Mentor Text Wednesday: Songs In A Discordant Voice

Mentor Texts: Another Nightmare in America – Cory Branan (listen here)

American Tune – AJJ (listen here)

Writing Techniques:

  • Voice
  • Adopting a persona
  • Writing a protest piece

Background – I’m a music fan. I use music in many ways in my classroom. It matters in my life so it features in my work.

As I was waiting for my vinyl copy of Cory Branan’s fine new album Adios to arrive, I was reading some writing about it. As an English teacher, and fan of the craft of songwriting, I was especially enthralled by a song-by-song breakdown of the album that was featured on NoiseTrade’s website. Branan is one of the finest songwriters working today, and a chance to see him explain where the songs on this album came from was exciting. (Also, on NoiseTrade, you can get a sampler of three songs from the album, including this one. It’s like Costco. Try these, than buy the megapack!)

As I read, there was a link to this video of Branan performing a solo version of the album’s protest song, “Another Nightmare in America.”

As Branan speaks about assuming the voice of a racist cop, a position quite removed from his own life, I knew this would be a great mentor text. In some ways, Branan uses this exercise to express his feelings, whilst also working to attempt to understand that point of view. (This is to say nothing of having a writer give insight into his craft. We should be training our writers to seek this type of thing out!)

Songs sung in character are not new. Heck, as a Springsteen fan, I’ve already used them in the classroom. However, Branan’s song reminded me of another that I’ve brought into the classroom as a protest piece, “American Tune” by AJJ. (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) I paired them as mentor texts this week because each obviously speaks in the voice of a less than savory character, but also because they speak of things that are quite current and relevant in the world our writers live in. Continue reading

Discovery Writing

The Need for Writing

As I began planning my unit for The Crucible, I reflected upon previous years and noted the nearly complete lack of writing. Traditionally, the unit is taught as a close reading/character analysis unit with a strong focus on allegory and character complexity. However, I wanted to change that. I wanted a unit that would allow for deep and purposeful writing that led to ideas essential to the text. One of those essential ideas is Abigail Williams’s loss of childhood innocence, and my students reflected on this idea through Discovery Writing.

Discovery Writing

The idea of Discovery Writing came from the notion that self-directed writing often leads to personal truths. As learners, we are not looking for universal, capital-T Truth. Instead,

DiscoveryWriting

Students engaged in Discovery Writing

we are looking for personal, and oftentimes conflicting, lower-case-t truths. A great way to illustrate this lies in the difference between denotation and connotation. We are not concerned with Webster’s definition of Childhood Innocence. Instead, we are interested in what Childhood Innocence means to each student; we are interested in how they have come to realize and understand this meaning and what they are going to do with this personal truth.

The Only Rule

Students may only read, write, view, or listen for the entirety of the hour.

The Prompt

Demonstrate what Childhood Innocence means to you.

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

No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

“Getting to Know You”: Introductions Inspired by Broadway

My last post mentioned Pippin, and now I’m quoting Rodgers & Hammerstein; I had musical theater on my mind this summer because I knew my break would end with a “bucket list” vacation to Broadway, the four-plays-in-four-days kind of trip my Tony Awards-watching teenage self had always dreamed about. The trip was an absolute treat, and it also offered some inspiration for the school year ahead. Silence your cell phones and unwrap your candies: here comes a musical edition of “the first thing” that happens in my classroom.

“I’ve now become an expert on the subject I like most…getting to know you”

Our series this month asks “What is the first thing we want students to understand about writing?” Two of the first things I want my students–especially my freshmen–to understand are that I am excited to read their writing and I want to hear and help them develop their authentic voices. As Anna in The King and I reminds her students “if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” so I try to start the year by providing students with opportunities to teach me about themselves and their needs for the year ahead. These opportunities often come in the form of notebook (or index card) invitations. These invitations are doubly helpful for my freshmen classes, since the first major writing task of that curriculum is a personal narrative. As they introduce themselves to me and the rest of the class, students also begin to mine their lives for great moments to explore in longer narratives. What follows are some musical theater-inspired notebook invitations and writing exercises. Some of them are stage veterans while others are hopeful ingenues. Continue reading

HAMILTON, the Mentor Text

THE NEW YOU

Image via hamiltonbroadway.com

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Hamilton. And by thinking, I mean obsessing. One morning, I was awakened at 4:00 AM by my loving and lively four-year-old, and after some time of trying to fall back into a peaceful summer slumber, the state in which she now rested, I gave in to the sunlight and began my day. My day was to consist of hard-core housecleaning and home organization, the latter, my least favorite of all the tasks on the to-do list.

My husband and children slept on, and I found myself with a few hours of quiet solitude. So, I plugged in my ear buds and got to cleaning. My playlist? The Hamilton soundtrack in its entirety – front to back, top to bottom, in order.

Besides being moved to tears more than once, I felt the way I feel when I’m reading something good, something rare, something special. Like when I read East of Eden last summer after dodging it all those years, or the first time I ever read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” or a William Trevor story. Just sheer force and beauty, so mindblowingly beautiful you can only stand back and watch, slack jawed.

I’m sure you’ve read or seen the many Teaching Hamilton resources. Megan wrote about using Hamilton here on Moving Writers in the spring. And there are some other great ones out there – this one from The Teaching Channel, this from The New York Times learning blog, and this, especially this, from Atlantic Records and Genius.com which includes complete annotations for each and every song. How fascinating that this musical, this story, can now be a part of our classrooms and our students’ learning experiences. How novel and engaging, how exciting and challenging. To borrow a phrase, “How lucky we are to be alive right now” as educators, when hip-hop, history, and story-telling are so readily available and seamlessly blended.

Take for example the opening track: Alexander Hamilton.

The song opens with Aaron Burr’s character posing the overarching question of the play:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

 The lyrics continue, with several characters (who also happen to be important historical figures) delivering lines:

JOHN LAURENS:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder

By bein’ a lot smarter

By bein’ a self-starter

By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

 THOMAS JEFFERSON:

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted

Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up

Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of

The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

JAMES MADISON:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned

Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

BURR:

Well the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”

Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and

The world’s gonna know your name! What’s your name, man?”

ALEXANDER HAMILTON:

Alexander Hamilton

My name is Alexander Hamilton

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait

ELIZA HAMILTON:

When he was ten, his father split, full of it, debt-ridden

Two years later, see Alex and his mother, bed-ridden

Half-dead, sittin’ in their own sick

The scent thick

COMPANY:

And Alex got better but his mother went quick

 GEORGE WASHINGTON and (COMPANY):

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide

Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, somethin’ new inside

A voice saying “(Alex) you gotta fend for yourself”

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

BURR and (COMPANY):

There would’ve been nothin’ left to do

For someone less astute

He would’ve been dead or destitute

Without a cent of restitution

Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord

Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford

(Scammin’) for every book he can get his hands on

(Plannin’) for the future, see him now as he stands on

The bow of a ship headed for a new land

In New York you can be a new man

COMPANY and (HAMILTON):

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man

WOMEN:

In New York

MEN:

New York

 HAMILTON:

Just you wait

COMPANY and (COMPANY):

Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

We are waiting in the wings for you (waiting in the wings for you)

You could never back down

You never learned to take your time

Oh, Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

When America sings for you

Will they know what you overcame?

Will they know you rewrote the game?

The world will never be the same, oh

BURR and (COMPANY):

The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him

(Just you wait)

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom

(Just you wait)

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him

MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:

We fought with him

LAURENS/PHILLIP:

Me? I died for him

WASHINGTON:

Me? I trusted him

ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:

Me? I loved him

 BURR:

And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

COMPANY:

There’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait

BURR:

What’s your name, man?

HAMILTON & COMPANY:

Alexander Hamilton!

 

As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for unique ways into reading and writing about literature. Although it seems “there’s a million things” we could use for classroom instruction here in this first song, for my money, the song Alexander Hamilton serves as an excellent mentor text for writing about a novel’s (or any text’s) critical information and context. It perfectly and succinctly catches the audience up to speed on the first 19 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life, all while establishing themes, revealing character, and foreshadowing future conflicts in the story.

The musical functions as an answer to the question Burr initially poses. How did this unlikely immigrant become one of our country’s most important Founding Fathers?

As a fun and challenging end-novel assessment for this upcoming school-year, I’m going to have students create their own “Alexander Hamilton.” Students will, of course, need to model closely from the original, being careful of rhythm, rhyme, and form.

Here are some sample directions for students:

Your task: Create your own Alexander Hamilton song for any character from the novel we’re studying.

  • Choose a character from the novel we’ve been studying.
  • Identify an overarching question for the character that the novel provides the answer to. For example, this for The Cather in the Rye:

How does a prep-schooled, downer, brother of a kid-forgotten and a writer,

dropped in the middle of a well-trodden spot in New York City,

confused and bemused, grow up to be a symbol and martyr?

  • Determine the critical information from the novel that establishes character and theme.
  • Modeling closely from “Alexander Hamilton”, create a song or rhyming narrative poem that provides your audience with the most crucial information about the character you chose.

You should…

– Begin with the end in mind. (Like Burr’s, “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”)

– Make intentional choices about what characters deliver which lines.

– Have some fun with language, rhythm, and rhyme.

– Include the most prominent features of the song’s form.

– Create a catch phrase and refrain like “there’s a million things I haven’t done/just you wait” for the character you chose.

Besides getting a serious mental workout and having a little fun…

Continue reading

Mapping: Analyzing a Weird Text

I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey

Night Vale

Image via welcometonightvale.com

Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.

We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”

Continue reading

A Mentor Text Goldmine for Movie Buffs and Writing Workshoppers Alike!

It seemed too good to be true when I first happened upon it: a database with hundreds of free Hollywood movie scripts, ready to download and dig in to for writing studies!

I had landed upon The Internet Movie Script Database (not to be confused with the International Movie Database)  — an amazing resource for writing workshop. I have used its contents to teach the obvious genre (screenwriting) — but I have also used the scripts in memoir and fiction writing studies to teach about dialogue, creating character, writing concisely, show-don’t-tell and so on.

Do yourself a favor and head on over to the IMSDb before reading on. You’ll notice that you can search the database by title or genre. You can also browse the newest titles on the homepage, under Newest Releases.

Two Scripts & Some Ideas

It’s easy to get lost in a script; it does take some time to plod through hundreds of pages in search of excerpts to use with students. I often just pull the first few pages of a script to share — or if I’ve seen the movie and can identify a scene I want to look at, I’ll search within the script for phrases I remember from the movie. To get you going in your study, below are two scripts you might consider exploring with your writers and ways to use them.

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Photo by Jim Bridges Roadside Attractions Publicity via tpr.org

Mud

Summary: Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the vigilantes that are on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. (International Movie Database)

Click here for the full script.

Click here for the excerpt I used.

How I used it:

I used this excerpt from Mud to demonstrate one way to create character: through setting. Nancie Atwell encourages her writers to “create [their] character’s bedroom and fill it with the stuff of his or her life that reveals parts of the present or past.” In this excerpt, director Jeff Nichols demonstrates this technique using narrative description to show the abandoned boat that Mud has turned into a temporary home. The students will enjoy discussing what the contents of his boat-treehouse reveal about Mud.

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Photo by Global Panorama via Flickr

A Fault in Our Stars

Summary: Two teens, both who have different cancer conditions, fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group. (The International Movie Database)

Click here for the full script.

Click here for the excerpt I used.

How I used it:

I used this short excerpt to teach students about lean writing. David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, advises screenwriters to keep description “on the lean side, providing only what is absolutely necessary to progress the story.”

While this advice applies more to screenwriting than it does fiction, this lesson helps students become more intentional and “choosy” with the details they include in their writing. Beginner writers usually run into one of the following problems at some point: they don’t write enough description, or they get carried away with their description. Studying this excerpt may help students think about the types of details they can include or aid them in eliminating details that don’t move their story along. With this particular excerpt, we talk about why the screenwriter may have chosen to include the title of the book Hazel is reading. We also discuss the importance of the “squeal of delight.”

Another Goldmine

Current, engaging mentor texts that reach every writer in the room are like gold, so finding multiple drafts of a current, engaging mentor text is equivalent to striking it rich. This is what happened to me when the IMSDb lead me to other screenplay resources, like Drew’s Script-O-Rama, a recent favorite of mine.

In addition to offering hundreds of scripts, it also offers (for some movies) multiple versions of the same script. For example, here is the first draft of Batman, the revised first draft, and the fifth draft. Not only is it cool to study how scripts change over time, but these drafts can be bundled together to create a cluster for a revision study.

Drew’s Script-O-Rama offers fewer classic scripts than the IMSDb but tends to have a better selection of contemporary films.  Here is a list of just a few Oscar-nominated and winning films this website offers:

Foxcatcher

Boyhood

Gone Girl

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Unbroken

Whiplash

These mentor texts databases, coupled with our Mentor Text Dropbox that you have continued to help us build, offer so many possibilities for genre and technique studies next year. If you haven’t already, go ahead and add “explore the dropbox” to your summer to-do list. We can’t promise you won’t get lost inside, but with a glass of iced tea, and some extra time on your hands, it’s an adventure worth taking.

In your initial browsing of the IMDB, what scripts offered themselves up as mentor texts? In what ways do you envision using The IMDB or Drew’s Script-o-Rama in your workshop? Feel free to leave a comment below, or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.