Recommended Reading: Lynda Barry

If you’ve taken note of my Twitter handle, you might be curious about where it comes from. I didn’t join Twitter as a teacher, and my initial avatar was a drawing I did of a stuffed monkey that used to travel with my wife and I wherever we went. Being drawn to artistic pursuits, and travelling with a stuffed monkey, it made sense to adopt the handle @doodlinmunkyboy and roll with it.

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A page from What It Is

It’s a different handle than most teachers have, as it doesn’t necessarily reflect my “teacher identity” as a high school English teacher. It actually speaks more to my artistic leanings, though I have taught art as well.

Some of my posts here at Moving Writers have highlighted my interest in focusing on the visual elements of the language arts. Though we often focus on reading and writing, viewing and representing deserve, in my opinion, development and practice. I’ve drawn quite heavily on my interests in art and design, as well as my experience as an artist and art teacher to make this happen in my class.

I am well aware that this notion is daunting for many teachers. If we don’t self-identify as artists, we feel ill-prepared to encourage our students to play and explore that side of literacy. I totally get that!

Recently, I dropped a quick recommendation of a book that I’ve used in my classroom recently. I’ve thought about that brief mention, and would like to expand upon it. There are two books that I use in my classroom that are invaluable resources in pushing the creative limits of ourselves as teachers, and the efforts of our students.

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Syllabus one of my favorite teaching books (image via Drawn & Quarterly)

Cartoonist, author and teacher Lynda Barry has created many wonderful things, but it is her teaching books that have become very important to me. I have read all three of them: What It Is, Picture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, and keep What It Is and Syllabus close by, alongside my Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher books. Let’s be honest, someone who’s official title is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity absolutely has to have great ideas, right?

I recommend these books to my English teacher friends because they are a blueprint to helping students find a path to expressing themselves visually. Many of the core ideas about creativity and artistic attitude that I worked to instill in my art students years ago are laid out in these texts. Barry lays out exercises to help students develop, while also encouraging them to embrace their innate talents, whatever they may be. If you’re a teacher who wants to have students sketching as part of their writing process, and aren’t sure how to go about it, it’s a great blueprint. The drawing jam from Syllabus has been invaluable the last few years as we study graphic novels, and work on graphic storytelling. After running through a couple weeks of drawing to start the class, students develop confidence in what they can create, an acceptance that they can do something that works artistically, even if it isn’t necessarily of the caliber of the art they see in the graphic novels we study.

I recommend these books to English teachers because there are so many activities in them that are invaluable in the idea generating stages of the writing process. In What It Is Barry shares ways to get writers to (literally) draw from their own experiences. They’ll pay attention to their day for ideas, or reflect upon people they’ve known to find characters to write. These exercises combine visuals and text, giving them material from which to write. They are engaging ways to generate ideas, so much more lively than sitting in front of the blank page, waiting for inspiration.

I recommend these books for their mentor text potential. In What It Is Barry includes a collection of pieces in which she creates pieces that explore some big, rhetorical and inquiry style questions through a combination of art, collage and text. They’re engaging pieces that have students represent their thoughts and ideas. There’s no thesis, no body paragraphs, or the conventional features we expect when students work with these kinds of questions… there is simply the wondering, the exploring, the attempts to answer, presented in an interesting way. Much more interesting to mark!

I recommend these books because using them allows students to have fun. Have you broken out some crayons in a high school classroom lately? It takes the students right back. If you think asking students to draw a castle in two minutes, then one minute, then 30 seconds, and finally 15 seconds doesn’t create a buzz… And that fun is engaging. We go from laughing about our castles to talking about how we established criteria for what makes a castle, and how we could express that idea succinctly. From fun to important learning in a single exercise. Maybe we do this a few times, with dragons, unicorns and portraits of our teacher before we have that chat. If we do, we’ve strengthened the connection between expressing oneself creatively and fun, which is also a big win.

Before I bought these books, I had discovered Barry online. Her Tumblr page is a treasure trove, as it is essentially the course website for ‘The Unthinkable Mind,’ the course she teaches at the University of Wisconsin. It’s loaded with activities, ideas and exemplars, and well worth a visit. I just took a look at the first page, as I haven’t been there in a while, and I noted a handful of things I’d like to try in my Creative Writing course next semester.

These texts are unconventional in many ways, which is what makes them, in my opinion, so important for us to have. I love handing them to someone to check out, and the conversation that comes afterwards. Creativity is an important part of what we do in our English classrooms, and they encourage that in a natural and holistic manner. They’re wonderful guides for visual expression and literacy, which can be challenging to teach. Most of all, they’re catalysts for fun in your classroom, a way to play as part of learning, which is very important in our work.

Have you used Barry’s work in your classes? How? What’s a go-to text of yours that we might not know about?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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Mentor Text Wednesday: The Writer’s Bio

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text: Author Biographies from various anthologies

Writing Techniques:

  • Biographical writing
  • Brevity
  • Voice
  • Writing for social media

Background:

It was last period, the day before Spring Break began. My Lit Focus class was writing or reading. They didn’t need me at the moment, so I did what I often do in that moment — I grabbed something to read. I headed to the bookshelf of poetry, knowing that I was planning to hit the poetry pretty hard with my Grade 10s, and after the break, we’d be in April, Poetry Month.

I grabbed Aloud: Voices From the Nuyorican Poets Café from the shelf, and headed for my desk. I grabbed some sticky notes to mark poems I wanted to add to my poetry notebook, and popped my feet up. Aloud had been a thrift store snag last summer, but I hadn’t looked in it yet. I flipped at random, and found a couple of beautiful poems.

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Image via blog.bookrix.com

However, there was less than an hour left before the holiday, and I was likely the least focused individual in the room. I flipped around the book listlessly, until it opened to the pages of poet bios, and this entry leapt out at me.

 

“Yo, Pauly! PAULY ARROYO, autentico nuyorriqueno, nineteen years on the scene Low Ball Slam Champ, icon, Black belt karate, black belt poetry.”

 

And I was pretty blown away by that. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Feature Article

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text:

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative presentation of learning and research
  • Combining different kinds of writing
  • Writing extended pieces
  • Discussing layout and presentation

 

Background:

This week’s column is a bit different.

As I was working on this column recently, I was reflecting upon some of the things that I try to do in my classroom, and the things I value. Critical thinking, and a willingness to explore ideas are very important to me. As an English teacher, I feel I have the best curriculum, as it gives me a wide-open field of opportunity, and many ways to meet my outcomes – all of which I can tie back to thinking and learning.

I’ve been working quite hard lately to find ways to handle the notion of research-based writing. Generally, it becomes the role of the traditional academic essay to fulfill this need for us as teachers. Which means I get to teach something which many people bang on the table about, trumpeting about The Right Way To Write This.

I hate that. If one writes well, and with passion, then they can fit whatever standard we throw at them. I guess I’m presupposing here that you also feel that there is no Right Way To Write anything, just a way that is acceptable for each teacher or professor. I do cover academic writing, but I make it clear up front that it is for academic purposes, and that step one of any academic writing task is to learn the taskmaster’s Right Way To Write.

A strategy that I’ve been using instead is the writing of a feature article. This idea is not something I came up with in isolation. In 2014, I was lucky enough to hear Penny Kittle speak at our provincial PD day, and this was one of the ideas that she shared with us. I’ve taken her suggestions, and worked it into a version for my classes.

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How This Works For Me:

Creative presentation of learning and research — Idea generation is a first stage. I actually like to distance these two tasks, the research and the writing, a bit. The students are aware of the task, but I stress that generating ideas, and discovering what we want to say is it’s own task. The issue, in my opinion with so much of the research writing that we have students do, and subsequently, need to mark, is that students are too often trying to do two key tasks at once — figure out what they’re saying, and trying to say it. I simply tell them we focus on the learning first, and we’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of the writing later. We decide what we’re going to research, and begin that process. Sometimes, I give them parameters for topics, but other times, we can explore what interests us.

Combining different kinds of writing–Much of the research process is the same, and I scaffold it well. In their research, I have them try to keep in mind that they will be looking for information that helps them do three kinds of writing:

  • Informational writing – They need to share information, and help their reader understand their chosen topic. This is as close as they hew to the traditional academic essay.
  • Narrative writing – Humans are a story species. Even as we learn, we like to have a narrative to our learning. Sometimes it gives it a human face, sometimes it makes it interesting.
  • Persuasive writing – There should be a purpose for our writing, and we should be trying to pull people towards our bias.

The beautiful thing is that the students start to see the overlap between these three types of writing, and see that they support each other, as well as help the writer communicate effectively. We build focus questions, and discuss frequently how we want the writing to unfold, and what we want to communicate.

Writing extended pieces

Then, we spend some time with magazines. I keep a bin of Rolling Stone in my room, and I raid the periodicals section of our library. As they’ve been researching, I’ve been dropping articles on them all along anyway, but they need to sit, and study what happens in a feature style article. I present them with a broad range of stuff, and we discuss the key features. They get to see how the narrative, persuasive and informational writing works together, as well as seeing how visual elements are used as well. This gives not only our notes for writing, but gives us an idea of what things should look like when we’re done.

Then, we write. That process looks different for each writer, as it should. Some outline, some simply hammer it down. Some weave the three types of writing I expect to see right from the start, others write it as three separate pieces and edit it together. There’s a lot of discussion and sharing, questions and conferring. Some students need a lot of support, others just need you to unlock the classroom door. I tell them at this time to focus on creating that first draft, to get it on paper and we’ll fix it later.

Discussing layout and presentation — Invariably, there’s a panicked moment when they realize that I’m asking them to write what may be their longest piece of writing. They freak out. I generally ask for a 5-7 page piece. I’ve been working on sneaking the length of our writing pieces up across the board, but building a “do more” culture is challenging. We pull a magazine article and look at it. This chat really becomes about the layout. When we start considering images, titles, pull-quotes and sidebars, we’ve got that 5-7 pages whittled to the 3-5 page range. There are sighs of relief, and we go back into the work, focusing on augmenting the piece for layout.

This big writing task has served me well the last couple of years. Our school decided to fold a Global Issues course into English. I’ve used the Global Issues material as the source for our feature articles, having students pick something from that material as the basis of their articles. This year, it was a semester long project, and we used our Thursdays to research and write. I love this task, and have found a place for it in my Grade 11 classroom. It builds upon many things that I’ve pulled together over the years, and, in my opinion, is one of my most important projects students do in the time they spend with me.

What are other creative ways that we can have students present their research and writing? How else can magazine articles be used as mentor texts in our classrooms?

— Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

Mentor Text Wednesday: Difficult Conversations

Mentor Text: from King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry

Writing Techniques:

  • Dealing with controversial viewpoints
  • Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)
  • Developing character
  • Creative presentation of learning and research

Background:

One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. I’ve referenced him as editor of a pair of great X-Files anthologies. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I suggest his Rot & Ruin series for young adults at every opportunity. (Trust me, it’s genius! If your kids love zombies, turn them on to this series.) He also writes one of my favorite series for bigger kids, like me, the Joe Ledger series. The new entry in that series, Kill Switch, comes out next month. Essentially the series is about Ledger, a Jack Bauer-esque character who leads field operations for the Department of Military Sciences, an organization that deals with all kinds of crazy science fiction terrorist stuff. Great action, great writing, great fun.

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Image via jonathanmaberry.com

The last book in the series, Predator One, featured a plot in which the bad guys managed to use drone technology, and autonomous vehicle software against us. It struck me then, that Maberry may have been using his great little action novel as a bit of a soapbox of sorts to comment on our society’s reliance on technology. As I embarked on a re-read of the series this winter, mostly to psych myself up for the new one, I realized that Maberry had peppered many such moments throughout the series. The books are frequently written form Ledger’s viewpoint. He has to rationalize many terrible things he must do, and try to makes sense of the terrible things others do. His voice, if we read it as Ledger’s or Maberry’s, shows the reader how he does that. There are actually many instances of this via Ledger, and other characters, throughout the series.

While re-reading King of Plagues, a passage struck me. In this passage, Toys, top henchman of an evil genius, and Santoro, vicious assassin serving another evil genius, discuss the nature of evil, and the idea of morality in their work. In their chat, they discuss, to compare things, the relative evils of Alexander the Great and Adolf Hitler. In short, they discuss the subjectivity of calling something evil. It is based upon comparisons, as well as the views and values that one holds.

Now, I’ve heard students making the same kinds of arguments in discussions about tricky topics. When we were studying society through literature this year, there was a lot of discussion about totalitarian regimes, such as the Nazi party. It takes a lot of confidence for students to share their thoughts. Part of this is because they’re young, and haven’t totally figured those thoughts out. I think that a writing exercise in which two characters discuss a topic is actually a strong way for students to work through these difficult ideas.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Dealing with controversial viewpoints––In this mentor text, two characters discuss something pretty controversial. Though we, as readers, assume that these thoughts belong to the writer, that isn’t necessarily the case. This is where one of the most promising aspects of this mentor text lies for me. The students get to write in character. They can use a character’s voice and opinions to express the idea. They can ruminate, and remove themselves from it to a certain extent. One of the tricky things about young people is that they’re in flux. Their ideas are evolving, and though some are very confident, many aren’t. An idea I love about young people writing, is that their writing is a process of thinking out loud, on paper. They can try things on, and see how they fit. And ultimately, they can distance themselves from the thoughts, if they see fit, because they have written in the voice of a character.
  •         Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)––Though Toys and Santoro are both bad dudes, they explore different sides of an issue. This exploratory element is another of this mentor text’s strengths. When we teach debate, one of the hardest things we do is to get the students to see past the opinion that they already hold. However, the act of writing this conversation would necessitate looking at a different viewpoint. Again, because it is fiction, it may be easier to do this. Their hero could write the opinion the student holds, and they could write a villain that feels otherwise. This simple act of disassociation could be key in having a student express a different viewpoint. Using a different voice than their own, that of a Devil’s Advocate, is not only a good exercise in writing, but it is a vital exercise in critical thinking.
  •         Developing character––There’s that old expression about not discussing politics and religion right? If you think of it, part of the reason that expression persists is because it is in our sharing of how we feel about certain controversial topics, we reveal aspects of our character. So, why wouldn’t we use this in our writing?

MINOR SPOILER WARNING! The character Toys struggles a bit with the morality of what is being done, and what he himself has been a part of. In contrasting him with Santoro, Maberry is able to start Toys onto what may be a path toward redemption. At the very least, Toys isn’t the worst bad guy at that table! END SPOILER

I love the notion that our writers could have a character take a stance on an issue to help establish their character. Perhaps I love the notion, because like so many things we do as teachers, this isn’t really about what shows up on the page, but the critical thinking our writers would have to do to make it happen — they need to have done enough critical thinking to know what expression of ideas would create the desired feelings about their character.

  •         Creative presentation of learning and research–– Writing is a fantastic way to express our learning. However, we sometimes do it a disservice when we tie ideas to a single kind of writing. Academic writing is often seen as the place to discuss contentious issues, and to choose and explain the sides. But looking at the mentor text, it’s clear that this piece is based upon knowledge. Maberry knows about Hitler and Alexander the Great. He’s aware of human rights violations in China, and what Confucianism has to say about them. Could our writers not do the same? Choose any hot topic, and have the students write a conversation between two people on opposite sides of it, fueling that conversation with their research. Imagine, a pro-lifer and a pro-choicer get stuck beside each other on a crowded plane, and calmly discuss the issues. Supporters of two idealistically divided political parties get trapped in an elevator at a convention. A pair of people on either side of the gun debate are stuck together at a kid’s birthday party. (Clearly, I’m aware that differing opinions don’t always mix well, since I’m trying really hard to put them into situations where they can’t have a fistfight.) I’ve made a point lately of connecting the research process to other tasks than standard academic essay info-dump.

Obviously, Maberry isn’t the first writer to have his characters have difficult conversations. However, I’m a huge fan, and it was his work that inspired me to use this type of conversation as a mentor text. Critical thinking is at the heart of much of what I do as a teacher, and Maberry’s work often gives me food for thought of my own. It would be selfish not to share it with students, wouldn’t it?

What kinds of difficult conversations do you want your students to write? What issues can they write about that would establish their characters? What other texts can you think of where a character shares their ideas in a similar way?

––Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

Mentor Text Wednesday: Roadrunner Rules

Mentor Text: Chuck Jones’ rules for writing Roadrunner cartoons

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing using guidelines
  • Creating guidelines for a piece of writing
  • As an analysis tool

Background:

As I’ve stated before, one of the coolest things about the ol’ Internet is the random and amazing things it pops in front of your eyeballs. This winds up being especially helpful if you’re a teacher, doubly so if you’re a teacher writing a weekly column.

A while ago, someone’s tweet brought an image of the rules that Chuck Jones, famed Warner Bros. cartoonist, had for the writing of the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.

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Image via Amos Posner on Twitter

Initially, I thought of this as a really cool thing about something I loved as a kid. Then, TeacherBrain got a hold of it, muttering something about how cool it would be to use in class.

Let’s be honest, TeacherBrain was right. How could I not use this in a classroom?!

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Writing Using Guidelines––In an earlier post, I talked about an idea similar to this, using a set of rules to guide a piece of writing within a certain universe. In this case, the rules are already written for us. I’m positive you’d win Cool Teacher of the Week if you “studied” Roadrunner cartoons, discussed these rules and wrote Roadrunner stories. When we think of our writers, especially those that intend to move on as writers, we need to be cognizant of the fact that they will continue to be faced with this type of task – needing to write a story that fits guidelines. These rules seem silly, but we learn pretty quickly that if we break them, we wind up with a story that isn’t really what it should be.

Rules serve to give structure. As I said already, they’ll hem in our wilder writers, prevent them from crossing lines, and taking their writing to crazy places that may not work. They can, however, be great supports to our struggling writers. They can serve as a checklist. A student writing a Roadrunner story will know that they need to keep the Roadrunner on the road, and that they can’t hurt the coyote too much, unless it’s in the feels! Most TV shows have teams of writers, and they have a “show bible” for this very purpose, to provide a cohesive structure to the writing a group of writers does.

  •         Creating guidelines for a piece of writing––As much as we may hate to admit it, stories need rules. If we think of our young writers, we know that there is nothing more damaging to their narratives than those random touches they want to throw in there. How many times have you seen a character suddenly have amazing abilities, for no other reason than your writer thought it would be funny? In our classroom story project, I had to remind a group of boys that their characters weren’t assassins who could just up and kill the matriarch of their small town… yet. As I mentioned in that earlier column, a great activity might be to discuss these rules, establishing what can, and can’t happen in the stories we’re about to write. Certainly, it could save us some edits in the process.

In short, if we’re all going to write in the same world, we better figure out what writing in that world means. We need to establish, as a class ideally, what our stories will be about, what can happen, and what can’t.

  •         As an analysis tool––This is a weird part of teaching writing. We need to look at writing, and figure out how it works. By looking at an established set of rules, we get an insight into how the story works.Asking why each rule exists would be a valuable task as well – what is the result in the story of each rule, and how does it contribute to the story?

Writing the rules is an activity in analysis as well. We’d have to look at, and assess the stories being told to decide what the rules are. In doing so, we’d be making some pretty big decisions about how things are done in our stories, influencing plot, setting, characterization, and obviously the action.

Again, as I finish writing this, I’m reflecting upon the potential this has in a classroom. Not only would I like to use this one in my classroom, but I’d also love to get my hands on one or two of the show bibles from some of my favorite shows for mentor text purposes too.

What other uses can you see for the Roadrunner Rules in your classroom? Are there other sets of rules that you’re aware of? Would there be value in studying these rules, and then breaking them on purpose?

––Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Hometown Songs

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Mentor Texts:

My Hometown – Bruce Springsteen

One Great City! – The Weakerthans

A Love Song to the City – Kalle Mattson

Wessex Boy – Frank Turner

Maritimes – Classified

These are links to YouTube videos for the songs. Here are the lyrics.

Writing Techniques:

  • memoir (writing about a place)
  • addressing stereotypes
  • writing critically about a place
  • creating tone or mood
  • lyrics as a form

Background:

Most music fans will openly admit to one album being an awakening––the one that showed them what music could be. The album for me was Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. That summer spent listening to it with my uncle was one of my favorites, and I’m not sure if it was the events or that album.

A song that always stuck with me was “My Hometown.” I grew up in Nova Scotia, a part of Canada that relies pretty heavily on the use of natural resources. That means that towns were often subject to the ups and downs of markets, of supply and demand. As a young man, I really got what Springsteen was saying about loving your town, but knowing it was hurting.I have so many vivid memories of drives through towns that felt like I was in a music video for that song.

When I left Nova Scotia as an adult, and moved to Manitoba, I discovered The Weakerthans. John K. Samson is a phenomenal songwriter, and I’ve no doubt that his work will grace this column again. The album they released as I moved here featured the song “One Great City!” named for the slogan that once graced the welcoming signs to the province’s capital, Winnipeg. The song, with its capturing of images of the city, explores the love-hate relationship we have with places. (Samson has a song called “Heart of the Continent,” which is what the signs now read in Winnipeg.)

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.48.49 AMImage via uniter.ca

In a Twitter edchat last year, we got talking about this notion of using music in the classroom. Though I haven’t embraced it fully, I have this vision of my students writing memoir pieces inspired by the songs I’ve listed above. I think this would be especially poignant for Grade 12 students, as many of them will be leaving their hometowns soon after the school year ends.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Memoir (writing about a place)––Springsteen, Mattson and the Weakerthans do a lovely job of capturing the love-hate relationship we have with our hometowns, whether we’ve been there our whole lives, or we’ve adopted them. There are things that make us sad, like struggling industry. (They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks) There are inexplicable reasons that we still love the place (In a hometown/You can’t let go). Some of the things that our town stakes their claim to fame upon are tacky, or are gone. (The Guess Who sucked, the Jets were lousy anyway). Perhaps, like in Classified’s song, we’re tired of being seen as a collection of stereotypes. We get frustrated and angry (I hate Winnipeg), yet whatever happens, we have this weird sense of belonging (I’m a Wessex Boy and when I’m here I’m home or Either way it goes I’m still reppin’ for my coast man). In different ways, these songs give us a way into writing about where we live. We can grumble about it, or we can celebrate it. Students could pull lines that they like, and use them to inspire their own pieces. The Springsteen, Mattson and Weakerthans pieces highlight both the things that are “typical” in their respective towns, while highlighting how things have changed. This is a good model for the students––what’s the big thing in town, and what’s changed?
  •         Addressing Stereotypes––Obviously, Classified’s lyrics are the most overt example of this. Though a bit NSFW, he does a really good job of expressing how folks from outside the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) see the people that live there. (That’s how we do it down here / Least that’s how you think we do it down here) I think it would be neat, in writing about where we live, to discuss those stereotypes that exist, and then debunk them.
  •         Writing Critically About A Place––In my opinion, one of Springsteen’s greatest strengths as a songwriter is his ability to write critically about the subject. You can feel that in “My Hometown.” He feels a sense of belonging to that town, was told by his father, and tells his son that this is their hometown, but that pride rings false doesn’t it? He points out so many of the things about the town that are bleak. Samson captures so many tiny vignettes of what makes Winnipeg maddening: late buses, stalled cars, crowds, a dying part of the city. Samson has repeatedly stated that this song is tongue-in-cheek, and he loves Winnipeg, but he so wonderfully criticizes it in these lyrics, doesn’t he?
  •         Creating Tone or Mood––The beauty of using songs as mentor texts is that you have the extra element of the music. In these songs, the music works the hardest at establishing the tone, and mood of the pieces. Springsteen, Mattson and The Weakerthans haven’t quite created dirges, but there is certainly a melancholy tone created by their voices, and the instrumental accompaniment. Conversely, Turner and Classified create a celebratory mood with their songs. I’d begin by discussing the tone of the music with students as we look at these, but I would then move into how the lyrics deepen that tone or mood. What do the songwriters say that builds this? What mood works best for how we feel about our home? It would be interesting to point out that Mattson is much less specific than the others, and discuss the fact that his song ties more into his feelings in general than his feelings about his city per se. However, as they are likely all too aware, how you feel colours how you see the place you are.
  •         Using lyrics as a form–– Songwriting fascinates me. It shares many elements with poetry, yet seems so, so different. I haven’t yet had students writing songs, but I suspect that’s because I haven’t figured out how to tell them to write lyrics without them thinking I want them to write music, too. With that being said, I love the idea of them having a refrain, or repeated phrase in their pieces. Each of these songs has a line or two that they come back to, almost like they’re restating their thesis. I’d like to see my students writing like this when they write that piece about where they’re from, coming back to a refrain, and working to establish imagery, tone and mood to make that refrain, their thesis of sorts, resonate.

I’ve been using music in my classroom for years, to listen to, but also to analyze as a text. Though I’ve been rolling the idea of using a couple of these songs as inspiration, I’ve never actually worked hard to tap into their potential as a mentor text. As I write, listening to music of course, I’m making notes to myself, because I’m realizing how many of the things I’d like my students to write can be realized lyrically. It might be time to put on some records and make new mentor text lists.

What other songs can we add to this cluster of “hometown song” mentor texts? Can we create a “hometown song” playlist that includes other genres of music? What are some other places we can use lyrics as a mentor text?

–Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

Mentor Text Wednesday: Chris Prunckle’s Wannabe, A Visual Review

Mentor Text: Chris Prunckle’s Wannabe

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing reviews
  • Integrating art and writing

Background:

I’ve openly admitted that I’m a big music fan. That puts a certain type of writing into my social media feeds and browsing. A fantastic alt-country band, Lucero, tweeted a link that brought this week’s mentor texts to my attention.

Chris Prunckle draws, and writes, Wannabe, a comic strip which he has of late converted into a six panel strip that reviews an album. I fell in love right away.

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Image via wannabethecomic.tumblr.com Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Berlanti Opening Monologue

 

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts: Arrow Opening Monologue (Season 1)

Arrow Opening Monologue (Season 2)

The Flash Opening Monologue (Season 1)

The Flash Opening Monologue (Season 2)

Supergirl Opening Monologue

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Opening Monologue

Writing Techniques:

  •         Creating character
  •         Writing exposition
  •         Establishing setting, mood, and tone
  •         Preparing to write in media res
  •         Brevity

Background:

Somehow, as a teacher and a parent, I find a way to watch TV sometimes. I realized recently, that almost every show that I watch has a superhero in it.

And, I realized that four of them come from the same creator. Greg Berlanti is an acclaimed writer and producer, most notable to current audiences for his work on the DC Comics shows Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Personally, I feel that in these shows, particularly The Flash and Supergirl, he has created some of the finest superhero storytelling on the small screen. The characters are rich, and you care about them. The action is great, and the stories are pretty strong. Things are inclusive, and though it may feel bogged down, at times, in the love lives of the spandex set, the writing doesn’t fall prey to the alpha male tropes of comic books past.

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Image via advocate.com

As I was playing some catch-up on these shows after work, I realized that each of these shows had an amazingly similar opening, which I’ve taken to calling the Berlanti Opening Monologue. I had a moment, I’ll be honest, when binge-watching, when I found this annoying, but when I had the whole week’s worth of these shows to catch up on, right after the winter break in programming, I came to appreciate that introduction, reminding of the tone and spirit of the show I was watching.

Taking these into the classroom, I would show the videos of each monologue, asking the students to note the similarities and differences. The Berlanti Opening Monologue generally includes the same basic material. The hero:

  • Identifies him or herself, distinguishing between his/her secret identity and superhero name.
  • Briefly, and somewhat vaguely, references his/her powers.
  • Gives the tiniest bit of exposition, including backstory and motivation.
  • Mentions, where applicable, his/her “team.”
  • Mention, if needed, what his/her non-hero life is like.
  • In later seasons, the heroes may mention key plot arcs that impact the present day of the show.

That’s a lot in 30 seconds or so. Comparing them side by side like this, though, highlights the commonalities. As well, the differences, for fans especially, will hint at the tone of the show, which could be a neat discussion all its own. I like that they’re almost exactly the same, but different enough to be noticed. This, in my mind, is what makes them a nice mentor set.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Characterization––My initial plan for these is to use them when we do some work with superheroes in Grade 10. I like the idea of students writing these types of monologues as they develop a superhero of their own. One of the places superhero storytelling gets bogged down is in the origin story. I’ve noticed this especially when having students create their own hero. Either they get really convoluted, and overdo the origin, or they underdo it, and skip to the action stuff they’re excited for, and we’re trying to figure out exactly who the heck Captain Knucklehead is. Given the Berlanti Opening Monologue pattern, they would need to nail down a handful of specific details – enough to establish a base for their hero to go off and have adventures, or hang around for a full origin story.
  •         Exposition––I see a lot of use for the Berlanti Opening Monologue with young writers dealing with exposition. I absolutely love the brevity of it. As a fan of these shows, I love that they condense the important stuff you need to get into a brief introduction that’s pretty much entirely exposition. Having students do this as a writing exercise would be valuable – simply put, they’d need to give you a quick blast of exposition. Who’s the character, what’s our tone, what’s the setup? Having that list of things that need to be included, capping them at a couple of sentences per item… I can see that benefiting our writers who might go mad with their pencils, while still providing a structure and plan to support those that need it to get any amount of writing done.
  •         In media res––Consider the challenge of having students write in media res. If they write their opening monologue on a separate page, then they’ve established a lot of things already. I love the opportunity that this provides to guide writers. How many of us wind up reading pieces in which our students spend a lot of time on exposition that isn’t integral to the action of the piece they’re writing? Let’s give them a frame for that, something that allows them to establish those things quickly, and that can be “edited” out of their core piece.
  •         Voice––Since they’re delivered by the actors playing these heroes, these pieces have voice. That voice does lie in the words. Barry Allen is pretty psyched to be The Flash, and Supergirl is kind of enjoying using her powers. That comes across in their opening monologues. Oliver Queen is a darker, gloomier hero, and his monologue reflects this, as does Rip Hunter’s in Legends of Tomorrow. Our writers could take cues from this, presenting their protagonist as an up, positive person, or a curmudgeon. We could even suggest to them that they try different approaches, seeing what fits for the hero they want to write. Since these monologues are brief, it could be a couple of quick writes accomplished before they get into the middle of their pieces, and discover that they want a different tone.
  •         World Building––In a previous post, I suggested the notion of students writing about the same piece of pop culture. In this case, they could all write about the same superhero. These monologues would be quite beneficial in this activity, as they would establish the world, the tone… the things we’d need to anchor our stories in the same world.
  •         Brevity––As a teacher of writing, it sounds kind of funny to be pitching brevity as something we’d teach. We spend a lot of time getting our writers to expand, don’t we? However, they need to flex both sets of writing muscles, and I think writing something that delivers a whole bunch of exposition in a short amount of time would be a good exercise.
  •         Biopics––If we take our storytelling into a digital realm, wouldn’t it be neat to have students create short biographical videos in which they capture their lives, and realities, accompanied by their own Berlanti Opening Monologue?

Television has become one of our most universal storytelling mediums. I’ve made a point of using it in my classroom when I can, as a text to be studied, and as a source of story. Now that I’ve been using the idea of mentor texts, I guess it was only a matter of time before I figured out a way to use this medium in that way too.

What other applications do you see for these monologues? Are there other shows that employ a device that we could use as a mentor text? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy.

 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Rock ‘N Roll Satire

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts:  

Chuck Ragan to Receive Lifesaving Flannel Transplant by Steven Kowalski

Metallica Sues 8th Grader Over Hand-Drawn Logo on Notebook by JJ Handbag

Writing Technique(s):

  •         Writing satire

Background:

Like most of us, my Twitter feed is a lot of education related stuff. My other interests sneak in there too. There’s a bunch of geeky stuff, and there’s a lot of music stuff. A few weeks ago, something dropped into my feed with mentor text potential.

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Chuck Ragan, guitarist and vocalist of Hot Water Music. Image via sinequanonsalons.com

I listen to a lot of folk and Americana artists who used to play punk rock. One of my favorites is Chuck Ragan, who still plays with Hot Water Music, but also releases a lot of great music that is a bit more accessible. When not on the road, he’s a fishing enthusiast, and advocates a pretty simple way of life.

Which made him a good target for some satire from punk rock site The Hard Times (Site does feature some vaguely NSFW material… very punk rock.) The piece, about Ragan needing a flannel transfusion, pokes nice fun. His rootsy fashion sense, and down to earth, folksy persona make this piece work.

While chuckling at the Ragan piece, I, as many of us do, wound up clicking through the site further. The piece about Metallica made me chuckle as well. The image of the Metallica logo scrawled on a notebook felt like a flashback to my own experience, and I remember the lawsuit shenanigans of the early download debates, spearheaded by, you guessed it, Metallica.

What I like about these pieces as mentor texts is that, like good satire, they require the reader to have prior knowledge to understand, and really get the joke. The Metallica one is actually a better piece of satire, more Onion-esque in that it actually sort of sounds like something that an overly litigious band might do. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Inspiration

Mentor Text:  Pop culture anthologies, or anthologies of a thematic nature

Writing Techniques:

  •         Creative writing
  •         Fan fiction
  •         Establishing storytelling guidelines
  •         Pop culture analysis

Background:

I grew up with some pretty sweet pop culture. I’ve expressed my love for Star Wars already here, and if you’re creating something with a science fiction or superhero bent, well…you’ve probably got my attention, and will earn some of my dollars.

I can track my affinity for anthologies back to one I read a number of times as a teenager, called Shock Rock, a collection of horror stories with a rock and roll element. I’m pretty sure the promise of a Stephen King story was what drew my initial attention, but it was the idea that these were horror stories, which I loved, that were about rock and roll, which I also loved. Perfect!

It was my recent purchase of an X-Files anthology that got me thinking about anthologies as mentor texts. In many ways, they are very much the kind of thing that we do in our classrooms. An editor, in our case, a teacher, puts out a call for, or collects, a whole bunch of stories from writers, or students, that are all about the same thing. I’ve had students write stories from the perspective of another character in To Kill A Mockingbird. How far off is that from these anthologies? Continue reading