Mentor Text Wednesday: Moving Past Summary in Film Analysis


Mentor Text:  “Captain America on the Potomac” by Linda Holmes for NPR. April 1, 2014.

Skill Taught: Moving past summary in film analysis


My English 9s are working on an essay  on the theme of a Pixar short film of their choosing as an entry point into the world of analytical, academic writing. The films are brief, easily accessible, and yet full of moments to pull apart and scrutinize. Plus, it’s a nice fun break in our spring countdown to the end of the year.

We covered thesis statements, structuring body paragraphs, finding copious evidence, explaining that evidence, writing introductions and conclusions. And still when I conferenced on their drafts I noticed the age old problem we all encounter when teaching this kind of writing: plot summary.

While I didn’t want to delve into the language of film criticism and camera angles, students needed help knowing what they could talk about in a film beyond the simple plot. Sure, they could identify a theme, but what should their evidence look like?

How I Used It:

I gave a brief mini-lesson on close reading a film. Students took notes on how the close reading they have done this year in printed text (based on the work of Christ Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling  in Love with Close Reading, which I cannot recommend highly enough!) translates to the close reading that we can do on a screen.



Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, but it gave my students a few concrete places to go in their interpretation that moved them past plot.

We then looked at Linda Holmes’ analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I love so much about this article: it’s truly analysis more than it is review, it spends much of its time focused on the film qualities of the story (particularly images), it takes something seemingly silly and reveals its potential for depth.

In short, this is EXACTLY what I want my students to do!

Students took to color-marking — looking for summary of the film’s action/plot versus analysis of film technique. The students made a number of interesting insights they could take right into their own writing:

  • “There is only one paragraph made up of one long sentence that is pure summary of the plot. It must not be that important.”
  • “The writer uses what she sees on screen to think about the theme of the movie.”
  • “This is mostly about what the movie is about, not what happens during the movie.”
  • “The writer helps us understand by making comparisons to other movies.”
  • “If we were writing about a movie with actors in it, we should list their names in parentheses beside the character they play.”

Before students moved back into their drafts, they broke into groups according to the short film about which they were writing and watched again — this time for deeper, close reading of film elements. Armed with new evidence and a better sense of direction, they began revising.



Mentor Text Wednesday: Ken Tucker’s Review of Pharrell’s New Album


Mentor Text: Tucker, Ken. “Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy”. 6 March 2014. 

Technique: Using Figurative Language as Evidence


Ken Tucker read his review of Pharrell’s new album on Fresh Air as I drove home after work one Friday. “A MENTOR TEXT!” I screeched. (Literally.) And sometimes — the most wonderful times — we find mentor texts this way, in moments of spontaneous inspiration, rather than hours of deep searching.

In my current workshop on the technique of using evidence, my students are prone to view evidence only in its driest iterations —  for them, statistics are evidence. Quotes from the text are evidence. Expert testimony is evidence.

But I want them to see that evidence is anything in our writing that illustrates or supports the point we are trying to make, the perspective we are trying to present. Evidence is both the logical facts we present and the playful way we mold our language.

What jumped out at me as I listened was Tucker’s use of figurative language. When we use figurative language — making comparisons, using idioms, engaging in hyperbole — we are supporting our point in a different way. We are illustrating our perspective by helping the reader make connections. I was struck by this particular piece because Tucker’s review wasn’t a lilting narrative. It wasn’t a “This I Believe” essay. This was a critical review using figurative language to illustrate its point to incredible effect.

How I Used It: 

I used it really simply.

I gave students a definition of figurative language & five kinds of figurative language on which to hone in:

Figurative Language: Language that is not literal. In other words, it doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

  • Simile: a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as”

  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things without using like or as.

  • Personification: giving human qualities to an inhuman object

  • Hyperbole: extreme exaggeration used for effect

  • Idiom: common, local sayings that don’t have a literal meaning

We chatted about these — sharing examples. I then asked students where they expected to see figurative language. Naturally, they expected to see it predominately in narrative. And that’s true.

But my goal was to show them how this can work in genres other than narrative.

I pulled up Ken Tucker’s review – it was perfect timing since the album is new and Pharrell recently performed on the Oscar’s. It also worked well because though students are familiar with Pharrell, most had not heard the songs mentioned in this excerpt.

I asked them to zoom in on the second paragraph to see where they could locate examples of figurative language:

“Brand New” is a song that dares you to think of it as brand new, as opposed to a canny recasting of riffs reminiscent of the Jackson 5. Pharrell is so confident in his ability to beguile you as producer, songwriter and singer, he all but buries the major guest star on that track:Justin Timberlake. Even when Pharrell dares to come off as slightly predatory, as in “Hunter” — about tracking a woman — it’s all done in the mildest manner possible. “Hunter” is also one of the high points of this album, with a rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity. His high voice can remind you of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody with sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.

The students found:

  • “buries the major guest star”
  • “rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity”
  • “his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody …”

After we located these examples, we talked about their connotation — what they make us think of, how we connect to them and what it makes us understand about music we have never heard.

Figurative language is not your standard kind of evidence — nevertheless, the well-placed use of figurative language can help the reader see a new perspective, understand a new topic, or “hear” a new album in a way the reader couldn’t otherwise.