Mentor Text Wednesday: Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy

Today’s guest post comes from Brian Kelley, co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. He teaches at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and produces the podcast “The Classroom,” where he confers with students about writing. you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or at brianjkelley.net.

Mentor Text

Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, by Judd Apatow

Writing Techniques

  • Developing ideas
  • Identifying mentors

Background

From books to blog posts, writing teachers recognize possibilities for mentor texts everywhere. My radar is up as I look at Instagram, Twitter, and roadside billboards. I listen to podcasts and watch videos not only for pure enjoyment and personalized learning, but also for crumbs to bring into the classroom.

I found a breadcrumb trail worth sharing–mentor texts drawing attention to the act of writers doing writerly things outside of the classroom–where the real prewriting happens.

When Donald Graves wrote about a child’s control of the writing process, a piece of his interest was in what children did away from the classroom. When and where were children in a constant states of composition? Graves knew, in this state of constant composition (thinking of ideas), writers can glow like jack-o-lanterns.

A text in my reading pile, Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Lessons about Life and Comedy, filled my writer’s notebook with ideas for focused free writes on our lives outside of the classroom.screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-7-08-11-am

Sometimes, students don’t know how to chase their curiosity when an activity, idea, or person absorbs them. Their life outside of the classroom does not always feel welcome or accessible inside the classroom. Our students need the mentor act as much as they need the mentor text. Often, a good first step is our sharing writing of writers doing writerly things outside of a classroom, on their own, because of a relentless curiosity.

Apatow tells comedian Marc Mahon that as a teenager he “used to transcribe Saturday Night Live. I would record it on an audio cassette…I think that I was in some way trying to figure out how to get into that world–how does it work? I wanted to break it down somehow (306).”

I wonder what our kids sink that much curiosity into? I also wonder…why I have never asked? You bet your ass I am asking now.

How we might use this text

I am offering several ideas for focused free writing to help students:

  1. identify ideas absorbing their attention.
  2. develop & write their thinking.
  3. reach out to mentors.

Could our students’ lives and thinking outside of school feel welcome in our classrooms? Could they write for themselves first and not for me? Could what I offer inside the classroom inspire action outside the classroom? Can I help students reach a constant state of composition about an element of joy and curiosity?

Each of the following ideas could be used as focused free writes in isolation or as a series.

Our mind

What is something that absorbs your attention so much that time spent with it is pure joy? Write about it so that you might share that joy with a reader.

When Apatow spoke with the team of Key and Peele, Jordan Peele said:

“…you can take all the classes you want and learn and practice and get all the advice from other people, but it’s really like learning an instrument that never existed until you were born. No one can tell you how to play that instrument. There’s a part of the journey that you have to figure out for yourself” (250).

What do you want in your life that would be worth the journey?

Our heart

What are the challenges of …? an older sister? being an only child? a dancer? being a perfectionist? living with a grandparent? caring for a sick pet? Perhaps Harold Ramis says as much about developing ideas as any mentor text:

“Maybe it would be better to do something you’re actually interested in, like an issue in your life…there’s got to be something going–what are the challenges of being a [fill in the blank] in the world? Start with something that’s important or of interest to you…” (125)

Write about the challenges of any truth you know. Share your truth until a reader owns it too.

Our belly

Seth Rogan began writing the script for Superbad when he was thirteen years old. When asked if he just kept rewriting it over and over again, Rogan said:

“Yeah, for around twelve years. If they made it when we were twelve–I mean it would be pathetic…What’s sad is that a fair amount of the jokes in the movie were in the draft we wrote when we were twelve years old…”(421).

What funny ideas do you have for a movie? What makes you laugh so hard that you feel it deep within? Don’t hold back–share ideas where laughter just pours from you and your friends like water from a jug. The odds are in your favor as a writer–if something makes you laugh, it may make your readers laugh.

Our feet

Apatow notes that mentoring comes from being in a place where you want to learn. As a teen, Apatow interviewed comedians. He went to comedy clubs. He made phone calls. And most often the George Carlins of the world were surprised to see a teenager when they finally met. But every comedian answered Apatow’s questions–and then they encouraged and mentored him.

I asked students to read this quote about Judd’s experiences and apply it to themselves:

“I needed to become one of them. The question was, how to do that? And the answer seemed clear: meet them. Talk to them. Get to know them. Learn their secrets (xii).”

Write about who the “them” is in our lives…who or what is it that we “need to become?” Framed another way, if you did not have to come to school for the next month, but you had to go someplace to learn something, where would you go?

Our soul

How can we create conditions so students feel as though they are in a place deep inside of themselves where they want to learn–bigger than the classroom–bigger than school–a mindset where they want to illuminate the page with writing that is like a grinning, toothy, jack-o-lantern inviting us closer to knock on the doors of their texts?

A good start is, of course, a teacher sharing what is deep inside himself; however, another move is finding other people in the real world (outside mentors) who feel so much love and curiosity for an idea that they share it through writing, sketching, digital mashups, music, and through multiple forms that transfer the glow of an idea to the eyes of a reader.

We can’t let this insight get away, can we? I so often see myself as the mentor, but Apatow pulls the rug out from underneath me. What about the push to bring more mentors into our students’ lives (inside and outside of the classroom) through local connections, writing letters, Google Hangouts, and social media?

Students can only be mentors themselves or get the most from a mentor if they care about what they are doing–if the writing is for them from the beginning–and if they are in a place (inside of themselves) where they want to learn. This is about a state of mind more than any physical space. Student writing does not begin or end by the light of a teacher’s dwindling candle.

Students must touch the flame to their own wicks. Yet teachers, as mentors, encourage that act.

Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading

Making “Writer” a Label Students Can Wear – Three Ideas

Before mentors texts became the flexible frame onto which I could hang all of my writing instruction, I had nothing to do with all of the cool articles I stumbled across. When I found a piece of writing that connected with my curriculum, I would most often say, “Hey! Cool!”, print it or clip it, and let it sit on my desk for a few weeks before putting it in a file folder in my desk, never to be seen again.

On occasion, I would copy it, pass it out to my students, and ask them to read it. They would, and we would all kind of nod at each other when they were finished, crumpling the paper and shoving it into their backpacks. I would feel good that they had been exposed to the article, regardless of the fact that none of us knew the real purpose of them reading it.

Thankfully, mentor texts found me. And my first thought these days when finding a smart article is, “How can my students use this in their writing? Can I make this a thing?”

 As my students round the corner toward the end of their year, I have been looking for something to help them put a cap on their writing year. As they polish, revise, and finish their portfolios, I am searching for small writing projects that will help them synthesize  all that they have learned about themselves as writers — their identity, their process, their passions.

Most of all, I want them to leave my class confidently wearing the label of “writer” (a phrase I’m repurposing a bit from Donalyn Miller’s recent Book Love Foundation podcast interview), and I want to help them do this by inviting them to join  the conversation of real writers. 

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Last weekend, I found three series in The Guardian — my new favorite source for writing about books — to help with this end-of-year need for writing closure. (The wonderful thing about finding a series you love is that there is no need to search for other mentor texts to pair with it; you have a ready-made mentor text cluster, offering your students myriad variations on a theme.)

I plan to offer all three as options for my students to reflect on who they have become as writers this year  — and to add to their final writing portfolio:

Continue reading