Today’s guest writer Emily Sommer walks us through a mentor text by one of our favorite pop culture writers, showing how it makes for a truly instructive piece for students learning the art of rhetorical analysis. Emily teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Mythology at Stoney Creek High School in Rochester Hills, Michigan. She earned her BA in English and Mathematics at Kalamazoo College and her MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University. You can reach out to her on Twitter @MrsSommerSCHS or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mentor Text: Rainbows, Frogs, Dogs And ‘The Muppet Movie’ Soundtrack At 40 by Linda Holmes
- Rhetorical Analysis
- Use of evidence
Background: August Me is idealistic, ambitious, unrealistic. She wants to teach all the things and she makes plans for the school year that October Me can’t possibly deliver. October Me is apt to hide unchecked papers under the coffee table, hoping they will get barfed on by the cat so she can throw them away with less guilt.
But this summer, I vowed to find a realistic balance between the two, and make changes that both Me’s could live with. The plan: to swap out some musty AP Lang writing assignments for more authentic experiences that capture ideas my students actually care about.
Teaching AP Lang, I often have the nagging feeling that I’m drifting toward the wrong side of that line between teaching writing and delivering test-prep tips. August Me wanted a first reading and writing task for the year that would signal that developing genuine voices and ideas was my priority.
When I read Linda Holmes’s “Rainbows, Frogs, Dogs And ‘The Muppet Movie’ Soundtrack At 40”, I knew I had found the text to send that message. August Me was inspired, and October Me ended up with delightful student essays that didn’t travel anywhere near the underside of the coffee table.
How We Might Use This Text
Rhetorical Analysis: Holmes’s essay serves as a model for analyzing a text–in this case, The Muppet Movie. Holmes quickly narrows her focus to one element of the movie–the role of the songs–and then establishes a thesis that does what we want our students to do when they analyze. She argues that “It’s a sophisticated piece of art, brilliantly made, that has complicated themes and winky jokes that are for parents. But at the same time, it not only appeals to kids, but almost teaches kids how to watch movies and how to listen to music.” There are all kinds of wonderful things to analyze in The Muppet Movie, but she sticks to the songs, and then she makes an observation the rest of us might have missed. Through her focused eyes, readers get to see the movie in a new and compelling way.
My students are good at noticing lots of elements in a text; they can annotate and label and list all kinds of strategies in media they read and view. But the ability to narrow down that noticing and choose JUST the strategies that matter and create a meaningful pattern, well, that’s a skill that requires a lot of practice. And Linda Holmes provides them with a delightful and accessible model for turning their noticing into a meaningful argument.
Use of evidence: “Rainbows, Frogs, Dogs” also offers useful examples of how to provide evidence. Quotations of song lyrics are supported with hyperlinks to performances of those songs (not enough hyperlinks, in my students’ opinions, but that criticism led to some good conversations about the power of seeing the evidence for themselves). Holmes unpacks those lyrics with immediacy, capturing her thinking and taking readers right along with her. She writes, for example, “The first time you hear the chorus, they sing, ‘Movin’ right along,’ and then there are two beats accompanied by a banjo strum, like dig-a-dum, dig-a-dum.” Students get a double benefit here. First, they can see the noticing that Holmes did, and understand how this led to her thesis. Second, they can steal this move, and include this kind of unpacking in their own writing.
My favorite writerly move in this piece–and the move that had the greatest impact on my students–is Holmes’s recreation of watching The Muppet Movie as a child. While readers get plenty of Holmes’s observations as a sophisticated analyst of pop-culture, she alternates this with flashbacks to her childhood, and we get to see 8 year old Linda watching the movie. Holmes recreates her first experience of the movie–”I heard a little ditty about rainbows, lovers, dreamers, wishes, dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk and the way ‘amazing’ and ‘stargazing’ sound so pretty pushed so close together”–with just the right shift in voice. Again, there is a double benefit for students. We actually see the origins of real analysis here. First, that the texts we love deserve careful attention, and second, that our initial reactions are good places to start when we are trying to figure out why a text works.
Overall, “Rainbows, Frogs, Dogs” is an enjoyable, accessible introduction to rhetorical analysis, full of writerly moves that students can borrow both in the planning and drafting of their own pieces. With Holmes’s piece as a model, my students ended up revisiting some of their favorite pop-culture texts. They shared appreciations of the Grand Theft Auto video games, Scooby Doo’s various incarnations, the Magic Treehouse novels, and many many Disney Channel shows. Their first attempts at rhetorical analysis usually end up as academic exercises done just for me, but with this mentor text as inspiration, students were excited to share these papers, even outside of class, and the analysis was more detailed and insightful than anything they would have produced from a traditional RA prompt.
Thanks to Linda Holmes, October Me did not let August Me down this time, and might possibly have maintained enough of that summer time idealism to make it through November, without hoping the cat will barf on her essays.