Mentor Text Wednesday: Ted Wilson Reviews The World

Mentor Text: Ted Wilson Reviews The World  by Ted Wilson (posted and collected at Electric Literature, The Rumpus.net and I Am Ted Wilson

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Reviews
  • Humour
  • Satire

Background:
Perhaps the thing I love most about the Internet is the delightfully random nature of what it manages to put in front of me. This weeks mentor text set is an example of that.

Electric Literature has been a Twitter fave of mine for a while. It’s a great lit journal that regularly posts great pieces, from poetry to criticism, I’ve had a lot of wonderful reading roll across my feed. I’m not sure how I’ve only just now noticed “Ted Wilson Reviews The World.”

“In 2009 I began reviewing the world, one item per week. So far I’ve reviewed hundreds of things!” is what I saw when I first clicked the link in the tweet. And I began reading the review posted on June 9th, for Windex.

And I laughed. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A New Text for an Old Idea

Mentor Text: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Writing Techniques:

 

  • Writing biography
  • Focusing presentation of research

Background:

It’s almost June! That means the last couple weeks of school for me, and in Grade 10, it means we’re launching into the Rebel Project. It’s one of my favorite projects to do, so much learning and creation happening.

I’ve written here about using mentor texts for students as they write the profiles of their chosen rebels. Every year, I check to see if there are any fresh mentor texts to add to the pile.

This year, the delightfully random things that happen when I get to Googling brought me to some of the images that have made their way online from Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a book that has been wonderfully overfunded on Kickstarter. The Rebel Project features both a visual aspect and a written aspect, both of which are highlighted in this project.

This book will be a collection of profiles of 100 powerful women. It appeals to me for many reasons. As a father of two daughters, I love the idea of sharing the stories of powerful women with my daughters. As a teacher, I want the young women I teach to see this too. The young men as well.

I also adore the “gimmick” here. The profiles are written like stories for kids. Once I order a copy, and it shows up in November, I’ll be reading these with my girls. I love the idea of this as a mentor text for my students for our Rebel Projects as well, giving us a fresh way to write about the subjects of our research.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Writing Biography – My students will be looking at these texts after we’ve researched. They’ll be using a research scaffold to focus their research.My goal is that these pieces are well written, and are more than information dumps.

With these mentor texts being written in the form they are, as stories for children, I feel like my writers will be inspired to really consider how they want to present the story. These pieces have a narrative flow. Look at this one about Serena Williams.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this one is that it’s not directly about Serena Williams. It uses Raul, the taco stand owner, as the observer, the person who sees the Williams sisters grow and learn, work to excel at tennis. For the project my students are doing, this could be an important mentor text, as it highlights the impact on the community, which is one of the criteria for their subject selection.

Because they are writing a more narrative piece in nature, one that is intended for a younger audience, I feel like our writers would be inspired to focus on the story of their subject as opposed to the facts. These pieces are lean and focused, they aren’t embellished with words that the writer doesn’t really know.

Simple writing, focusing on story, with a clear audience. A powerful mentor text.

Focusing Presentation of Research – Somewhere along the line, educators have allowed students to develop an unshakeable belief that informational research based writing should be be long, drawn out boring pieces that are a soul crushing burden to write, and a momentous exercise in monotony for us to mark.

So, isn’t this structure a breath of fresh air. Let other courses have biographic profile pieces that nobody likes. Let’s do stuff like this. In my context, this mentor text will be used in a project that focuses their research. I give them a research scaffold that guides their research. These mentor texts, and their structure, focuses how that research is presented.

They are relatively brief. There isn’t room for the page or so where our writers try to compress every single event in the person’s life into the essay, no matter how mundane or irrelevant. The piece is about what makes them special. Those are the pertinent facts which must be shared.

Also, as I’ve already alluded, the narrative format of the piece should serve as a guide to help them choose the material from their research that contributed to a narrative. That may mean a specific planning step, and a good discussion about what that narrative is, but it certainly saves us all from the creation and assessing of the paragraphs about the subject’s elementary school days, which, as remarkable as the person grew up to be, were quite unremarkable, all things considered.

My team and I got really excited about these mentor texts as we were meeting and discussing the things we’re planning to run out the year. They’re doing the Rebel Project for the first time, and will be putting their spins on it. These texts will help them do that. They’ll allow me to inject some new life into a project I love. They connect to other work we’re doing in other courses, which is exciting.

What mentor texts do you use for biographical writing? What other applications for these texts do you see? Do you actively look for ways to inject new life into old standbys in your classroom?

As always, connect with me on Twitter, @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below to connect.

-Jay

 

 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Say Something Nice

Mentor Texts:

The Say Something Nice series at Birth.Movies.Death

Writing Techniques:

  • Criticism
  • Counterargument
  • Tone and Voice

Background – Our students consume a fair amount of pop culture. They’re able to budget their time in such a way that they’re consuming media at an insane pace, binge watching like mad, and watching everything Netflix has to offer in their favorite genre.

So, it stands to reason that they watch a lot of crap.

When we’re talking about these things, at some point during the bashing, I make a point of pointing out that the things we hate the most are someone else’s absolute favorites, and vice versa. It kind of blows their minds, but it highlights a point I really want them to think about as consumers of media, as participants in work with texts of all kinds – there is good in the bad.

As a fan of pop culture, and as a teacher of literature, it’s second nature for me to note the positive aspects in things. I’m either justifying my investment in entertainment, financially, my time, or looking for the teachable moments in a piece. It’s a practice I enjoy personally, but it’s also a thing I think is important for my students to adopt as well. I want them looking for golden lines, magic moments and things that they enjoy, even if the text they’re in stinks. Continue reading

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

Mentor Text Wednesday: BuzzFeed Poetics

Mentor Text:Which Famous Musician Who Died at the Age of 27 are you?  A BuzzFeed Quiz by Eirean Bradley

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetic form
  • Theme
  • Social commentary
  • Presenting research

Background: I decided to use popular culture as the anchor for the Lit course I’m currently teaching. It’s been going quite well. In my prep work for the course, I searched online for as much pop culture related poetry as I could find. I found this poem, which I’ve already used as the basis for a Poetry and Image Pairing, or a PIP, as we call them in class. However, it had gone into my folder for other purposes as well, a possible mentor text.

I like using mentor texts that are a bit different, and thereby may engage my writers. This piece, based around the ubiquitous BuzzFeed quiz caught my attention, as it allows us to not only play with poetry, but to mess around with something that they’ve no doubt seen online. There’s a nice bit of subversion of this inspiration in the poem that would be a wonderful thing for our writers to pick up on, and use in their writing. Continue reading

A Definition-Essay Study: Definition is More Than a Line in a Dictionary

Melissa Surber teaches 11th grade Junior and Senior College Prep English and AP Literature and Composition at Troy Buchanan High School in Troy, Missouri, an hour north of St. Louis. She is in her 18th year of teaching and just recently became National Board Certified. Connect with her at @ELAWordsmith.

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Mentor Texts:

Patton Oswalt Facebook Post

Paper Towns by John Green, excerpt

The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler

Writing Techniques:

  • Ezra Pound Imagery–”An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
  • Personification
  • Narrative
  • Definition
  • Simile/Metaphor

Background:

My commitment to the definition essay is a holdover from my failure on a Comp 2 assignment in college. The definition essay was the one piece of writing that left me flailing. Throughout high school and college, I had mastered the five paragraph essay and could weave snippets of voice into my writing just enough to create a false confidence and make instructors feel like I had a handle on the essay’s subject. Then came the definition essay grinding my writing life to a halt. I wrote about “beauty,” an overused and somewhat trite concept in the first place. For the first time, my thesis, preview, body paragraphs, review, conclusion style of writing utterly failed me. I turned in a modge podge of anecdotes and proverbs. The message from my professor was something like, “I didn’t grade this in order to preserve your well-being.” I went back to the drawing board with definition. In my rewrite, I examined the evolution of beauty over the centuries, still not definition writing, but my professor took pity on me and gave me a C- so I could end my torture.

The definition essay has remained that pest lurking in my past and reminding me of my failure. I went on to try to teach this essay form to Comp 1 students in a four hour night class, which offered me a bit more clarity. Only recently, though, did I begin to discover tools that brought the definition idea into focus and allowed students to explore a concept in a meaningful way.

Over the years, I have made it my mission to help students navigate the perilous world of definition. I don’t want any student to find herself as confounded and unsuccessful in a writing experience as I did my sophomore year of college.

How I Use Mentor Texts:

Getting Started:

When we begin writing, we have just finished 1984 and have discussed how Newspeak was used to redefine and eliminate meaning, so students have already had discussion about the complexity of concepts in our language. I begin by giving students a list of abstract concepts and simply having them quickwrite their definition of the word because “the dictionary never does a word’s meaning justice,” I explain. I direct them to consider their personal definitions. We actually spend an entire class exploring the word and its meaning in society. This year, they shared with me a google slide presentation where they researched and found the following:

  • The definition of the word
  • Three quotations about the word (from well-known people)
  • Three people who exemplify the word (celebrities and fictional)
  • Three memes
  • Three songs/poems about the word

Once they have found all of the above, they analyze the information and write a paragraph or two detailing how they believe society defines the word.

Defining their Understanding:

Now students have their first impression of the word’s meaning and the stereotypical way it is depicted. With this basis, we begin to expand their ideas by using short writing spurts that offer various perspectives.

  • What are the typical examples/situations associated with your word?
    • I encourage students to ask people around them. They make a list of 3-5 typical ideas.
  • With what is your word typically confused? In what ways is your word misused?
    • I give them the typical example of love: I love your shoes vs. I love my son.
  • What would be missing in the world if your word did not exist?

With each writing spurt, students’ understandings of their words grow. This is already way more consideration than I gave the word “beauty” when I first attempted definition writing.

Tapping into Imagination:

I am a huge fan of Tom Newkirk and his book The Art of Slow Reading. While his book is mostly about engaging in the act of reading, he points out time and time again that the beauty of writing, whether in a biology textbook or a novel, rests in the narrative. Story, the narrative, is an integral part of ALL writing. This is a principle I repeat to my students. We will never abandon writing technique, i.e. narrative, imagery, figurative language. Given that, we take their ever expanding definition of their chosen concept and begin to explore it in various other imaginative ways. Enter mentor texts!

  • First, students think about a time in their lives when this concept was the center of a moment. They hone in on the most intense part of that moment and tell the story. I remind them they can’t create a whole personal narrative because this narrative will only be part of a whole piece of writing.
  • Then I give them Patton Oswalt’s Facebook post. He posted this 102 days after his wife unexpectedly died. It’s beautiful and sad (and riddled with profanity so edit at your discretion) and describes grief in real, raw, and vivid detail. We read it and discuss his tone and format.

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Most students recognize that talking directly to the concept intensifies the emotion of the passage. Then I challenge them to create writing that directly reflects Patton’s piece. Here’s what I wrote with them:

Thanks, wonder.

Thanks for making curiosity look like the Hatchimal cast haphazardly in the corner. Curiosity is the newest fad toy causing desperate parents to trample store employees to snatch it from the shelf only to watch their child play with it for five minutes before growing bored.

But wonder? Wonder is the refrigerator cardboard box destined for the trashcan that caused the kid to stomp on his Hatchimal as he raced to rescue it from its impending doom. Wonder makes curiosity the thrift store toy some child no longer wanted.

If you spend a moment concentrating, you discover. The lyrics to a catchy tune, the humor in a viral meme, the horror of the latest terror attack, the excitement of the ending of a novel, the warmth of an “I love you” text message. The flutter of new beginnings. The warmth of a steady relationship.

But spend a moment with wonder and it feels like resuscitation and you have breath and oxygen. You will see vibrance. You will not feel content. You will not feel normal. You will not be bored or tired or “wishing you were somewhere else.” You will have a rejuvenation, renewal and a new appreciation for the beauty of nature and the sky. And you’ll also realize that one moment of wonder will begin an addiction that will need to be fed continuously.

You can see how great this form is for creating definition. I didn’t end up using all of the above in my final product, but I used quite a bit of it. Students loved what they wrote using Oswalt’s format.

  • From there, we move to John Green’s excerpt from Paper Towns. Green is a beautiful writer and highly accessible to teenagers, so I often travel to him when guiding students’ writing. In the excerpt below, he describes fear.

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We discuss how John Green is describing his definition of fear and distinguishing it from other beliefs about it. I suggest that this could be an excellent way for students to segue into their narratives in their definition paper. Then we do what has become commonplace in my class, we write using Green’s excerpt as a guide. Here’s what came of my attempt:

Sitting there holding that baby, I realized something about wonder. I realized it is not the far-fetched dreams of riches and luxury, even if these items may cause excitement. It is not the anxiousness of the first day of school, and not the relief of the last day of school. Wonder cannot be confined to a schedule. It bore no resemblance to any excitement I knew before. It was the purest of all emotions, the feeling that accompanies us in our happiest memories. This is the wonder that steals one’s breath for a brief moment, that suspends time, the wonder that makes people freeze in astonishment.

  • Finally, and probably the biggest stretch for students to make, I share with students excerpts for Ruth Gendler’s book, The Book of Qualities. Gendler describes concepts as full fledged people with clothes, actions, and personalities. She manages to delve into the intricacies of a concept by attributing human characteristics to it. I suspect I first stumbled upon her book somewhere on the Moving Writers website. Students and I read Gendler’s personifications together and then work to create our own. These have come to be some of the most thoughtful and entertaining parts of the definition piece. Mine turned out this way:

When Wonder appears, she wears gauzy dresses that whisper to the wind; her skirt twirls in fantastic swirls as she spins to view the world around her. Her eyes shine and reflect the beauty of the vistas around her. Her voice murmurs in trills and hums, compelling people to lean in, to focus solely on her. It draws others close, and when she smiles, her red lips twist into curly cues of question marks, making people long to be with her longer, to discover more about her. She gestures in large sweeping motions, as if every conversation is an invitation to dance and frolic in a fantasy world of her making. Wonder’s visits are brief, and most who know her are left only to plan their next encounter with her.

Turning Parts into a Whole:

Once students have created all of these parts, they have to figure out how to put them together in a meaningful way. I explain that a definition essay should do the following: provide a multi-faceted approach to the word, have a personal/emotional connection, and offer readers ideas they can relate to in an intriguing way. Students then have to choose which of the parts to include (the narrative portion is required) and what order to include them. This approach has influenced students to produce thoughtful writing, and I feel confident that the definition essay will not blindside them if and when they encounter it.

 

Have you tried writing definition essays with your students? What tips can you share? How might students explore this genre in your class or in other content areas? Tweet Melissa @elawordsmith or leave a comment below !

Mentor Text Wednesday: “so much depends…”

Mentor Text: “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

Writing Techniques:

  • Poetic form
  • Focusing on main idea
  • Brevity

Background: Last year, I made a conscious decision to dedicate April’s Mentor Text Wednesday posts to poetry, in honor of it being National Poetry Month. I plan to continue that tradition.

This week, I want to share my thoughts about this simple, and beautiful poem. I love it, but I also love how it engages, perplexes and challenges students.

As I shared last year, my Grade 10 students create OUPAs, or Original Unique Poetry Anthologies. We recycle old books, giving them interesting new titles, and covers. Then, throughout the course, we regularly add new poems to them, using a poetic form, or pieces of poetry as a mentor text. It’s a pretty engaging activity, and a tradition I love having in my classroom.

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My favorite result in an interesting image search… via ENG106

One of the first poems I used as a mentor text this year was this William Carlos Williams classic. (If you click through to last year’s post about the OUPA, you’ll see that I reference this poem there too. I’m going deeper on it this year!) I have long had a soft spot for this poem, and the way that students react to it. It’s a great way to deconstruct preconceived notions of what poetry is, and it’s a simple piece for them to model original pieces upon. There is a lot of great discussion.

 

However, the more I think about this little poem, the more applications that I see for it. Continue reading

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

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

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