Mentor Text Wednesday: 1986

Mentor Text: 1986 from Music is History by Questlove


  • Writing about an image
  • Changing opinions in writing
  • Connecting memoir to something else


I love books about music. Memoirs, biographies and books that analyze music, any kind of music, even if I don’t really listen to it, just fascinate me.

Last spring, I read Questlove’s amazing Music is History. It’s a multifaceted book – part memoir, part chronicle of music history (since 1971), part document of music’s relationship with the world, and part critical evaluation of music. It’s rich with great pieces, and if the notes in my phone are any indication, you’ll see it featured here again.

via Amazon

I really love the structure of the book, with each chapter focusing on a year, and Questlove choosing some element of music that is notable from that year. 1986 is the year I want to focus on this time around.

How we might use this text:

Writing about a visual – For years, because we had a provincial exam that featured a question about a visual, and many students bobbled that question, we talked a lot in our teacher community about working with visuals, and figuring out how to analyze and express that analysis. As we’ve moved away from that test, I still find myself working with visuals in my classes, because viewing is one of our six language arts, and because our students are living in a visually saturated world. (as are we all)

I love what Questlove does in this piece. He establishes a context for the visual. He has taken the time to look at the accompanying article, to consider the circumstances around the image. He reminds us of the importance of the Rolling Stone cover, and the relevance of that magazine to music.

It is important to remind our students that sometimes, when we’re analyzing a visual, we’re not just expressing our understanding of the visual itself, but that it exists in a context that informs our analysis. This is what Questlove does so well here. He points out that the subhead on the cover, accompanying the image of Run-DMC, bears weight. He discusses how that subhead, in some ways, isn’t really borne out in the article. It’s one of many contradictory things about Run-DMC that’s presented, and he discusses this.

Yes, the actual discussion, and analysis of the image itself is brief, but it’s a way into a larger analysis of something that the visual represents. As I revisit this essay to share it with you, I find myself planning to use it as an activity in our research work in one of my classes, to actually find an image related to our topics, and use that photo as a catalyst for some analysis of the issue it represents.

Changing opinions in writing – Somewhere along the line, I collected this graphic writing exercise called “I Used to Think… But Now I Know” in which students are encourage to craft a series of couplets using those two phrases as stems. The resulting poem is then presented with visuals they add.

Questlove sort of gives us a prose version of this here. In fact, this is one of the motifs in this book, a reassessment of past opinions. I think about this a lot, as a fan of Ted Lasso’s Brett Goldstein’s podcast ‘Films to be Buried With.’ He asks his guests about a film they used to love, but no longer feel the same way about. I think this is an important exercise for our young writers, as they develop, grow, and decide who they are. Their tastes change. Their opinions change. The world changes, and we aren’t supposed to view things the same way anymore.

When Questlove is writing about how the article reads differently thirty years later, he’s modelling this wonderfully for our writers. He openly states that “Maybe the 2020 me is being too hard on 1986.” and that openness is a nice move for our writers to use to guide their own reflections.

Connecting memoir to something else – A recurring theme in this book is that music is part of Questlove’s history, and that history has an impact on you. I love how, tacked onto this essay about a 1986 Rolling Stone cover, he tells a story about a cover shoot he was involved in. It’s this wonderful little narrative addendum that resonates. Pop culture and history are things that matter to us, and they are things that invite storytelling. “Do you remember where you were when…” is an open invitation to a group to spin a tale. In my Grade 12 classroom, I use numerous memoir prompts that fill the air with talk of times past, connection to people, places, events and things. I think Questlove’s addition to the end of this is a good model of how this can be done in a personal essay, connecting yourself to the topic you’re writing about.

I often joke about the pains of being an English teacher, of viewing the classroom text possibility of nearly everything you view or read. I enjoyed Questlove’s book wholeheartedly, but it was read with my Notes app open. This isn’t really a complaint, because as a result , I have lots of great mentor texts to share with my students, and with you.

Do you have any texts you use to encourage your writers to reflect on how their opinions or perspective have changed? How do you encourage them to explore visual texts? How do you get them to express context in their writing?

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s