Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” as Mentor Text

We’ve been excitedly sitting on today’s guest post for nearly a year! We are so happy to finally share this lesson with you — perfect for the late fall and early winter as you scramble to engage your students in meaningful work before Winter Break!

 Adrian Nester is an AP English teacher and journalism adviser at Tunstall High School in Dry Fork, Virginia. After 16 years of teaching, she is thankful to have met her AP Lit Help teaching community when entering into her mid-career crisis years.  She is the mother of two, wife of one, and teacher of many.


screen-shot-2017-01-08-at-2-31-48-pmEach year at the end of the first semester, I reward my juniors with a day of reading Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a slice of sub-par store bought fruit cake. That was it. Although my intentions were good,  I did a disservice to Capote, my students, and definitely the fruit cake.

This year with four days left before the scheduled exam review, I decided to take a different approach with “A Christmas Memory” and use it as a mentor text for crafting personal narratives.  

I became familiar with using mentor texts this summer after reading Allison and Rebekah’s Writing with Mentors and used the concept with some nonfiction pieces, but would it work with fiction?  Fiction is so unique to each individual writer, could it work as a mentor text? Would it be so impactful that it would help them borrow the writer’s moves and become more like “real writers” as with Karla Hilliard’s post on The House on Mango Street.

The plan for reading and writing

Day One: Continue reading


Do You Hear What I Hear? Using Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts for Teaching Voice

Today’s guest post is from Kelly Pace, Hanover County’s (Virginia) Teacher of the Year! She teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English along with IB Theory of Knowledge. You might remember her from a post she wrote for us earlier in the year on teaching active & passive voice!

Nineteen years ago, I found myself a brand new teacher amongst a team of veteran teachers. All were very candid in giving me advice, and while most of that advice resonated with me, teaching structural grammar by making my students complete textbook exercises seemed extremely boring, bringing me back to my own Catholic grammar school days. Why was I going to teach students what a direct object is or make students underline the adjective clause or prepositional phrase if they weren’t applying those skills to their own writing? Why were my colleagues teaching grammar in isolation and why were we using these grammar textbooks with the terribly boring sentences?

So, one day, I told students to put away their grammar textbooks. My students were not to bring them back to class. (Think of me as a slightly less brave version of Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, encouraging his students to rip out the introduction of their poetry textbooks).

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I replaced the boring grammar sentences with the lyrics to Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” a song re-released that year to commemorate Princess Diana. They read the lyrics and discussed the sentence structure. Other lessons followed suit. They looked at songs and underlined prepositional phrases and then had to write in a similar fashion. They underlined adjectives and adverbs in song lyrics and added more of their own to descriptive writing. Students started to bring in songs and notice grammatical structures in them. They couldn’t listen to music without thinking about the way the lyrics were written–without thinking about grammar.

A Mentor Text Re-Visited:  Teaching Voice through Song Lyrics

Fast forward to 2015. My students this year have been struggling with voice in their writing. Every sentence reads the same way.  I read this paragraph where my student is analyzing the differences between Tennessee Williams’ text A Streetcar Named Desire and Elia Kazan’s film version:

Williams and Kazan both include that Mitch and Blanche have never gone out on a date past six o’clock. Mitch states, “You never want to go out till after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much” (144). Blanche never wants to be met in the light is a light motif of not wanting to show her true self. The light symbolizes appearance and something that is clearly visible. Blanche never wants the truth of her past experiences in Laurel to be exposed to anyone. In other words she doesn’t want Mitch and others to really know what happened to her because they might not like her for who she is. Blanche creating this fantasy of dark lies in both the film and play is significant because it leads to the idea of Blanche lying for her own image in New Orleans.

Shortly after, I read another one that said the same thing in the same way. These students weren’t plagiarizing; their writing simply had no voice. I searched for ways to bring this voice to their writing. And I was somehow reminded of 1997 when my students began to talk about sentence structure through song lyrics. Could I bring music back to teach voice? I decided to try.

For this mini lesson, I used the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Adele’s popular “Hello” as mentor texts. I gave the printed version of the lyrics written in paragraph form, not telling students their mentor text for today was Adele’s lyrics. I read the lyrics aloud, asking students what the writer’s voice sounds like. Of course, students shouted out, “Adele!” They had been singing those lyrics for weeks now.  I had been listening. Then I had them do the same thing with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” leaving off his famous chorus identifying the song’s title. Only a handful of them knew it was Michael Jackson. The rest described his voice as determined, optimistic. We then listened to the lyrics, fully describing what they sounded like.

We began to discuss how easy it is to identify a singer’s voice because we can hear the way that particular vocalist sounds. I told students that with their writing, I have no song to accompany them. If they write voiceless analysis, it sounds the same as it does to every other person.  I should be able to recognize every student’s writing–even analytical writing.

I then gave them the student writing sample from above. We discussed how there is no song to follow with the writing–there is no voice. Then, students revised a paragraph of the essay they had been writing during writing workshop that they deemed as voiceless.  The writing that evolved was so  much better than what I would have gotten had I not brought Adele and Michael Jackson into my classroom:

When a filmmaker creates a film they take many liberties when translating it from a novel or play. In this instance Kazan made alterations to it, to create a more vivid image. Throughout the film Kazan builds Blanche up in particular to create her into an epicenter of drama. In Kazan doing this the audience is more invested in the film. Williams’ written play made Blanche into the center of drama but diluted her commanding presence with distractions from other characters, and stage directions. Williams doing this took away from the original play’s dramatic value. When compared to Williams’ play, Kazan’s film adaptation creates a more dramatic version of Blanche through the use of lighting, stage directions, and dialogue.

This is just one example that one of my students wrote. The paragraph prior to revision did not have words like “liberties,” nor did it describe Blanche as an “epicenter of drama.” Suddenly, I could hear my student’s voices.

Reflections and Other Ideas for Song Lyrics as Mentor Texts

As I reflect on this lesson, I begin to realize that there are so many ways we can use song lyrics as  mentor texts. The possibilities seem endless to me.

  • What about using song lyrics as a means to study verbs in writing? One Republic’s “Counting Stars” could work in studying present tense, future tense, present progressive, and past progressive verbs.
  • Or how about using a song like Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason.” Students could analyze the figurative language there and incorporate it their own in their writing.
  • Perhaps a song with a strong theme could be the introduction to a theme analysis? Consider the top 10 love songs of all time as documented on the Billboard’s top love songs.  What if students analyzed an artist’s theme of love as an introduction to a theme analysis they would write on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

As I said, the possibilities are endless.

When I reflect on 19 years in the classroom, today, I’m grateful–grateful that I asked those students back in 1997 to put away their grammar books. Had I not done that, I might never have thought to use song lyrics as mentor texts in the writing classroom nineteen years later.  Music is an entrance to our students’ understanding of language. My classroom will continue to welcome the voices of Adele, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, One Republic and anyone else who can help my students to to create meaning in the words they write.



How do you combat students’ stale voices in writing? In what ways have you used music as mentor texts? You can connect with me on Twitter @kellyapace or on Facebook at

Mentor Text Wednesday: On Rey


Mentor Text:  

The Power of Rey by Nicole Sperling

What Rey Means to Me by Gabrielle Bondi

What is a Mary Sue, and does Star Wars: The Force Awakens have one? by Caroline Framke

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Pop culture analysis
  • Using a feminist lens to critique character and pop culture


I got two Christmases in 2015. There was the one we always get, and there there was the Star Wars one. I’m one of those people who was at the perfect age to have seen the original film as a very impressionable youngster, and grew up with those characters, reading an Expanded Universe of tales in that galaxy far, far away. I was brought up so high by hope for the prequels, and disappointed.So, The Force Awakens was obviously kind of a big deal for me.

And it put me into a bit of a social media cave, as I tried to avoid spoilers so I could enjoy the film to the max. And I did.

I have daughters, and though their exposure to Star Wars has been limited, I was excited when the initial rumblings of the presence of Meaningful Female Characters! Leia was one of the strongest female chracters in popular sci-fi, but there was always something lacking. Probably the negative effects of that bikini at Jabba’s palace. Growing up with arguably some of the greatest characters in pop culture, I wanted that for my girls.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.49.11 AMI’m not the only one to feel this way. After seeing the film, I was able to click on a lot more around the web, and came across a lot of writing about Rey. Some gushes, some criticizes. I chose a bit of both in this mentor text packet.

“The Power of Rey” and “What Rey Means to Me” are built on praise, on finding a hero that speaks to you, specifically a female hero. For many, Rey breaks into the boy’s club of good action heroics without a love triangle or a focus on her sex appeal. These pieces deal with that, though they largely avoid the controversy that accompanies the conversation about Rey. What I like about them, and what students could use as inspiration is that they are written from a fan’s position. This is people sharing what they like about Rey, and why. There’s an element of personal narrative that justifies their appreciation of Rey.

The “Mary Sue” question is dealt with in the third article. In some ways, it may be the strongest appreciation of Rey as a gender barrier breaker since it goes into more depth discussion of the gender stereotypes, explaining what a Mary Sue is, and supporting both sides of the argument. Though ultimately, the piece decides that Rey is what the other two pieces would have you believe, it goes about it in a much more analytical fashion.

I specifically chose not to include pieces that were overtly critical of her character. That is, I chose not include them at this time. I feel like those pieces serve a different purpose, and would be a mentor text package of their own, a critical takedown of a character if you will. To me, praising a character and bashing a chracter are two separate skill sets, and could be taught as such. Now I have more mentor texts to find…

How We Might Use Them:

  • All three of these pieces give strong examples of discussing character, and what the writer likes about the character. Two hew closer to expression of fandom, while one presents a more analytical appreciation of the character.
  • The narrative style of “The Power of Rey” would give young writers a way to express themselves as part of their writing about character. As a geek, I know how all-encompassing this stuff can be. The whole experience feels like it needs to be discussed, not just the character analysis stuff your teacher wants from you. This piece shows students a way to do both.
  • “What Rey Means to Me” is a compilation of what different voices have to say about a single character. Sometimes, we teachers make a big task out of something smaller. Could students craft mini-pieces, like those in this piece, and then combine them? Consider as well, that this piece gives a variety of voices expressing similar ideas. It’s a collection of shorter mentor texts compiled, giving students options.
  • The Mary Sue piece would be a great mentor text for students to use in the course of discussing a controversial issue in pop culture, such as gender. Working with young people, we know that they have many questions and opinions to sift through and figure out. This piece lays it out very well for them, with background, point, counterpoint and conclusion.
  • Pop culture has been heavily influenced by Star Wars, and our students, if they’re fans, are accustomed to critically looking at their respective fandoms, these giant worlds of characters. These pieces are all examples of how to look at pop culture with a feminist, or gender lens. Could we not extrapolate that, and use these as mentor texts to look at pop culture through other lenses? Or our reading?

I use Star Wars to teach. Students know that I love it, and other fandoms, and they like to talk about this geeky stuff with me. Pieces like this are going to be useful in taking that interest into an academic realm, where we can geek out, and meet our outcomes. And, for my students who aren’t geeks, they also serve as great examples of how to do that character stuff I ask them to do with their reading.

Are your students into Star Wars? How might you use these pieces to help your students analyze and write about character? What other elements might these mentor texts teach? 

Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find us on Twitter (@doodlinmonkeyboy, @msjochman, @rebekahodell1, @allisonmarchett) to keep the conversation going! 


Mentor Text Monday: Engaging Students with HUMANS OF NEW YORK

Mentor Text:  Humans of New Yorkblog and book by Brandon Stanton

Also: LIttle Humansbook by Brandon Stanton

Writing Techniques:

  • Effective interviewing
  • Fusing images and text
  • Concision & drilling down to the essentials


While I’m off, I am dreaming of the mentor texts and units of study that will fill my second semester when I return to school. One text that keeps popping up is Humans of New York, a popular storytelling blog-turned-book by photographer Brandon Stanton. On his blog, Stanton features a photograph of someone he encounters on the streets of New York. The photo is accompanied by the subject’s brief response to an intimate, probing question posed by Stanton. Both the portrait and the accompanying quotation capture something truthful — often raw — and essential about the subject.  The result is captivating, as evidenced by Stanton’s millions of followers and imitators around the world.

Beyond the interesting visuals and quotations that will capture students’ attention and the blog’s huge relevance and popularity, one of the greatest  things about Stanton’s work in the context of a classroom is that he is neither professional journalist nor professional photographer. In a way, he’s just like our students. While his work is great fodder for mentor text work, this fact makes him a great mentor for our writers as they uncover his process and become inspired by his craft. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Mentor Text Anchor Charts

All year long we have been working backwards. In our genre-driven workshop, we have always begun with a genre, figured out how it works, and searched for an idea to fit it.

But now that my students have a command of several genres and an understanding of the varying purposes and audiences of each, they are ready to work forwards–like real writers.

Rebekah wrote eloquently on this subject a few months ago, explaining how real writers chase their ideas into a genre that best suits their purpose.

So our culminating workshop is not genre-driven but technique-driven. The mini-lessons focus on the technique of evidence–a literary feature indigenous to all genres.

To jumpstart the workshop, I created a mentor text cluster–a group of mentor texts written on the same subject across multiple genres. In honor of Mother and Father’s Day, I found five texts exploring parent-child relationships. I wanted students to see that one idea can bloom across many different genres, depending on the writer’s purpose and audience. You can see this list below: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Restaurant Review PLUS Interview with Writer


Mentor Text:

Wells, Pete. “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 April 2014.

Author Information:

“At the Critics’ Table.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 7 April 2014.


Driving to work this week, I had an epiphany.

Mentor text study should not be limited to the study of texts but should include the study of the mentors themselves.

Here’s what Katie Wood Ray has to offer on this topic: “In genre studies, particularly, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the people behind the texts you’re reading and the kind of work they do to support their writing. If possible, you may find interviews with writers and either include them in the stack of texts for students to read, or in whole-class gatherings, you might highlight what you think are the important points from the interviews. Also, ask students to pay attention to any author’s notes or information on book jackets that might provide insight into the writers and the work they do” (128).

I had read this passage in Study Driven before, but it didn’t sink in until this week. And then the guilt hit. I use mentor texts religiously but rarely do I stop to talk about the person behind the words.

What message are we sending to student writers about writers when we talk around  authors but not about them?

In an effort to make good on Ray’s suggestion, I immediately went to work to find author information to support the text we’re currently reading in our review genre study–a review of M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Queens.

How I Used It

Students are in the “immersion” phase of genre study. We are using these questions from Study Driven to frame our reading:

  • What kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?
  • What kinds of work (research, gathering, reflecting, observing, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?
  • How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?

We read through the review once together.

Students then did a second draft reading in which they paid special attention to the focus questions and made notes in their margins.

Afterwards, we plotted our noticings on the board. Here is the working list that we will continue to add to and refine as we immerse ourselves in several more mentor texts:

Review (Restaurant) – Initial “Noticings”

  • Includes slideshow with images from restaurant
  • Hyperlinks to other reviews of restaurants owned by same couple
  • Introduces the concept of “the steakhouse” and sets essay up to “set apart” the new steakhouse
  • Balances unbiased information about the type of restaurant with opinionated review
  • Compares this restaurant to other restaurants
  • Talks more about the substance/food than the chefs themselves (though he does give a bit of background information)
  • Discusses about 11 dishes
  • Uses the language of food
  • Uses figurative language & comparisons
  • Covers apps, main entrees, and desserts—you feel like he’s tried everything
  • No forecasting statement—he takes us on the journey he experienced
  • Has a 3-sentence conclusion
  • Delivers a rating system at the end: atmosphere through wheelchair access
  • Runs about 3 pages
  • Includes prices
  • Has a creative, captivating title that alludes to a television show
  • Includes LOTS of detailed imagery about each dish
  • Has a star system–how do they assign stars? Are the restaurants being compared to ALL restaurants? or restaurants of their kind?

After we charted the noticings, I shared the following clips to enhance students’ understanding of the work of a restaurant critic, as well as introduce them to Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic.

Video: The restaurant critics’ guide to using disguises and fake names

Video: What actually happens at the critic’s table

If you look back at the list of noticings, you’ll see that my students wondered about the rating system. I was able to show them this clip to help explain how critics assign stars.

Video: NYT restaurant critics demystify the star-rating system

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, 2006.

We’ve added a new section to our dropbox project–a folder called About the Writers–where we’ll post author interviews, author notes, etc.–anything to supplement the study of mentor texts and pay homage to the writers themselves.

Mentor Text Wednesday: China’s Web Junkies Op-Doc


Mentor Text: “China’s Web Junkies,” an Op-Doc from The New York Times

Skill: Using evidence to support a position


Every year it seems that more and more of my students are denouncing Facebook. They talk about it freely during passing time as they unpack their bags. “You’re still on? I’ve been off for a while now. It’s pointless.”

“Yeah,” another student chimes in. “It was ruining my life.”

Sometimes the things we hear our students say in passing can be great fodder for important classroom and life lessons. This is one of those conversations worth bringing into the classroom.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesdays: Infographics!


Mentor Text: See Learnist board 

Genre-Based Workshop: Infographics

Technique-Based Workshop: Using visuals as evidence in writing

Background: We usually study mentor texts in isolation, but sometimes it can be useful to show students a group, or cluster, of mentor texts all at once.

Studying a group of genre-specific mentor texts helps students identify the traits of that genre. Studying a group of craft-specific mentor texts help students understand how certain techniques work across a variety of genres. Rebekah recently wrote about using a cluster of mentor texts to think about purpose and audience.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Pixar’s Up to Teach Scene and Summary


Mentor Text: Up. Dir. Pete Docter. Pixar, 2009.

Story is the lifeblood of all good writing. But students don’t realize its power until they are explicitly shown how it works across all genres of writing.

An editorial tells the story of an issue. A memoir tells the story of a life. An analysis tells the story of how something works.

Students needs ways of talking about story before they recognize it as a powerful tool for all kinds of writing. Continue reading