Mentor Text Wednesday: At The Movies

Mentor Text: Someone Will Come Along: Rogue One, Logan and Hope by Jessica Plummer

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Literary Analysis
  • Essay Structure

Background: If, as Stephen King would say, you are a “Faithful Reader,” then you know I’m a bit of a geek. If you’re here for the first time… Hi, I’m Jay, and I really like pop culture with a genre bent. I will not go for long without mentioning sci-fi or superheroes.

These interests actually pay wonderful dividends in my classroom. At the very least, it has dropped wonderful mentor texts like this week’s into my Twitter feed.

Plummer’s piece is a great little piece that analyzes the core thematic elements of two recent blockbusters withing my wheelhouse, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Logan, the final installment in Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine film series.

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A still from Logan via BookRiot

I love the timing of this piece, right after I finally  got a chance to see Logan, and as I’m plotting some of the next things we’ll be working on in my classroom. Actually, it ties in quite well to some work I’m doing with The Great Gatsby in my Lit class, as I’m having them connect Gatsby to pieces of pop culture, focusing on themes. Continue reading

Short Inspiration

I had a meeting this week, during the school day, in my building. It meant prepping a sub plan, but, since I was in the building, something I could get going before running out to the meeting.

As often happens, this wasn’t the best time for my Grade 9s to be without me. We’ve just finished one things we’ve been working on, and we’re not quite where I want us to be for the to work on another thing without me.

We’ve been looking at monsters, and scary stuff like that, as a way to explore imagination and empathy. I needed a one and done activity.

Recently, a tweet came across my feed that featured “Tuck Me In,” a wonderful little short film about the monster under the bed. I watched it again, seeing if there was a way to use it. As I watched it on YouTube, as I often do, I scanned the other videos suggested. This led me to “Run.” This one minute short is a neat little piece of horror. It was great fun to watch with the students.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiration From a Master

Mentor Text: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative Writing
  • Voice
  • Humour
  • Considering Audience

Background:

A beloved part of my day is right before my daughters’ bedtime, when we read. I have a six year old and a four year old, and each is currently obsessed with a different book. My oldest is in the early stages of Pottermania, as we read, for the second time, the beautiful new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our youngest, like her sister before her, has been repeatedly requesting Neil Gaiman’s gorgeous little novella Fortunately, the Milk.

If you’ve not read it, do so. It’s a hilarious little book. Left alone, without his wife’s support, a father goes to the corner shop to pick up milk for his children’s breakfast. He takes a long time. Upon his return, he spins a fantastic tale explaining his delay. Initially abducted by aliens, he escapes only to be caught by pirates, is rescued from them by a stegosaurus in a time travelling hot air balloon, which they take to a primitive jungle in the past, a land populated by vampires, meeting back up with the same batch of aliens, before making it home with the milk. The illustrations, by Skottie Young in the version we have, make it clear that Dad is likely making this whole tale up, using things in his sight in their kitchen. Yes, it’s essentially a kiddie version of The Usual Suspects, but it’s awesome. My girls love it, and I love reading it to them. Continue reading

Showcase Projects

On Monday, I visited the STEAM Fair at our local early years school. My oldest daughter is in kindergarten there, and my wife teaches there. My wife had shared what her students were doing, and my daughter was vibrating with excitement about the chance to show off her work.

My obvious highlight was watching my oldest share her project with us, patiently answering her little sister’s questions. However, moving around the gym, watching students share their projects, listening to parents brag, and getting steered towards projects by excited teachers, I was moved by the whole experience.

I spent some time talking to one of a teacher there, discussing our shared belief in the importance of the A in STEAM, the Arts. We divide the disciplines a lot more in high school, and each of those letters becomes the responsibility of a specific group of teachers. If you work with older students, and you’ve tried to sneak the arts into class, you’ve likely had a student remind you that you’re not teaching Art. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: In Praise of the Secondary Character

Mentor Texts: “In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series” – Sady Doyle

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Applying a critical lens
  • Voice

Background:

I am re-reading the Harry Potter series with my oldest daughter. We’re reading the gorgeous illustrated editions. This means that we are now on our second go-round with Chamber of Secrets, as Prisoner of Azkaban won’t be released with Jim Kay’s art until October.

I was a fan of this series as a reader, but as a parent, watching my oldest react with such excitement to Rowling’s tale is a whole other experience. I’m especially proud of how she’s picked up on the fact that Hermione doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets from others, because, as she says, “It’s not fair, Dad. She’s really smart and works hard to help.” Every time she takes her braids out, she struts about, with “hair like Hermione’s”

Which makes her part of my inspiration in my mentor text choice this week. Sady Doyle wrote this great piece which I’ve had in my files for a few years now. If you haven’t read it already, it is a fun piece, assuming a somewhat satirical voice while applying a feminist lens to the Potter series, imagining them as a series dealing with, instead, the exploits of Hermione. Continue reading

New Notebook Rituals

As this post drops, I’m wrapping up the second week of the new semester. I’ve got new courses, new students and new ideas.

One of the first things that I try to establish is the importance of our notebooks. I actually try to do a lot of our work, our writing, our responding… our thinking in them.

So, I really want them to matter.

For the last couple of years, as I’ve already shared, I have had students put a word on the front of their notebooks, borrowing from the #OneWord resolution movement. After doing this last week, I can reaffirm there is a power in this. Already, students are calling for their notebooks by their words, and there’s something special about this daily occurance.

“I am loyal.”

“I am overachieve.”

“I am creative.”

“I am intensity.”

Even “I am reckless!” speaks to the spirit with which it actually feels like they’re approaching their new English courses.

I added a new element to notebook personalization this semester. I make no bones about being an Austin Kleon fanboy. Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work are a pair of texts that have had an incredible impact on my teaching. His tweets and weekly email newsletter have added so many ideas to my notebook.

In a recent newsletter, he did what he often does, and shared his one of his own processes. Each time that he begins a new notebook, he tapes a picture of someone who inspires him inside, a guardian spirit. He adds a quote as well.

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A few notebooks from my Grade 9 & 10 classes.

Of course, as I would have students starting new notebooks, I “stole” the idea right away. In our first classes, after we made the initial run through the syllabus, and started establishing our community, we personalized our notebooks. I explained how they were going to have a word that spoke to their goals and aspirations in the course on the front, and a person who inspired them inside. I told them that their first page of their notebook would give me my first glimpse at their writing, as they explained their choices. We had something to do that accomplished a lot, but didn’t feel like a big ask on the first day.

 

The guardian spirits are as diverse and random as the students that chose them. From Yoda to Dali, Homer  to Hermione , Mandela to Jesus, they run the gamut. Of the 60 or so guardian spirits, the only duplicate is Eddie Murphy. In two different classes.

And the rationales for their choices of words and guardian spirits gave me so much insight into who these students are. Eddie Murphy is there because of his bravery as a speaker, his ability to win people’s respect and adoration with his humor. (I know you were curious, so he was the example I chose!) I appreciate the openness with which they did this task.

But as I’ve been assessing those first pieces of writing, and looking at other responses in their notebooks this first week, I’ve actually come to appreciate what those two things they stuck to their notebooks have come to mean. Every time I grab a student’s notebook, I read their word. I open and see the image of someone who inspires them. Who that student is, and wants to be is laid bare for me. It’s quite powerful.

Imagine if it’s having a similar impact on them.

Do you have any new notebook rituals in your classroom? How about for yourself? What do you do? What are yours? We can chat about it on Twitter,  @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below.

-Jay

Mentor Text Wednesday: Infographic Rankings

Mentor Texts: Rolling Stone magazine’s Threat Assessment infographic

Entertainment Weekly magazine’s The Bullseye infographic

Writing Techniques:

  • Organizing information
  • Tone
  • Visual presentation

Background:

Hi. I’m Jay and I’m a recovering magazineaholic.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but magazines are wonderful things, especially for a mentor text based teacher. They contain, if you’re getting a variety of them, such diverse writing, both in form and focus that it can be quote overwhelming. Most of my magazines wind up making their way to my classroom, to be used as mentor texts, as well as research sources.

A neat thing has happened though, as many aspects of communication include visual literacy more frequently. Many of the features in a magazine are more familiar to people, and forms like the infographic have become more prevalent.

This works for me, because one of the things I love to do is to have students play with information, ideas and opinions. I frequently refer to what I call The Great Scale, the idea that everything is relative. When we’re researching or talking about social justice issues, I often use my white boards or bulletin boards to visually manipulate ideas and opinions, facilitating discussions about how we rank things.

int_bl_2010_sept_30_rolling_stone_picThe Threat Assessment infographic that Rolling Stone used to feature looks like my Great Scale. It ranks things happening in the world from worst to best, or in their words, from the things Against Us to the things For Us. Entertainment Weekly‘s The Bullseye works in a similar fashion, albeit with a pop culture focus and the target as a visual reference point. (I’ve included a recent Bullseye in .pdf format, but a Google image search yields oodles of ’em! Threat Assessment is a bit harder to come by, alas.)

Though these may seem kind of silly, the critical writing involved in their creation is what makes them seem so valuable to me. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: No Convincing Answer

Mentor Text: excerpt from “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant” by Wells Tower

Writing Techniques:

  • Research writing
  • Writing counterargument
  • Exploring difficult issues
  • Expanding writing

Background:

It is a terribly kept secret that I am a huge fan of The Best American series. These annual collections of writing litter my workspaces, and live in every corner that I stash books. I’m either reading one of these, I’ve just finished one of them, or there’s one floating near the top of my To Be Read pile. Quite often, a Best American is my placeholder read, the thing I read when I’m trying to decide what the next read will be.

As I regularly write a column called Mentor Text Wednesday let me hit you up with a pro tip. The Best American series of books is a fantastic source of mentor texts. Some of my favorite pieces I use have come from these anthologies.

I have a special spot for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It is filled with such a variety of pieces making it feel like a more diverse read in some ways. The fact that it features a balance of asethetic and pragmatic writing adds a lot to the experience.

23874530I had the 2015 version kicking about and picked it upwhile I was waiting for my next read to arrive. At the time I had my students working on multigenre projects and making zines as their last work of the semester. As I remarked last week, this time of year is fruitful for planning, since I’m reflecting on the courses wrapping up whilst planning the next ones.

Wells Tower’s piece of journalism about sport elephant hunting exemplifies what I love about Nonrequired Reading as a piece I might not have found shows up in front of me. The fact that it showed up just short of me actually being able to use it in class was a bit frustrating.

Because looking at this piece, particularly what I’ve excerpted here, I’ve clearly got a great piece I can use not only in projects like the multigenre one, or the zine, but for other purposes as well.

In short, I feel there is much value for our writers in exploring question for which, as Tower says, there are “no convincing answers.” Continue reading

Planning

As I write this, I’m in my last full week of classes in the first semester of the year. The exam is written, and copied, sitting in a drawer. My students are putting the finishing touches on the last of their work.

And my head is pretty firmly a few days ahead in second semester.

Though I’m tired and stressed, this is actually one of my favorite times of the year. I’m finishing up with my Grade 11 and 12 students, getting ready for my 9s and 10s. I’m hyper aware of where I want the students I’m about to teach to be in two or three years’ time.

And that makes midyear planning so awesome. Especially exciting for me this year, as I plan, is that I’m working with a whole new team, and we’ve got a semester of working together under our belts, and have figured out how we work together, and collaborate. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Eulogy

Mentor Text: 10 Inspiring,Confusing and Humorous Eulogies of the Famous via The Atlantic

Writing Techniques:

  • Specific Form
  • Considering Audience

Background:

This is actually a post that should be subtitled “What I’ll Do Better Next Time”

My Grade 11 students are in their final weeks of classes, and we’ve been working on MultiGenre Projects based upon research that we’ve done. I’m actually blessed with a group of students who will willingly follow me down any path I choose to take us down, which is making it a pretty rewarding time.

Our first week back from Christmas break, our Grade 12 students write a provincial exam for four days, and they kind of become my focus. Luckily, I’ve got a lot of resources and experience, so I’ve been able to give good stuff to my Grade 11s. They’ve been writing a lot of MGP pieces, and I’ve got mentor texts and guides to support them.

I got my mind set on having them write eulogies. In the past, I’ve seen students write really great pieces eulogizing all kinds of random things, so I felt like it was a great fit for my 11s.

Teacher isn’t my primary function. I’m a dad too, with two awesome daughters, and the husband to an awesome lady, who happens to be an early years teacher. This often means chaos reigns supreme. Which sometimes means I’m sending the stuff I need for my first period to the printer as the bell goes.

Which made it pretty frustrating to discover that I didn’t actually have any material to teach eulogy writing.

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A eulogy scene from Arrow because I’m a geek via The Geektified Blog

I stubbornly pushed ahead, and we talked about what is in a eulogy that we needed to include in our pieces. We made a pretty good list, but I knew that I could do much better. Once I found a bit of prep time, I did some googling, and came across the link I’ve included, full of excerpts from notable eulogies.

How we can use this text:

Specific Form – A neat thing about teaching something like eulogy is that there is a specific nature to the form. The purpose for the piece impacts the writing, which in itself is a great lesson.

However, what can be seen from the variety of excerpts on the site I linked is that the purpose can be met in different ways. This is where a collection of mentor texts is valuable. There are pieces that are solemn, and pieces that are humorous. There are pieces where the writer knew the deceased very well, and those where they didn’t. The variety shows different ways to meet the requirements of the form.

And perhaps this is why I want to build  a set of mentor texts for eulogies. This is my favorite kind of writing task for a class of varying abilities and interests. They are given a form, one that specifies that certain things should be included, and meets a specific purpose. Yet there is a lot of freedom in this form, a variety of ways to meet the “requirements” that allows for our writers to explore and experiment. This, I feel, is where we can do the best for our writers – they have a structure to guide them, yet not one so rigid that they write like automatons.

Considering Audience – This form, as I’ve noted, serves a purpose. In doing so, it actually speaks to an audience. This means that we can give our writers a piece in which audience is a serious consideration, which is, I feel, a pretty important lesson. (Truth be told, I’m marking that provincial test I referred to this week, and there’s a question that always troubles students that this lesson addresses!)

It’s a conversation that encapsulates many elements of writing. Tone is important. One must be reverent, but if you’re eulogizing a comedian, shouldn’t humor be considered? If you’re a comedian eulogizing someone, do you use the humor people expect from you? Is a place to express anger? A eulogy is celebratory, but do you, as a writer, take a moment to highlight moments of imperfection?

And what is included? If you’re including an anecdote, how personal do you go? Do you tell the story only two of you know, or do you go for a larger inside joke, that everyone would get? Do you write something intensely personal, or do you write something for a much broader audience, as Reagan did in his eulogy for the Challenger astronauts?

My use of the eulogy was a bit different. I wanted the students to eulogize something in their research. As I moved around and talked to people, I was glad I persevered with this lesson. We had great talks about what it was from their research they wanted to present to their audience, as well as how they wanted to present it. The student discussing obesity eulogized the gym. Another discussing climate change and its effect on farmers eulogized the trustworthy weatherman. Once they figured out the subject of the eulogy, they considered the impact on an audience as they wrote.

So as for this being a post about what I should have done, I should have collected my mentor texts earlier. Had I had this link to share with them, many students might have moved ahead faster. I share this this week however, to highlight how useful mentor texts are. Having examples of the form, examples of how other handled various aspects of the piece for students to look at is important. Yes, our students can write well without mentor texts, but access to them makes a difference. It’ll be better next time in my room.

Flat out begging – do you have any good eulogies you use as mentor texts? I used them in the multigenre project, how have you used them in your classes?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

-Jay