Mentor Text Wednesday – The Day It Finally Happens

Mentor Text:The Day The Last Slaughterhouse Closes‘ from The Day It Finally Happens by Mike Pearl

Techniques:

  • Presenting Research
  • Using Narrative as an Introduction
  • Attribution

Background – I realize that it’s almost stereotypical for an English teacher, and lifelong reader, to go on about the importance and impact of libraries.

So, I won’t.

Except to say that browsing a library so frequently leads to you discovering and reading the things that you didn’t know you wanted.

the-day-it-finally-happens-9781501194139_lg
via Simon & Schuster

For example, I recently read Mike Pearl’s fascinating The Day It Finally Happens. It’s a collection of pieces in which Pearl, a contributor to Vice, presents his findings about a variety of scenarios that are worst case scenarios for some, or all, of us. From Britain abandoning the monarchy to full scale nuclear war, he’s looked into the possibility and, pun intended, fallout of these things happening.

Having inhaled Shea Serrano’s books recently, I was well primed for this collection of what ifs and prognostication. Like Serrano’s writing, I think students would be fascinated by the ideas presented. And of course, I see that as a catalyst for some writing.

How we might use this text:

Presenting Research – This is the kind of research assignment that’s very much in my wheelhouse – choose the thing that could happen that scares the heck out of you and research it! Perhaps more importantly, it’s the kind of research that students are doing on a smaller scale with regularity anyway. Listen to your students talk, they’re often pondering these kinds of nightmare scenarios. It’s not all tinfoil hat stuff. There’s a lot of power in that research prompt stem of “What would happen if…?”

Pearl presents this research so wonderfully. His writing is engaging, and even when it drops into discipline specific vocabulary, he explains it to the reader. There is a voice there, and he presents these things as a human who these things may very well impact. If these things scare him, he admits it. (He also admits relief that the things are farther away than some think.) There are elements of personal experience in the pieces that strengthen his connection to the material.

These pieces are, in my opinion, perfect mentor texts for the way we want students presenting their research, if it’s being presented in writing. All the elements we want to see are there, a solid introduction, the presentation of information that confirms the worst case scenario, as well as a refutation of that scenario’s imminent possibility, and finally a conclusion that does more than restate the core arguments.

It’s perhaps the tone of these pieces that make them readable. I love the idea of presenting students with mentor texts for research based writing that show them that these kinds of pieces aren’t simply dry presentations of information, or soulless rewordings of Wikipedia. Research should be inquiry and wonder driven, and the writing in these pieces reflects that. I would think that in writing these, our students might not just craft pieces that are better for us to read, but also, pieces that they want to share with each other.

Using Narrative as Introduction – When I did some research inspired writing with students recently, I was using some of the great long form journalism that’s out there as mentor texts. So many of these pieces start with the story, often for the purposes of humanizing, or putting a face on the topic being covered. I still feel that that’s a great move, and one I want writers to consider.

However, I adore what Pearl does in these pieces. He does some creative writing, crafting short pieces that accompany each essay. Taken as a whole, it’s kind of a multi-genre thing, as they’re written in forms like news reports and transcripts of online conversations. The engagement of the imagination is impactful though, because it dives deep into the “what if” of what’s being considered, and while it may reflect the research outlined in the essay to follow, it’s purpose is less to communicate that information, and more to entertain and engage the reader.

Another benefit to Pearl’s structural choice to put the narrative aspect of the piece before the essay proper is that it takes away some of the struggle of placing the narrative elements within the essay. I know that when we were writing alongside that long form journalism before, my writers struggled with this. They wanted to do more than follow the pattern established by the mentor text, but found placing and breaking up the narrative elements was hard. They had to consider pacing of the two pieces, and where these pieces would work best. Pearl’s pieces mitigate that nicely.

Also quite important in this specific strategy is the injection of humour and tone that this allows. Research writing is so traditionally dry. Those of our writers who will have research writing as an element of their future careers may have to deal with that reality, but this shouldn’t be the case for our writers. If we want them to engage in, and enjoy the act of writing, let’s let them have some fun with it. Perhaps these narrative pieces may exist at the extreme end of what Pearl is presenting, but that’s okay. Those are the elements of the “what if” exploration that engage us as thinkers and readers!

Attribution– One of my most beloved handouts is a “cheat sheet” of phrases and devices from Gerald Graff’s They Say, I Say. I am forever handing it out when we’re doing this kind of writing, because it gives students all kinds of stems and strategies they can use when sharing their research, when they’re presenting and responding to the things that they’ve found. It helps them attribute what they’ve found to the appropriate sources when necessary.

Pearl’s piece is an exemplary model for doing this. He shows how to establish the validity, or the credentials of his source. He models quoting, paraphrasing and contextualizing the things he finds. He jokes a bit about having go-to experts, but in doing so, he actually gives us a good model for our students to see how we attribute a source that we actually speak to.

One of the things that has been driving a lot of my planning, and selection of mentor texts, recently has been thinking about what my students actually need. In all honesty, when we assign research writing, it is the focus on research skills, and researching with a critical eye, is what is vital that we teach. Insisting that there is a “right way” to present research writing, and having students churn out dry presentations of their findings isn’t. If they’re going to become good writers of any kind, they need engaging writing experiences, a chance to play with words and ideas. I think Pearl’s work gives us a mentor text to do that with research writing.

How do you make research writing, or other traditionally rigid writing tasks more engaging? What future happening are you obsessed with?

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

-Jay

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