something that I’ve encouraged my students to explore, nor create.

Listening to these podcasts every Tuesday night as they released had me reconsidering that. Frank’s model of sitting and talking with someone who had explored the subject of the song is a very good model for us to use with our writers. In short, two people sit and record a conversation about something that they’ve researched. They share their insights and opinions, and ask each other questions. They may highlight the different things that resonated with them in their research, or things that frustrated them.

Even though, when I was listening, I initially thought the ‘Silent Key’ podcast deviated from this model by being a discussion with the producer of the album, Catherine Marks, as they talk, she questions Frank on his research which fits. In our writing classrooms, their conversations about how they crafted the song might be fascinating as well, connecting it to how we craft pieces.

I always look for ways to bring music into the classroom. It matters to me, and in my opinion, is a valuable part of our shared cultural experience. So, imagine my joy when one of my favorite artists released an album that wasn’t just something we’d blast on our turntable at home, but something that I could take into my classroom and use. Frank Turner’s willingness to share his work and process, revealing himself as a lifelong learner and writer dedicated to his craft makes him a perfect voice to sing to our writing classrooms.

Do you have any other engaging ideas for research based writing? How about mentor text sets that are multi-modal? What writers have given the greatest gifts to your mentor text collection?

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

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