Tag Archives: Mentor Texts

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

IMG_1606

Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

Mini-lesson Monday: Thinking about Complexity

Many of my writers seem stuck in simple sentences. I think this has something to do with their reading fluency. When I ask them to read me a few lines out loud, they read in monotone with faltering phrases and seemingly little knowledge of the workings of punctuation. One of the best assessment tools I have for knowing what my readers need to help them become better writers is these few moments of one-on-one read alouds– them to me — in conferences. These conferences also remind me how closely my reading and writing instruction must be aligned. If my students cannot read well, I cannot really expect them to write well. (And it shows the huge variance of abilities in my AP Language classes.)

In an effort to move my readers and writers into more complexity, and to get them to start paying more attention to sentence structure in their independent reading, I know I must expect them to take action with what they learn. But I do not want to mandate anything I cannot keep up with, nor anything that will make students not want to read. So I decide to start a new challenge with our “quotes board” — the one that’s remained largely empty for most of this year.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels students will recognize and identify interesting and complex sentence structures; they will then copy the sentence into their writer’s notebooks and/or onto a notecard to use it as a mentor; then in their weekly blog posts, they will write and practice their craft, including at least one beautifully constructed sentence in their post. (If they choose to share their mentor sentence, they will pin it to our “quotes board” to display it for the week.)

Lesson:  First, I remind students that we’ve talked about sentence boundaries and sentence structure since the beginning of the year. I tell them that today we’re going to learn two different types of sentences:  periodic, and loose or cumulative, and look at how writers link details and ideas within sentences that create description and often rhythm.

I say, “We are going to study sentences from the 2015 Pulitzer Prize Winner All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr is our writing coach for the week. Let’s see what we can learn about writing more interesting sentences.”

I project the loose sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “How do all the details trailing off of the main idea make the sentence more interesting? What do you notice?”

loose sentence 1

After we’ve discussed the loose sentence, and I feel like students understand what makes it loose and how to identify this type of sentence, we move to the periodic sentence.

I project the following periodic sentence, and we talk about where the independent clause lies within it. “Why put the main idea of the sentence at the end?” I ask.

periodic sentence 1

We discuss why the author might have chosen to craft the sentence this way. “What does putting the main clause of the sentence at the end do for the meaning?” I ask.

Next, we study a few other beautifully crafted sentences I pulled from the novel. (There are so many!) Each time encouraging students to talk with one another to first identify the independent clause and then determine if the sentence is loose or periodic or an interesting combination. I remind them to discuss the meaning of the sentence and why the structure might matter.

We study.

beautiful sentence

and

beautiful sentence 2

And before we move into searching for loose and/or periodic sentences in our own independent reading books, I ask students to practice reading these four sentences aloud to one another.

“Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentence and what the punctuation does to create that rhythm,” I say. I give them a few moments to read sentences to one another at their tables. Low stakes. They know one another well, and there is no pressure. They help each other read, which is exactly what I want in my community of learners.

Follow up: I ask students to pay attention to the sentences in their independent reading books. “Watch for loose or periodic sentences,” I say, “and here’s the challenge:   When you find one, write it out on a notecard, and post it on the quotes board. Let’s see how many of these beautiful sentences we can collect this week.”

And remember to write at least one loose or periodic sentence in your blog post this week. Let’s work on crafting beautiful sentences like Doerr in our own works.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Sentence Boundaries and Adding Some Variety

Sorry, I forgot to record the book’s title.

Even the students in my AP English class struggle with correct punctuation and varying their sentences. In one-on-one conferences, I’ve started to remind them more often to pay attention to how the author of their self-selected books craft meaning. I used to get glossy-eyed blank stares, but students are beginning to understand that writers make intentional moves to draw us in, and keep us within, the pages of their books.

“As a writer, you must do that, too,” I remind them.

This lesson grew out of a conferring conversation with a student who told me:  “I just do not understand all the comma and semicolon stuff, but I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say in my writing.”

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize the sentence boundaries and the variety of sentence structures in their self-selected books. They will make observations about the author’s use of punctuation in these sentences, assessing the writer’s effectiveness in crafting meaning. Students will then use their author as a mentor as they apply their knowledge of sentence boundaries and sentence variety and create, revise, and rewrite sentences in their own pieces of writing. Finally, through peer-to-peer conferring, students will evaluate the accuracy and effectiveness of one another’s sentences.

Lesson:  Every student needs their independent reading book. If a student is reading a book of poems, or a graphic novel without many sentences, you will want to supply a stand in book for this lesson or ask the student to find a book she’s previously read.

Tell students that you’ve noticed in their writing that they are ready to make their sentences more sophisticated. Correctness is one way to do this. Varying the length of sentences is another way. Instruct students to turn to a random page in their books, say page 51. Ask them to read the page in search of one long sentence and one short sentence. Give students sentence stips or blank paper and have them write out the sentences they find in their books. They should spell and punctuate the sentences exactly like the author does.

sentence boundaries lessonNext, in small groups, ask students to discuss with one another the structure of the sentences. They might put all the short sentences together and compare them. Then they might put the long sentences together and look at how the authors use commas to separate ideas. Some students will know more about grammatical terms than others, and that is okay. The idea is to get students noticing how writers compose within the boundaries of standard English and to get them to understand how punctuation works to craft meaning. Ask questions that help them discover why boundaries and variety work to produce effective writing.

You may choose to have students imitate the sentences they chose from their books. Imitation is a useful tool for many writers.

Using self-selected books, not just to practice wide reading, but to teach students to read like writers, adds an important element to the workshop classroom. Our writing improves when we take the time to notice and apply the skills of professional writers.

Follow up:  Have students review a piece of their own writing. The writing can be in any stage of the writing process. They should study their writing to evaluate their use of sentence boundaries and variety. Encourage students to revise their writing as necessary, remembering to use the author of their books as their mentors.

Extension:  This lesson works to have students study leads, similar to what Jackie wrote about in the mini-lesson Pick up Lines and Leads. It also works to have students search their books for sentences that include imagery.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

#FridayReads — Oh, Mercy! Have I got a plan for this mentor text

Usually I read about four books at a time. This makes for a mess on the bedside table, the coffee table, the kitchen table. I rarely use bookmarks, which is a shame because I have quite a lovely collection.

I end up leaving books split open and sound asleep right where I left them –sometimes just so I can remember the parts I know I want to use in class. I refuse to read on until I capture the sentence or passage that gives me pause. Such is the case with my new now bent-spine-copy of Just Mercy, a Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I’ve been stuck on page 18.

Here’s a portion of the passage I will use with my AP Lang students. You will, of course, find the rest of it when you buy the book, or here.

     When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison: one in every three black males babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.

     We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.

     We also make terrible mistakes. Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed . Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guild, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.

…..

     We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and — perhaps — we all need some measure of unmerited grace. 

 

Before we ever read the text, and I did pull much more of it than I’ve posted here, we’ll spark our thinking with an image like this, posted at The Sentencing Project, and then write our initial responses in our writer’s notebooks:

Next, we will TALK. I know my students will want to share what they think about this graphic. Many will identify personally with it because they know a family member or a friend who’s served prison time.

When I introduce them to Stevenson’s text, I’ll give them a purpose for reading — besides just comprehending the message (identifying the purpose is a breeze since he tells us the reason he writes the book) — I want my students to notice the structure, the progression between ideas, the repetition and patterns they will see in the language. All the clues that build the tone.

I will ask them to mark the text, noting their thinking about these things. Without a purpose for reading, too many of my students struggle with the stamina they need to make it through even a page when I ask them to read critically.

Next, we will TALK. Talking will help some students understand what they read. It will help other students clarify their understanding. Some students will have noted what I asked them to notice as they read. I will rely on them to help the others — skill level is just one way my students are diverse.

I will also hand them a stack of questions that prepare them to write. They will read something like this:

What do you know about the writer based on what he writes?

What is the Stevenson’s purpose? Why does he come out and tell us so plainly?

What are the facts in this piece? What are opinions? How do you know?

What do you notice about the structure, any patterns, repetition? What do they do for the message?

How does Stevenson move between ideas?

And then we will write. Maybe I’ll give a prompt like this: Based on the text, and our discussion, is Stevenson’s opening argument effective, why or why not?  Maybe I’ll ask students to come up with their own analytical-style question to respond to. (I like this idea a lot.)  [see Talk Read Talk Write]

That’s probably enough for one class period, but my mind is still stirring:

  • What if I ask students to problematize the issue? Who are the stakeholders? Think all the way around the issue. Why do they care? Why do we care? What kinds of questions do we have about the claims Stevenson makes? What kinds of evidence do we need to convince us they are valid? How and when could anything regarding this issue change?
  • What if I ask students to identify just one of Stevenson’s claims and then research it? I assume the author provides support throughout the book. I’ll know when I keep reading. But what if students did a bit of research and then collaborated on substantiating Stevenson’s claims. Collaborative writing can be a powerful learning experience.
  • What if I ask students to brainstorm other issues Stevenson’s text suggests? We could probably create a pretty elaborate bubble map of ideas. These could lead to student choice in research topics.

What do you think? Any other ideas?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Poems to Write Beside

Last evening was #poetrychat. We talked about poems that inspire writing. Here’s a list of all the poems mentioned. I wrote them in my notebook, and then I pinned them to my poetry board. Then I read and wrote a bit.

Eyes Fastened with Pins by Charles Simic

The Fall of Icarus by WC Williams

Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H Auden

This is Just to Say (a book) by Joyce Sidman

Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye

Where Dreams Come From by Marge Piercy

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon

Hailstones & Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neil (elementary)

(anything by Douglas Florian) (elementary)

Change by Charlotte Zolotow

Legacies by Nikki Giovanni

How to Live by Charles Harper Webb

A Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe

Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

(poems by Tony Medina and @SirJohnBennett and Claudia McKay)

The First Day by Joseph Green

Days by Billy Collins

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

(other poems by Billy Collins, Christina Rosetti, and Sandra Cisneros)

For the Young Who Want To by Marge Piercy

Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden

Do you have other favorites to write beside or to ask students to write beside? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

And Happy Writing!

I plan to read and write to one poem every day this month. I find it fulfilling. Strange word, maybe, but there it is. Once I get the pen moving, I can write for hours. That’s what I need is hours of writing time.

How and what are you writing this summer?

Why Assignment Sheets Might Be Killing Your Students’ Writing

58090ec056811830ee936030edb1c9dbMy first year of teaching, I didn’t realize that the “five-paragraph essay” was a dirty phrase. My  internship year I painstakingly dragged my freshmen through the essay outlining process, watching them regurgitate homogeneous essays about symbolism in Lord of the Flies. At the end of our six-week study of the book, I slogged through 25 nearly identical essays, all of which had eloquent yet oddly familiar intro, body, and conclusion paragraphs. I’ll readily admit that despite the dull content, I felt victorious. My students had completed literary analysis essays and I had taught the foundation of essay structures.

It was that summer that my perception on structured essays changed. Two days into taking Penny Kittle’s writing course at the University of New Hampshire’s Literacy Institute, I realized that I had committed a cardinal sin of workshop teachers. Admitting to teaching the five-paragraph essay (let alone the sandwich method of paragraph-writing) was like confessing to enjoying McDonald’s burgers at an elegant chophouse: the cut (or concoction) of meat might serve the same purpose, to fill me up, but the quality was quite different. In turn, I was feeding my students homogeneous writing, a detailed equation to a subject that couldn’t be distilled down to simple mathematics. If I expected greatness, I needed to break beyond the boundaries of such a restrictive form of writing. After all, an introduction + body paragraphs + conclusion didn’t guarantee a solid essay; if anything, it guaranteed an entirely unspectacular essay.

This process of digesting the material and then providing a summary of the structure was far too easy for students. Not only did it place the onus on me to provide a set guide of instructions, but it also required me to complete the majority of analysis. Instead of my students engaging with the text and delving into the intricacies of structure and craft through individual exploration and group discussions, I was basically pre-digesting the material before offering it to them.

IMG_1845

Students analyzing an author’s craft in front of the class.

This year I have made a point to wean my students, particularly my juniors and seniors, off the assignment outlines they so desperately desire. Instead, my students now receive a half-page sheet simply telling them the type of essay they are writing (cause and effect, definition, personal narrative, etc.), the mentor texts they may refer back to, the page length requirement, and the due date.

Initially, they were frustrated with this format. As one student said during our career building unit in which we practiced writing cover letters and resumes for celebrities, “Ms. Catcher, do you have an assignment sheet for this or something?” When I pointed out the paper I had given to him previously, he replied, “No, I mean something that tells me how to write this paper.” We discussed the numerous mentor texts we had read and dissected and how these as well as our class discussions ultimately provided the basis we to develop our pieces. As a class, we asked questions of the text and author, starting broad by looking at the overall tone, voice, structure, intended audience, and progression of the piece. Then, independently or within small groups, we delved into more of the intricacies—what examples were provided, word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, and transitions. Students have gradually learned that there is no set solution for getting an A, which also means that they are forced to read and reread mentor texts to gain a firm understanding of a piece’s intricacies.

My problem from the beginning was that I was too busy telling my students how to write an essay to allow them to discover the messy albeit enlightening connection between reading, writing, and modeling. As we complete the last six weeks of school, I have noticed a significant difference in the structure and craft of my students’ work. They are relying more readily on mentors to help guide them in their process, and I can see both their group and independent analysis directly translate into their writing. For the past three years, I have harped on my students about showing rather than telling, but as the year comes to a close, I can finally say that I have internalized my own advice when it comes to my teaching.

How do you inspire students to rely on mentor texts instead of assignment sheets?  What steps have you taken throughout the year to make them more independent and confident writers?

Behind Barbed Wires

sticker,375x360.u1In honor of the recent Holocaust Remembrance Day, I find it befitting to share Room 382’s shelf comprised of pieces in which those, who experienced the nightmare, share their stories.  Each piece on this shelf is dedicated to bringing awareness, and hopefully shed light on how history truly can repeat itself, if we do not prevent it.

While this shelf hosts stories of tragedy, suffering, and insurmountable pain and loss; it serves a purpose. Aside from the devastating, these pieces share with us the true essence of humanity.  Often, this is the first time students are diving into this 80-year-old genocide and trying to make sense of it. Many times we can’t; and other times we are able to connect over the beauty that surfaced. It’s all very complex.

Elie Wiesel’s story (and bravery) is shared via his trilogy starting with Night then moving us through Dawn and eventually through the Day.  See what he did here?

Anne Frank shares her experience as a young woman budding into adolescence in a time where her beautiful spirit defeated the confines of her attic.  Various types of literature have been compiled so IMG_20150424_083609students (and all readers) can experience Anne’s story in various ways: her published diary, actual footage restored via the Anne Frank House (a gift from a friend’s visit to Amsterdam), the play, and many others.

Maus, an incredible two-part graphic novel, utilizes the “Cat and Mouse” metaphor to portray the Nazis
vs. the Jews during the Holocaust.  This two part series is detailed and brings to life the realities of the inner workings; the emotional turmoil yet amazing perseverance of those living through this moment in history.

Those are three pieces among many.  There are books here (and ones that are currently signed out) that chronicle voices of the children of the Holocaust, novels that use real-life situations yet tell a fictional story, perspectives from a Nazi’s Jewish wife, the bravery of a journalist who swapped places with a Jew to ultimately expose the hidden…

Students are typically surprised, fascinated, uncertain, saddened and sometimes hesitant when it comes to this shelf.  Understandably.  This shelf asks us to inquire and then sit with our findings.  Yet, the conversations and rich discussions that float around this shelf are beautiful; truly beautiful and strengthen our understanding of what it truly means to be human.

 

 

Oh, the Learning in One Well-Chosen Sentence

51 Most Beautiful Sentences -- Buzzfeed

First, we read like readers. We talk about meaning. We talk about the story if any students have read the book. Many have. The Perks of Being a Wallflower never stays on the shelf for long.

I see several students flip to the back of their writer’s notebooks and write the title on their To Read Next lists.

Next, we read like writers. “The writer does a few things interesting in this sentence. What do you notice?” I ask.

We talk about starting a sentence with and, which leads to a discussion about sentence structure. We talk about the word infinite, which leads to a discussion about the word moment.

“What? That’s a contradiction,” someone says.

“Uh huh,” I nod and listen as little conversations bubble up around the room.

Then, from the back, a student says, “Do you see the three we’s in that sentence? Do you?”

I cannot help but grin.

You see it, don’t you?

Oh, sentences. Lovely sentences. Oh, the learning in one well-chosen sentence.

I cannot even imagine how much I would have learned TALKING about sentences all those years ago instead of diagramming them.

Do you have a favorite sentence you like to talk about with your students?

This Buzzfeed article has 51 Beautiful Sentences. I mention this piece in my post tomorrow, too. And if you haven’t visited Notable Sentences for Imitation and Creation, you’ll want to find some time to read it.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

G. Neri’s Yummy

 

yummy

Synopsis

In this award-winning graphic novel, Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life becomes interwoven with other true events from a period in time where Chicago’s south side was running rampant with gang activity and violence. The year: 1994. Yet, its relevance still holds weight today in urban communities throughout our country. Unfortunately.

Narration and Writer’s Craft

Through third person narration, eleven year old Roger, guides us through the ongoings, thoughts, chaos, family ties, brotherhood, fears, ponderings, love, realities and insecurities most young adolescent males experience.

Roger lives on Normal Street.  He addresses what many readers are already thinking:  But I guess “normal” is different to different folks.

In studying craft, this one liner opens up dialogue, the use of language and repetition, and the importance of quotation marks in varying situations.  Throughout the entire story, you are greeted with on-point vernacular, literary devices, and a storyline that pulls at the heart strings.  (Just ask my students.)

Additionally, the incredible illustrations allow us the luxury of experiencing Yummy’s journey through his eyes, Roger’s eyes, and the eyes of all of those that take part in the journey.

It’s pretty loaded.

 Essential Ideas and ThemesYummy: The Last Days of a Southside Short

This gritty exploration of Yummy’s life forces readers (of all ages) to question their own understandings of good and bad, right or wrong, yes vs. no.

It searches for truth.

It provides us with the inner-workings of [the downfall of] self-worth and naturally asks us to question it.

Ultimately, we are challenged to think on a macro level about society; why are so many of our youth feeling forced into a life where statistics are alarmingly glaring?

 

Yummy is a piece that everyone needs to read.  It’s important.  It’s relevant.  It affords us a window into the lives of so many of our youth.  No wonder it has won just under 30 honors and awards.  This is one piece of literature you cannot afford to miss.

For more books by G. Neri feel free to visit his website: http://www.gregneri.com

——-

Yummy Time

Here is the cover of TIME Magazine’s issue detailing the story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer.  Tragic and important.

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

315425I grew up as a reader, but I was a steadfast reader of fiction only–especially series.  I remember receiving my PSAT score report in high school, which strongly suggested that I begin reading more nonfiction in order to improve my vocabulary and reading comprehension.

So, not being informed about the wonderful nonfiction tomes I now know about, I began to read the newspaper.  That probably contributed to my majoring in journalism, and now teaching that subject in addition to English.

But it wasn’t until I took Penny Kittle’s class at the UNH Literacy Institute in 2013 that I fell in love with nonfiction (pardon me, Mr. Lehman and Ms. Roberts!).  I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and was enamored of his use of narrative to help me understand seemingly disparate facts.  I quickly read all of Gladwell’s other books, then devoured the rest of the booklist from Penny’s class–The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and plenty more.

However, it’s not since Gladwell that I’ve found another nonfiction author whose collected works I’m dying to devour…until now.

I recently asked my students to brainstorm as many nonfiction genres as they could, then select three for us to focus on for this quarter.  One of their selections was a recipe.  I wanted to show my students lots of examples of writing about food, so I purchased Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  I picked up In Defense of Food first, and was left defenseless.

This book rocked my world, and my worldview.  It’s a book about the food we eat, where it comes from, how it’s different than other cultures’ foods, and how it’s good and bad for us.  I learned about the wild inaccuracies of food science, the nutrient-depleting process of processing food, and the government’s allowance of all this because of their dependence on food marketers’ money.  I also learned about the evolution of America’s food culture–from farm fresh to TV dinner to fast food–and its deleterious health effects on our population.

So, after Pollan sufficiently freaked me out and made me swear to myself that I’d never eat any processed food again in my life, he presented a clear solution to my fretting and outlined some rules for eating healthily (the subtitled Eater’s Manifesto).  I learned how to shop smart, defy the American diet’s unhealthy customs, and consider my foods in the contexts of their meals, which can completely transform their nutritional value.

It wasn’t just the topic that fascinated me (admittedly, I love to cook)…it was the writing.  From knee-slappingly incredible food puns like “let them eat Twinkies” and “the silence of the yams” to his deft skill at citing other writing to support his own arguments, I was convinced.  The clear organization of the book mirrors his three basic rules about eating well, which he states in sentence number one:  “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  The complex narrative he weaves makes perfect sense, but is incredibly layered.  Through it all, Pollan made his claims and supported them sturdily, leaving me not only swept up in a great story, but thoroughly knowledgeable about what real food is and isn’t in America today.

I can’t wait to bring this book to my students through book clubs, a reading challenge, or a craft study mini-lesson…so I’ll booktalk it tomorrow to my Funyun-munching students with as much fire and brimstone as I can manage, and hope they hop on the Pollan diet with me.

%d bloggers like this: