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

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

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

 

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Tweet-o-graphic

Mentor Text: Women of Isis Infographic by Karishma Sheth & Thomas Alberty

Writing Techniques:

  • Editing
  • Purpose
  • Presentation

Background:

I’m a huge fan of The Best American Series. As a reader, and a teacher, I find them valuable beyond compare. There are a handful, such as poetry, non-required reading, short stories and science-fiction and fantasy, that have become annual purchases for me. Others I get when I see a good deal, since I don’t have the Best American Paycheck.

the-best-american-infographics-2015-bookOne I picked up a couple months ago was The Best American Infographics 2015. I hoped that it would be a great classroom resource, as well as a very interesting read. Of course, I haven’t had time to actually read it all yet.

However, since it’s a visual text, I did what many of us do, and flipped through it, looking for what popped. A lot of it does, which makes sense, as that is kind of the purpose of infographics, right?

One infographic, however, popped out and screamed “Take me to class tomorrow!” and that was the one I’m writing about today. In this infographic, the creators arranged a series of tweets from a single subject, in this case, a young woman’s tweets about joining ISIS. My students had just completed research, and we were looking at various pieces we could include in a multigenre project. Seeing an opportunity to show them a new research skill, as well as a different way to share information, I hopped on it. Continue reading