A few months before our wedding, my husband and I signed up for private dance lessons at the local dance studio. On the first day, we were brought into a small room with a large rectangular window that looked out into the main ballroom. Professional dancers in street clothes leapt and arabesqued across the wooden floor. There was no instructor to be seen. I remember squealing.
The juxtaposition was thrilling at first. Here we were, novices without a clue, looking out into a room filled with professionals who made the dancing look effortless. It was both inspiring and… immobilizing. Could we do this?
Our instructor Chris didn’t let us linger at the window for too long.
“Ok! Let’s get started. What is it you would like to be able to do?”
“That,” I said, pointing to the dancers beyond the window. We laughed.
My fiancé took a more logical route. “We basically want to look good,” he said, smiling.
“I can help with that. Do you have the song?” Chris asked, motioning for a CD.
The song we had. The vision we had. We just needed the moves. And so we began.
The first thing he taught us was box step, a basic building block. When we mastered that, we learned how to stand together, and then how to do different turns. Occasionally Chris would cut in and model for my fiancé how to hoist me into a turn or where to put his feet. We practiced these basic moves over and over again, occasionally glancing across the practice space, through the large window, into the room of professional dancers.
And this is how the lessons went for a few weeks before we started putting it all together.
As a teacher, I can appreciate the effectiveness of Chris’s instructional model. It’s reminiscent of Kelly Gallagher’s “Professional goes, I go, you go” method of using mentor texts and writing in front of students.
But Chris did something else, too.
Like my husband and me at the window, when students are exposed to complete mentor texts, they can become overwhelmed quickly.
Chris didn’t let this happen. He did let us gawk at the professional dancers for a few minutes, but then he calmly lead us back into the room and began showing us, one at a time, the “moves” or skills we would need to master before we could really begin to dance.
There’s no question about the value of using full mentor texts to teach writing. But we should supplement full-length mentor texts with mini mentor texts that target specific skills. When I was learning how to waltz, Chris’s step-by-step, move-based instruction and modeling was critical to my development as a dancer.
Hatching the “Mini”
My colleague and I first came up with the idea of mini mentor texts while planning a literary analysis genre study. We struggled to find real world examples of literary analysis (it doesn’t really exist outside of the English classroom), but there was no shortage of analysis. It was everywhere. On blogs. In The New Yorker. On our favorite pop culture websites like Grantland.com and Vulture.com. With a little searching, we found exciting, relevant examples of analysis, like this review of Lucie Brock-Broido’s book of poems Stay Illusion and this analytical comparison of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
And though we knew that these full-length mentor texts would not be accessible to our ninth grade writers, we believed that pieces of them would be. And so we hatched the idea of the mini mentor text, which has all of the qualities of a brilliant, uncut mentor text without the distraction of a full-length piece.
Below is one “mini” from the article “The New Stephen Curry” that we use to teach the skill of explaining evidence in our literary analysis genre study.
In very simple terms, Golden State has taken Lee’s touches and given them to Curry, unleashing him as something much closer to a full-time off-the-dribble force. And as it turns out, most standard NBA defenses are simply not equipped to deal with an off-the-dribble player who can shoot 45 percent from 3-point range. The change has crystallized against the Spurs, who haven’t been as committed as Denver to trying to take the ball from Curry’s hands with aggressive traps out toward midcourt; Curry dribbled the ball more in both Game 1 and Game 2 of this series than in any of the approximately 60 prior games recorded by SportVU data-tracking cameras installed at Golden State’s home arena and 14 other arenas this season, per data provided exclusively to Grantland. He has held the ball for nearly three more full minutes per game over those two games than he did on average in the regular season, a massive change for a player who controlled the ball, on average, about 5:20 per game this season, according to the data.
First, we read this passage out loud for comprehension. (I let the sports enthusiasts explain the basketball jargon!) Then, we read it again with the purpose of noting where the writer supplies evidence and follows it with explanation.
Then it was my turn. In my classroom, when students wrote analysis essays on a poem of choice, I worked with Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.” I typed a little, projecting my thinking and writing onto the screen. Write. Pause. Write. Pause. Struggle. Write some more:
In the first line, the speaker acknowledges that his mother “never forgave [his] father,” a statement that immediately suggests betrayal or infidelity, until the actual reason for the mother’s stubbornness is revealed in the second line: “for killing himself” (1-2). Kunitz enjambs the next four lines, slowly revealing one shocking detail after another: “especially at such an awkward time/and in a public park,/that spring/when I was waiting to be born” (3-6). These deliberate line breaks increase the intensity of the news while shocking the reader in a way that mimics the emotional shock of a suicide…
Then it was their turn. Below is an example from one ninth grader, Garrett, who was studying Robert Wallace’s “The Double Play”:
This analogy of life to a double play is well-defined in Wallace’s continuous use of well-chosen line breaks that do this throughout the poem. By using these line breaks, the poem is slowed down at various times, effectively capturing specific moments in the double play. “Drawing it disappearing into his long brown glove / stretches” (18-19) is a perfect example of this. This particular moment portrays the very end of the play, when the first baseman catches the ball to record the second out. Line 18 is extremely crowded and hurried, but it is slowed down massively with only one word in line 19; this break most certainly slows down the moment and perfectly captures the small things that make this double play a success. With line breaks such as these and “to the leaning- / out first baseman ends the dance” (16-17), Wallace demonstrates the importance of completing work and following through, because in baseball as in life, finishing strong is just as important as starting strong.
Can you see the footwork of the “mini” in his body paragraph?
Moving the Writer
One of the greatest benefits of using mini mentor texts is the teaching and learning of skills that cut across genres. For example, when I teach an editorial genre study, and I want to show my students how to support their claims with evidence and explanation, I can refer to this same mini mentor text. With minis, our lessons get more mileage. We teach skills that move the writer, not just the one piece of writing.
If you’re wondering whether those dance lessons paid off–they did. They were a great investment. Because the box step is a skill that cuts across multiple genres of dancing. So we can dance our wedding dance.
But we can also do the rumba.