A Mentor Text for Place-Based Storytelling

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

During the last couple of years of teaching, making mini-zines has been a highlight.  An 8-page zine has been a go-to method for helping students shrink a narrative down to accessible compactness.  As my students plot environmental stories culminating in a call to action, the details associated with specific landscapes and geographies become all the more important.  Fortunately, finding models for conveying the stakes of the story rooted in a specific place becomes easier when poring through the brilliant place-based writing found in Orion Magazine.

Emily Raboteau’s essay, “Spark Bird,” offers place-based details (of location, weather, light, smell, sound, and species) that are evocative and memorable.  I want to encourage my students to be environmental stewards where they live and breathe and go to school.  As Raboteau’s essay demonstrates, every street corner has nested stories.  Using her essay as a mentor text for plotting a mini-zine, I encouraged my students to try out some of the craft moves she models.  Conveying a call to action inspired by something observed locally, Raboteau guides her readers into awareness by bearing witness to multiple, simultaneous acts of disappearing.

Image of Gaia’s Endangered Harlem via Orion Magazine

Mentor Text Move #1: Tracking Migration Patterns
Raboteau draws attention to the meaning of the phrase “spark bird”—that first bird that captures your interest and draws you into birding—only to gesture to her own unconventional “spark bird,” a pair of owls painted on a storefront in Harlem.  The mural is part of the Audubon Mural Project, a collaboration between the gallerist Avi Gitler, local property and business owners, and the National Audubon Society.  After noticing it, she begins to notice all the painted birds along her two-mile walk to work at City College, mostly painted on the rolled down gates of small shops on Broadway.  The project aims to depict 389 birds: the number of North American species, according to the Audubon’s 2019 birds and climate report, at the risk of extinction from climate change.  During her walks, Raboteau attempts to photograph them all.

As Raboteau considers what it means to bear witness to New York’s endangered species, she offers facts about a particular bird species.  Then she pivots to describing her own habitat.  Braiding these stories, all located in one place, show us how a street corner can be type a palimpsest: a record registering appearances, vestiges, and disappearances.  Her advocacy looks like a walk in the neighborhood with a camera.  However, she guides us into awareness of what is at risk by tracking her noticings and making connections between natural and social phenomena occurring in the same place.

Inspired by Raboteau’s focus on migratory patterns, my student Ramisa thought about what was at risk locally here in Los Angeles.  She created a mini-zine about Cambodian donut shops, as seen in the pages pictured below:

Ramisa brings attention to the displacement of Cambodian immigrant-owned-donut shops by the rise of newly ubiquitous chain donut shops, popularized by aesthetically pleasing Instagram “foodie” photos.  Long regarded as a symbol of Cambodian immigrant success, the risk of these beloved donut shops disappearing altogether is conveyed succinctly by her mini-zine.

Mentor Text Move #2: Defamiliarize the Familiar

While reading “Spark Bird,” we discussed how some parts achieved an effect that reminded us of the technique of defamiliarization: familiar objects are no longer perceived as such.  A neighborhood walk suddenly offered transporting beauty in the form of painted murals.  My students and I agreed that the place-based details that stood out the most were Raboteau’s descriptions of the bird murals, particularly descriptors related to their size and color (which were often followed by a photograph).  These descriptions helped us appreciate dazzling sentences like this one: “At shops that have closed and not yet reopened, like the beauty salon with the laughing gull, the bird is always there.”  The idea that a mural might outlast a local shop demonstrates how powerfully art can register absence, even as it is felt sorrowfully.  This image reinforces other images of loss, related to gentrification and pandemic closures, woven throughout the essay.

My student Audrey’s mini-zine explored the notion of a beauty that could obscure an underlying reality.  The first few pages are devoted to describing the stunning views afforded by the Topanga Canyon Overlook, especially at night when the San Fernando Valley is lit up as far as the eye can see.  Audrey specifically identifies the beauty of the overlook as a danger, concealing the reality of an overtaxed electric grid.  In skewering the overuse of electricity, she reminds us that sometimes “the most beautiful things can be the most dangerous.” Noting its double-edged quality, beauty’s ability to both beckon us and distract us is powerfully illustrated by her mini-zine.  A beloved local lookout spot becomes the means by which we no longer see a lit up valley as benignly offering a great view.

Mentor Text Move # 3: Point Out the Multiplying Effect

Raboteau’s essay includes a link to the Audubon website map of bird murals, which is updated when new murals appear.  The map demonstrates a multiplying effect: as more people become aware of the collaborative efforts to raise ecological awareness and protect climate-threatened birds, more money is raised to help conservation efforts and paint more murals.  My students appreciated the inclusion of the map and reflected on how mapping influenced their sense of possibility.  Maps not only orient us; they reshape our mental terrain as we consider anew what is available to be enjoyed.

Audubon Mural Project Google Map via audubon.org

A local Little Free Library, found on a street in our school’s community, is a neighborhood delight.  The concept of a little library, accessible and free to all, democratizes the ability to find a book and builds community through a book exchange.  My student Tyler’s mini-zine zooms in on this Little Free Library, then proceeds to zoom out with each page, so that the wide-ranging network of Little Free Libraries across the globe is perceptible.

As in the case of the painted bird murals, it might be easy to think there is just one.  Instead, the presence of one library points to the existence of another, as seen on the Little Free Library Mobile App.  I challenged my students to make a mini-zine conveying a call to action inspired by something local that ought to be celebrated, something present locally that is not readily obvious.  In reading “Spark Bird,” we learned how to stage possibility through navigating what is unknown about the familiar nooks and crannies of a place.  As Raboteau guides us through her New York City neighborhood, she enlarges our sense of possibility by showing us how to bear witness to nested stories, and to noticing the intertwined fates of those who dwell in the same place.


What role does place-based storytelling have in your classroom?  What are some of your favorite mentor texts for place-based storytelling?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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