Mentor Text Wednesday: Geek Wisdom

Mentor Text: Geek Wisdom edited by Stephen H. Segal (excerpts)


  • Using quotations
  • Writing an Introduction

Background – This year has presented many challenges hasn’t it?

In the midst of it all, the work goes on, doesn’t it?

I’ve actually found myself in a weird balance of developing new lessons and leaning on past planning, often reflecting and remixing it for what my classroom looks like now. A great tool in this has been the ability to access my local library’s digital collection. Being able to search and browse in the moment is a wonderful thing.

As I looked for a few things to add to a superhero pursuit, I came across Geek Wisdom edited by Stephen H. Segal. Subtitled The Sacred Teachings of Geek Culture, it certainly looked like a text that, even if it didn’t have what I was looking for, it was certainly in my wheelhouse anyway.

I loved it. It’s a collection of quotes from geek culture which the authors have explored in wonderful chunks of writing. In a paragraph or two, they get to the core of what the quotes mean, distilling the titular wisdom that can be gleaned from these things.

I found myself flagging lots of quotes for not just the thing I was working on, but for pretty much all of my courses.

How we might use this text:

Using Quotations – The last few years, the English department at my school has been working hard to move our writers away from may of the comfortable structures they’ve used as guides in their writing. Things like the five paragraph essay, and the “quote sandwich” paragraph have their place, but as our writers mature, so should their approaches. I’m always looking for something to put in their toolkits.

I’ve had success using the Says/Means/Matters model when working with quotations. Students explain the literal meaning of the quote, (says) their interpretation of it, (means) and connect it to what we’re studying, or to their thesis, (matters). Students like that it clarifies the different ways to explain what a quote means. It’s also a good tool for them to have when they’re working towards a certain page length, as it gives them a model for “padding” a piece that isn’t necessarily fluffy.

Right before I discovered Geek Wisdom this year, my Grade 12 class was doing some essay work, practicing shooting for a set length. As we discussed using quotes, we talked about varying strategies we employ. A student noted that there were times, in her writing, where it didn’t necessarily feel like the right move to employ Says/Means/Matters, and asked if the quote sandwich was okay. Ah, the frustration of finding a great idea right after you need it, eh?

I’m going to have to plan another writing piece for this class, or at least show them this model. In some of the examples, it’s a more compact version of Says/Means/Matters, often throwing a bit more voice into the mix. I’ve made no secret here that sometimes, I encourage brevity in student writing, and encourage them to get to their  core point. These pieces are a wonderful mentor text for this.

I’ve also included, in the excerpt I’ve shared, an example of how the writers use multiple quotes to make a point. Quoting dry, dry comedian Steven Wright, the opening monologue of Star Trek and R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket allows them to make a significant statement about the military, exploring the allure of the military in storytelling, and how that plays out in science fiction. Though it doesn’t necessarily provide a model for how this might work in the body of an essay, I can see some value in this exercise as a stand alone writing challenge. I especially love the notion of allowing it to guide us in a piece of writing using Says/Means/Matters and multiple quotes, with the matters being a single Big Idea that all the quotes contribute to.

Writing an Introduction – In our department’s work, my colleague Rachelle did a lot of work in pulling together some structures for us to use with our writers to support their growth as writers. We’ve moved from the five paragraph essay to the five part essay. (She found this on this great website, and community of writing teachers, Moving Writers. Highly recommended.)

One of the things the switch to the five part essay changed was the approach to the introduction of a piece. By removing that word, and focusing instead on background and narration, we had more room for writers to express themselves. We got away from that pattern many of our students had learned, where there’s a thesis, and sort of a mini-version of the essay, and maybe some attempt at a hook, which seemed to rotate between the use of a definition and a “thought provoking” question. I’m looking forward to bringing these mentor texts to that conversation.

Because these pieces are written to be brief, only a paragraph or so, they do fall into that min essay style of introduction. However, I feel they’re a great model of how this can be done effectively. It is not a list of the arguments per se, there’s a thesis, and there’s voice. The “hook” aspect of these pieces feels organic, and as if that is part of the paragraph’s purpose, as opposed to being a singular element of the paragraph. And though these may feel like mini essays, they also hint at a possibility of further exploration, as if the things that are mentioned warrant deeper explanation.

I’ve seen students use quotes as an element to hook a reader in their introduction. Again, these pieces model how to do that well. Instead of a clunky explanation that leads into a “by the checklist” introductory paragraph, these pieces explore the quote alongside an interesting idea that is related to, or serves as the thesis. I think this is what we hope will happen when we suggest the use of a quote as a hook in an introduction.

As geek culture becomes much more mainstream, I think we need to take the gifts it gives us. Genre texts have a valuable place in classrooms because of the wonderful way that they can act as a lens on our world. This text is a fantastic way to explore this in a classroom, and it contains many valuable things for us to explore. (Aside from serving as a mentor text, as I’ve explored here, I’ve earmarked a number of passages to explore some of the themes and ideas we study in my classroom.) I also love that it models connecting the things you love with the world you live in, as we explore a myriad of ideas in a classroom.

How do you guide your writers to work with quotations? What are your tips for teaching the writing of introductions? What things have you discovered in this challenging period that have been great finds?

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


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