Mentor Text: “Can you hear the hum? How Jordan Tannahill’s The Listeners illuminated my experience with mental illness” by Alicia Elliott
- Exploring and expressing personal connections
- Including research in a personal essay
- Writing a conclusion
If you’re a reader of Mentor Text Wednesdays, then you might do what I do – flag passages, sections or whole books that have mentor text potential.
A whole book for me last year was Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. It’s a wonderful collection of personal essays exploring a myriad of issues that we’re dancing around in society, and of course, in our classrooms. It was a book I gifted to a colleague, knowing she’d feel similarly, and come to me with excerpts that she had plans for.
I assumed, when I read that book, that it would be one that would turn up here. However, Elliott tweeted a recent piece that she’s written that took that book’s spot. (That being said, track down a copy. So. Many. Mentor. Texts.)
As I watch my Twitter feed echo the importance of representation, of seeing oneself in what you’re reading, her January column for the CBC resonated heavily. If you’re a follower, you saw me retweet it earlier this month, but I’d like to share it, and explore how we might use it in the classroom.
How we might use this text:
Exploring and expressing personal connections– We talk pretty openly about connections to texts in our classrooms. It’s a vital part of the reading process, especially if we’re encouraging our readers to analyze a text. I know we all have tools and strategies to help students do this. Elliott’s piece is a beautiful mentor text for expressing that connection.
Right off the bat, she gets into specifics. There’s a brief summary of a pertinent plot point, followed by her clearly stating how that plot point is at the heart of her connection to the novel. It works wonderfully as an introduction, clearly expressing a thesis, with context.
And this is repeated with more reference to the text. I don’t know about you, but even in a personal essay, a lot of my students default to that checklist influenced confirmation style they’ve picked up somewhere along the line for writing the body of a piece like this. Elliott’s essay shows that it doesn’t need to feel clunky, but can instead have an “organic” feel, as if we’re talking about the novel. I love that this piece feels like a conversation she’s having with us, where we’re enrapt, listening, and not interjecting.
Including research in a personal essay – Once she’s explored her connection to elements of the text, quoting it efficiently, she moves into including some other research she’s done. Again, this is organic, almost like we do in conversation – it’s natural for us to move from the story we’re talking about to something we’ve read or seen that’s related to the core ideas of the text. That’s one of the wonderful things about the way we consume media these days, it can be a pretty wide consumption model, and similar ideas from different corners get to rub up against each other and spark insights.
Elliott weaves these together wonderfully, the text, her connection and her research. Her piece does what we want a mentor text to do, demonstrate how a gifted writer does the things we want our writers striving to achieve.
Writing a conclusion – Okay, this might be a thing I’m aware of these days, and when I see a good one, I pay particular attention, but that conclusion thing still feels like a struggle doesn’t it. Sometimes, it feels like my writers have worked so hard to craft their best writing that when they get to the end, they’ve not got much in the tank.
As a result, I’ve been very conscious of good examples of conclusions, making sure I find pieces with strong finishes. Conclusions, when well done, are actually hard to teach in isolation, as they’re inextricably linked to the piece that comes before them. I know that often we tell students to “restate their thesis,” but that’s often not done well. Elliott does it so wonderfully here. If it didn’t so clearly read like this piece’s final word on the subject, I’m almost convinced it could go at the beginning. Starting with “That’s what I long for:” is such a power move – firmly establishing that a Very Important Point is forthcoming. Such a solid, strong ending.
A thing that I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve gathered mentor texts to use, and to share with you, is finding those writers whose work has a spot reserved in my classroom, and in my heart. If you’ve been here before, you know I’ve got them. Alicia Elliott is a new favourite, and I can’t wait to have students reading, and writing beside, her work.
What mentor texts do you have for exploring our connections to texts? Who are your favorite writers who are regularly featured in your mentor text work?
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