We all know the value of a really effective mentor text: media reviews from A/V Club, The Player’s Tribune for authentic narrative, The Ethicist (credit Penny & Kelly) for opinion or argument, TED Talks (ala Moving Writers) for writing that “speaks” to an audience, Humans of New York for whatever you want it to be. And in a workday that allows little time for “browsing” of any kind, the more adaptable the mentor text, the better.
Shana has written about the use of Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities for QuickWrites. I wrote about this mentor text as part of a multi-genre project. (Like most good ideas used in my classroom, this one was bestowed upon me by my teaching partner, Mariana). And we’re using it again with seniors as part of their author study in Advanced Writing. Students are tasked with identifying themes and abstract concepts that feature in their author’s work and personifying one of these in a prose poem after Ruth Gendler’s “Qualities.” This year, I’m also using this mentor text to “assess” independent reading in RWW for sophomores.
First, I give them a copy of the Table of Contents and samples from Gendler’s Book of Qualities and ask them to choose one that connects to their book. Now if I were more efficient (ha!), I would have a copy of each page available, but no. So, that afternoon, I scan the pages necessary for each student to have a hard copy of Gendler’s take on the quality they matched with their own book. In theory, I’ll eventually have all of them scanned and organized in a properly labeled folder, right? Again, ha!
Anyway, the next day or so, they get a copy of Gendler’s prose-poem personification of the quality they identified. Their writing task is to revise Gendler’s piece to make it specific to their author’s work. Scaffolding is kind of built in: less confident writers can make more extensive use of Gendler’s structure; stronger writers can even start from scratch. Either way, this task requires VERY explicit modeling, so I model with a quality that links to a text we all read together. This year, the model quality is power, arising out of our film-and-soliloquy study of Macbeth (although I think it would work with any shared text, even a poem or short story or article). Essentially, I build in specific details that are specifically text-related. For example, Macbeth’s power is “dressed in borrowed robes,” at least at first. It doesn’t walk but rather “vaults” across an entire continent with a dagger in its hand. Power’s hands never get clean, so why not just drench them in more blood? Even students who persisted in their claim that they just don’t “get” Shakespeare had their “Aha!” moment in this discussion.
Gendler’s clothing motif in her discussion of power is convenient, as clothing is a motif in the play as well. I just got lucky there. But students are still doing a version of literary analysis of theme and turning to the text for evidence. And it’s way more fun than that albatross of high school English classrooms, the Literary Analysis Essay.
What I love about this mentor text is its adaptability. It would work with any text, and students certainly don’t have to be limited to the “qualities” Gendler explores. They can CHOOSE to invent their own. Depending on how this goes with my sophomores, I might collect them and bind them into a class booklet, our own version of The Book of Qualities.