“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson.
In my post on Routines for Excellent Writing, I discussed the usefulness of mentor texts. You can read more about the what and why of mentor texts there. As a follow up to that, and in response to my #tmeng presentation, I am looking in detail at a specific mentor text in this post.
I have chosen this review of Rock of Ages. (original review online here) I chose it for the things I could pick out and look at with students. I’m looking at the unabridged text but I’d recommend cutting bits out, replacing, isolating paragraphs or whatever you need. Using a real text has its benefits but I would also suggest creating one from scratch if you wanted to demonstrate a specific idea rather than searching and searching.
I’m a bit obsessed with vocabulary. If I wanted a vocabulary focus I might look at the following in the text:
- Naïve/ lugubrious/ narcissistic – complex words which will probably need explanation.
- Satirizing/ screenplay/ production values – media terminology
- Intensity/ frantically/ meander – words which I want to transfer into students’ working vocabulary. A word like ‘meander’ is so nuanced and precise that I’d love to see it in my students’ work.
Sometimes you need not spend too much time on vocabulary. Those last three words will probably inch closer to being used by students just because of the further exposure to them. On the other hand, texts could be chosen or created precisely to build vocabulary. For example, if you knew students were writing about fate, say, in Of Mice and Men, you could read this article: Is a US attack on Syria now inevitable? and the word ‘inevitable’ would (inevitably) find itself in students’ vocabulary. Furthermore, the paragraph below from the same text would help ‘caution’ and ‘reluctance’ shift ever closer to usage too, words which would come in handy writing about the text.
I have been stressing President Obama’s caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.
I find it much easier to study punctuation in context. For example, our mentor text has a number of brackets used in different ways:
- Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise)
- …a couple of grim bodyguards (Kevin Nash, of all people, and Jeff Chase, a giant 6’7″ bodybuilder).
The last example is certainly worth drawing attention to. I’d discuss it with students, ask them if it is ‘correct’, ask them if that matters, ask them to write their own. I feel that this approach is much more successful than trying to explain how to use brackets and should complement any explicit teaching of punctuation.
I’m often greeted with variations of ‘I know what I want to write but I just can’t get started.’ Good mentor texts can show many different ways to get started. When I ask students to write a letter, they can all get started. (I am writing to…) This is obviously not the greatest opening but they have been exposed to letters and letter writing in class so many times over the years that it is encoded. The opening to this review is not ground-breaking…
“Rock of Ages,” a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll musical set mostly in a music club on Sunset Strip, wins no prizes for originality.
…but is still a useful opening to steal: “Gravity,” a stunning adventure story set in open space, wins first prize for visual effects.‘ From there, students can build. We can introduce other review openings and ask students to compare which ones are more effective and why:
- Combine (1) a mysterious threat that attacks a town, and (2) a group of townspeople who take refuge together, and you have a formula apparently able to generate any number of horror movies, from “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) to “30 Days of Night.”
- Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery.
- After opening with one of the most terrifying flying scenes I’ve witnessed, in which an airplane is saved by being flown upside down, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best.
A sentence is a mentor text. We can use them on their own to highlight aspects of the writer’s craft or we can identify sentences of note in larger texts. In our mentor text, I noticed the following:
- If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
- If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
- If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.
Students can be asked to create their own. They can keep bits of the sentences or lose it all. They might play with the order. We could look at who ‘you’ is and the effect of that. Is ‘you’ the same in all sentences?
I’d also play around with a sentence like, ‘In a movie where all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves, Tom Cruise is the most merciless on himself.’
- In a movie where all the__________________, x is the most__________________.
- In a scene where none of the__________________, x is the least__________________.
- In a world where__________________, x__________________.
Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?
This paragraph is perfect for a review and perfect to steal. It could fit into any review which touches upon typical genre conventions. It could be used in isolation as an introduction to anaphora. It could be used in a Media Studies lesson to explore genre. The idea of constructing a paragraph can be difficult to grasp and examples like this are priceless in helping to show what is possible.
For more on mentor texts, I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher.