4 Ideas: Using Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

Using mentors to teach literary analysis makes sense. Beginning in elementary school, students are engaged in some form of literary analysis. In fact, my second grade daughter, works out her analytical muscles on the regular. Her (amazing) teacher provides her students with plenty of scaffolding and sentence starters. She coaches them with exercises like I See, I Think, I Wonder to encourage their young minds to break down a text’s or image’s complexities into parts for closer inspection. By the time students make it to high school, and in my case, into my AP Literature classroom, they are no strangers to literary analysis.

The majority of students have an essay structure that has worked for them. Most understand that they must provide their readers with a claim or assertion, followed by textual evidence, and polished off with their own commentary about the relevance of their chosen evidence in support of their claims. This they get.

What students sometimes don’t get is that their writing, yes even literary analysis, should be thoughtful, mature, and effective in exploring their ideas, how it should be narrated in a voice that is authentic to who they are as writers, and how it should be constructed in a way that supports their insights about the text at hand. 

Endlessly inspired by Rebekah’s original post entitled Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary AnalysisI have indeed spent some time thinking about mentors for literary analysis – what they can be, how they can shape student writing, and how we might best use them in our classrooms.

Below are some mentors that can help move our young writers towards more authentic and sophisticated literary analysis. What all of these have in common? Clear, insightful claims, sophisticated style, depth of thought, and insightful explorations of a “text.”

For each of these mentors, I would first have students read or view as readers – or what I like to call “people in the world,” and then as writers, answering the question, What do you notice? How are these texts constructed and put together? What are the writers’ moves?

1. “Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer Impression is an Instant SNL Classic” from Vulture.com

What if students created titles that embed a claim to guide their analysis?

For this particular article, the title makes a powerful claim. My friend Brian Sztabnik @TalksWithTeachers talks about thesis statements as a “promise the writer makes to the reader.” I might ask students how this article fulfills the promise that Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression is indeed an instant SNL classic. I might have students dig up evidence by color coding, annotation stations, or outlining. There are plenty of activities to build in to uncover this writer’s approach to analysis, to say nothing of how plain old hilarious this sketch is.

After students have taken apart this article to examine its parts, students could then embark on their own reading, analyzing, and writing.

Students might experiment with a poem or prose passage by framing it with a similar title, like “Why Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is the Ultimate “Daddy Issues” Poem or “Why Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” is About the Blind Leading the Blind.” I wonder if this frame might help students deepen their insights and focus their ideas. This mentor shows that a clear focus is vital for effectively exploring your insights and ideas about a text. 

2. “Hopper’s Nighthawks: Look Through the Window” from YouTuber Nerdwriter1

What if students created their own video narrating their analysis of a text, image, or painting?

This short video is a literary analysis exemplar, no anchor papers needed. As a whole, the speaker’s commentary is intelligent and insightful, and its message clear, concise, and elegantly delivered. What more could we want from our young writers?

I might have students use this video as a mentor for producing and creating their own Nerdwriter video. My friend @mszilligen suggests two additional Nerdwriter videos How Louis C.K. Tells  a Joke and How Bon Iver Creates a Mood to create a solid mentor text cluster. I’d love to see students chose their own “text” to analyse and use apps like iMovie or Do Ink to create a video that explore the depths of the work they chose.

I’m betting that if students were challenged to use their own voices, their focus would shift to the precision and clarity of their writing. There’s something about hearing your own voice that forces you to assess and reflect on how articulate you are and how clearly you can express your ideas.(If you don’t believe me, just ask my Voxer friends about my frequent ramblings…trust me, I’ve assessed and reflected!) This mentor shows how precision and clarity are synonymous with effective writing. 

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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

The Chanie Project

I’ve written about this before, but this year, Gord Downie, of The Tragically Hip fame has had an impact in my classroom.

Long story short, The Hip is largely considered to be Canada’s official band. Their songs, with Downie’s lyrics, are frequently poetic ruminations on our country and identity. In May of last year, Downie revealed that he had terminal brain cancer. The Hip embarked on what was expected to be their final tour.

During prime time of the Olympics, CBC, our national broadcaster chose instead to air the final show of that tour. With the nation gathered to watch, our Prime Minister in attendance, Downie took a moment to address issues related to First Nations people in our country, and the Truth & Reconciliation movement, aimed at acknowledging and healing the legacy of residential schools in Canada. The country listened.

SecretPath-BookAnd, shortly after that concert, Downie revealed that he had a solo album coming out, called Secret Path. In actuality, it was much more than an album. There would be a graphic novel, illustrated by Jeff Lemire, accompanying the novel, as well as a film, that would also be aired on CBC.

Secret Path tells the story of Chanie Wenjack. In 1966, Chanie fled the residential school that he had been taken to, and attempted to walk the hundreds of kilometers, or miles, to his home. He didn’t make it. Woefully unprepared for the journey ahead of him, he froze to death. It was his story that first called attention to the deeply flawed residential school system.

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The Poetry and Image Pairing

Sometimes, when we’re really, really lucky, many of our goals and passions weave together in wonderful ways.

In 2016, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring poetry more deeply, partly for my work with my students, but also, because of what poetry is, and how moving it can be. I also wanted to explore ways, in this current school year, to emphasize the six language arts in my classes, bringing the four that aren’t reading and writing into the mix more frequently. I also wanted to explore ways to generate critical thought, and encourage discussion and discourse in my classroom.

I didn’t realize that one lesson plan would enable me to hit many of these things in what has become a favorite activity of late.

Two of the courses I teach this semester are attached to outcomes related to another course, a Global Issues course. This means I’ve been incorporating a fair amount of social justice material into these courses, which is pretty much standard practice for me. A colleague and I I happened along the Teach This Poem lesson from poets.org for the week of September 19. (If you’re not aware, this part of the site offers a weekly lesson based around a poem. They’re fantastic!) The featured poem was “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay, which deals with the death of Eric Garner.

The poem is powerful, but it was in doing the lesson that is offered to accompany the poem that we felt like we had struck gold. The students begin by looking at, and studying a visual, an image of a rabbit in a garden. There are guiding questions attached to help students “read” and interpret the visual. They then do a similar sort of thing with the poem. Then, we look at the connections between the two. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Transcendent Review

Mentor Text: TV Review – The Walking Dead S05E09: What’s Happening and What’s Going On by Regina Lizik

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Reviews

Background:

Sometimes, a mentor text sits in your files for a long time. You wait for a need for it, or a reason to pull it out. Sometimes, you’ve saved it knowing that someday, maybe, perhaps, you’ll have the perfect class to use it with, or it will be the catalyst for an amazing lesson you haven’t designed yet. You know it’s good, you just don’t know what you’re going to do with it quite yet.

Or, if you contribute to Mentor Text Wednesdays, you file it for future column fodder.

This week’s mentor text is one I’ve had sitting in the files for a while.

Often, when I write, I pop on a quasi-mindless show to watch. Time, as a dad, teacher and human, is often at a premium, so I view while I create. I knew I needed to write this week’s column, so I started looking at what I had queued up to watch. I noticed that I hadn’t watched any of this season’s Walking Dead after the premiere. I have reasons for that. I’m really of the mind that the writers of that show have lost their way. The character development and plotting has given way to, in my opinion, working solely to create water cooler moments… which aren’t strung together with all the stuff that made this show must see TV for me. I put on my old man grumbly pants, and mutter, “I haven’t cared about anyone’s fate on that show since they killed Tyreese.”

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Tyreese whom I miss. (image via web)

 

And then I remembered that I had an awesome mentor text about that very episode. Continue reading

A New Approach to Finding Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

In our 9th grade Reading Writing Workshop, most writing studies are genre-based. Occasionally, we center our writing studies around a writing technique. But in my 12th grade IB English class, things are a little different. We still use a workshop approach to writing — we move through writing processes in different ways and at different paces, we make small-and-steady progress, we learn skills together, and we still use mentor texts to guide and inspire our writing.

In this class, though, the four IB assessments — both written and oral — focus on the analysis of literature. And, so, I shift my practice in this class out of necessity and out of the best interest of my students who are working hard to earn college credit.  

goldenMy students need consistent practice writing about literature. But I still want their writing to be authentic — to look like what real writers do. And I still want their writing to be guided by their passions.

Finding Writers’ Passion about  Shakespeare

So, after our study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, students spent a few days jotting in their notebooks and chatting in small groups about the elements of the play that interested them, that excited them, that made them want to know more. While they no doubt sensed that we were working our way toward a piece of writing (they are on to me!), we didn’t say the word “writing” or “paper” or “essay” or “analysis”. We started from a place of curiosity.

If this sounds vague, it was! I wanted my instructions to be big and broad — and I wanted students to interpret them in as many different ways as they could. My fear here was limiting them or ramping up their natural writing anxiety to the point that they chose the first,easiest idea that came to mind.

They were already a bit primed for this task as they had just finished writing a piece of “wholehearted analysis” — analysis of anything they wanted. We had already walked together down the road of identifying our passions and using our expertise to lend authority to a piece of analytical writing. What I hoped to do here was extend that authority and enthusiasm into a piece of literary analysis

Finding Mentor Texts to Support Authentic Writing About Shakespeare

After students whittled their lists down and started to find a focus, they needed some mentor texts to help bridge the gap between their vague clouds of ideas and the necessary gathering of information that leads us into drafting.  

Not knowing what their particular passions were, but wanting to convince them that this, too, would be a piece of real and authentic writing,  I gathered a different kind of mentor text into my cluster. Instead of finding a bunch of pieces of writing about literature in a specific genre, I searched for pieces of real-world analysis specifically on Shakespeare.  

What do real writers write about Shakespeare in the 21st century? After just half-a-planning-period searching, here’s what I found:

Mentor Texts for Wholehearted Analysis of Shakespeare

Close Reading of a Passage: “By Heart: Shakespeare – One of the First and Greatest Psychologists”

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Moves on Another Text”: “How Shakespeare Would Have Ended Breaking Bad”

Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy: “What Was Shakespeare’s Central Philosophy”

Analysis of a Character: Hamlet Was a Bro Who Didn’t Even Like Sex”

Review of a production: Review: ‘The Merchant of Venice’ With Extra Fog, Moral

and Atmospheric ; Review: ‘Twelfth Night,’ Anything Goes in Love and

Shakespeare

Tracking a motif / symbol  through the play: 50 Shades Of Shakespeare: How The Bard Used Food As Racy Code

Tracking a trend in Shakespeare’s Language: Forget His Coinages, Shakespeare’s Real Genius Lies in His Noggin-Busting Compounds

Studying Mentor Texts for Analysis of Shakespeare

Together, we read the mentor texts and made sure they had the essential elements of analysis — a claim, reasons and evidence, a logical structure, authority, passion, and a real audience. This served as a helpful reminder to students of the elements their piece must have to be considered literary analysis, too.

Studying these mentor texts helped students refine their ideas — firming them up, erasing them completely, replacing them with stronger ideas. Many students wrote pieces that bore no topic resemblance to the mentor texts studied. Still, students used the mentor text for ideas about kinds evidence to include, what tone to strike, how to engage readers while retaining intellectual authority.  

Give it a whirl!

I feel certain your students write about literature! Give it a try  — spend a few minutes searching for writing about the author your students are studying. What do real writers write today about Salinger? About Hawthorne? About Conrad? About Dickinson?

I bet you’ll find some things that surprise you!

And then think about how this will fling wide the opportunities for your students to write literary analysis that not only matters to them but might also possibly matter to real readers.

What authors do your students study? How might your students find areas of passion even between the covers of the literature you teach? Find me on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1), on Facebook, or leave us a comment below!