Mentor Text Wednesday: Purr-fect Mentor Texts for Film Analysis

Mentor Texts: “All of the Little Things That Made the Original ‘Lion King’ so Great” by Shea Serrano

“The effanineeffable, deep and inscrutable, singular Cats” by Alissa Wilkinson

Techniques:

  • Developing an argument
  • Pre-writing
  • Writing Introductions
  • Writing Listicles

Background – I’ve been thinking, for a long time, about the listicle form. We all know that it’s a pretty prevalent form of writing online, and as a result, likely a form that our writers are reading.

The thing is, I haven’t been sure of how we might use them in the classroom. There’s an old-school English teacher living inside me that feels that listicles are underdeveloped, almost incomplete pieces. I also know that for the purpose they’re written, for the audience they’re written for and the context we find them, they’re the perfect form.

listicle
image via LinkedIn

I actually cracked the code on using the listicle in class though. In July, Shea Serrano posted a listicle about the original Lion King in the lead up to the release of the new version. As he laid out his arguments for the greatness of the original Lion King, I realized that the listicle is, as I thought, and underdeveloped essay of sorts. There is a series of claims, and there is explanation of those claims, albeit brief ones. It’s really the core of an essay about the greatness of a film.

The Moving Writers Twitter community shares a lot of great pieces back and forth. In the aftermath of the release of Cats, the other mentor text I’ve included this week was “passed” around. (For the record, I’m waiting for video to watch it. I have a pretty morbid fascination with this kind of flick.)I jokingly said I’d write it up for Mentor Text Wednesday, but as I thought about it, I realized that along with Shea’s piece, this is a solid mentor text set – a pair of listicles about film, one effusively positive, one much less so.

How we might use this text:

Developing an argument– As I mentioned above, these listicles are, basically, underdeveloped essays. Perhaps that’s dismissive, but hear me out. As listicles, the form dictates that there is minimal explanation of each list item. That’s the undeveloped part.

However, to make a good listicle, you need to have a pretty exhaustive list. This is where these work as a great mentor text and tool. These exhaustive lists pull all the points we want to make. Often, when we’re developing an essay, we actually focus, to a certain extent, on limiting that list. We call them relevant arguments, or our main points, but we work to focus our arguments. What would happen if we used the listicle as a tool for developing our argument, creating that exhaustive list, and then choosing the arguments and points that we’d use in our actual essay.

Wilkinson’s Cats piece is a good model for developing an argument, as it’s a more categorized listicle, where the items listed are divided into clever categories. I love this, because it creates a core point, with a list of arguments that back it up.

Pre-Writing – I’ve been referring to the listicle as an underdeveloped essay, but in reality, they read to me like a solid brainstorm, or even a first draft. I could actually see giving students Shea’s piece, and having them revise and edit it into a more conventional essay. (I say that only because The Lion King is a much more universal text than Cats… so far.) They could explore which arguments could be expanded, and which could be dropped to make a good essay.

In their own writing, however, the listicle actually serves as a great mentor text for pre-writing. Could they scratch out a listicle as a first step, listing all the arguments, perhaps organizing them. I try to tell my students that a key to successful writing pieces is often in the planning and organization. Creating that listicle is certainly a strong act of that.

Additionally, I’ve been working my way through Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days. Last week, I read the piece where they discuss assessing whatever a student has written on the due date, regardless of it’s “complete” status. If the listicle is an early step in our writing process, that could give us a pretty early indication of where the essay might go. I can think of many instances where having such a step early in the writing process might have benefitted me as I assessed some students, and would have benefitted those students who hadn’t necessarily completed their essay.

Writing Introductions – So, one of the conceits of many of the listicles I’ve explored is that they work kind of like a joke – there’s got to be a set-up before the punchline. There needs to be an introduction of some core ideas before the reader gets the joke.

This makes the listicle a great model for writing introductions. Look at these mentor texts I’ve shared today. Shea begins his with the anecdote as a hook, discussing the universality of this film, that everyone has a Lion King story. He also gets into the way that we talk about movies we love, basically listing the best parts. It sets his list up wonderfully. Wilkinson’s setup relies on establishing the hype around Cats, as well as her reaction, which is similar to, and therefore representative of, the reaction many reviewers, and much of the public.

In a nutshell, listicles rely on a good introduction, or there’s really no point in going through the list. This is something that I think makes them loaded with mentor text potential because the introduction is intentional, and in many ways, is the most developed aspect of the piece. It’s unlike may of our writers’ intros, where they are too often ticking off the introduction checklist so they can get into what’s important in their pieces, which is the argument. Listicles highlight the importance of the introduction to a piece, that they establish what’s being argued so that it can be argued.

Writing Listicles– No matter how we feel about them, listicles are a form we’re going to have to live with. A lot of information is being presented this way online, and they’re starting to move over into the print world as well. As much as they irk the old-school English teacher that lives inside me, I get them. I actually enjoy them. And, honestly, they can be a pretty accessible form of writing for young writers.

These are two pretty solid mentor texts for writing listicles. They both introduce the notion of a solid introduction to set up what follows. There is a bit of variance in how the list is presented, with Wilkinson’s use of categories, and Shea’s brief defence of each point. They establish that writing with brevity doesn’t mean that humour isn’t used. As well, presented as a set, they balance the two sides of a review, the positive and the negative.

One thing about being online is that there’s a lot of writing out there to look at and work with. It pushes forms in front of us that we may not have considered, and sometimes makes us consider them. It’s pretty easy to listen to the old school English teacher in ourselves, and dismiss the listicle as a form. Looking at these two as a set, however, gave me a perspective on the strengths of the listicle as a form. Often, they’re well written, and contains so many elements of good writing that we want our writers to be exposed to. Honestly, their brevity is a gift we should explore and exploit with our students as readers and writers.

How have you used listicles with your writers? Have you got a great listicle to share? Have you seen Cats?

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

-Jay

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