10 Mentors for Your Students’ Writing

As a new semester is about to begin, I thought I would post the passages that make wonderful mentors for writers or quickwrite inspirations for the first 10 minutes of class.

Writing this post has reminded me how important it is to find a teacher partner who is exploring similar ideas. Many of these passages have either been tested by or given to me by my mentor text search partner Toby VanHarten. Sharing what we find has been important for me because while I usually stick to fiction, Toby finds me fantastic non-fiction pieces. You can’t read everything on your own,  so find a reading buddy. It’s worth it.

If you have your own favourites, please add them to the comments. I can never have too many of these!

Also if you try any of them, please take pictures of your students’ work (with their permission), and send them to me (cmcourt@hwdsb.on.ca). I love reading the work that these passages inspire.

Passage #1 from Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I was on fire.

It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window.

I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized my dress was on fire. Frozen with fear, I watched the yellow-white flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach. Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face.

I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.

Mom ran into the room.

“Mommy, help me!” I shrieked. I was still standing on the chair, swatting at the first with the fork I had been using to stir the hot dogs.

Mom ran out of the room and came back with one of the army-surplus blankets I hated because the wool was so scratchy. She threw the blanket around me to smother out the flames. Dad had gone off in the car, so Mom grabbed me and my younger brother, Brian, and hurried over to the trailer next to ours. The woman who lived there was hanging her laundry on the clothesline. She had clothespins in her mouth. Mom, in an unnaturally calm voice, explained what had happened and asked if we could please have a ride to the hospital. The woman dropped her clothespins and laundry right there in the dirt and, without saying anything, ran for her car.

Possible Uses:

Quickwrites about memories of injuries (I’d probably use the first time I broke my arm when my mom waved it up and down and asked “Do you think it’s broken?”)

As a mentor, I would use it to talk about how powerful short sentences and paragraphs can be. You can’t get much better than that first line! I would also use it to discuss how to write about single moments. The description of the tutu and the flames “climbing” her stomach also make for interesting craft moves for students to study.

Passage #2 from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever
gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car.
Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for
school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the
freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mother got
married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we
never would have looked for the mechanic who became the
husband who became the stepfather who became the man who
tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s
head – I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.

Possible Uses:

As quickwrite inspiration, Toby told his students to choose something different than secondhand cars that they either love or hate. Using the technique of repetition and listing, students craft a similar paragraph explaining the reasons they love or hate their
chosen item. As a bonus, he suggests that they try to craft a final sentence similar to the one from Noah.

As a mentor text, I would point out the repetition of “secondhand car,” and also the climatic order of his examples. He starts with detention and ends with the attempted murder of his mother by his stepfather. I would also want to point out how he uses that last phrase to create humour after revealing trauma.

Passage #3 from A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

BEEF
Gets passed around like name-brand
T-shirts around here. Always too big.
Never ironed out.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students can write about grievances, feelings, or attitudes that they’ve inherited from family or friends.  Some students use this quickwrite to work out a current conflict they are experiencing.

As a mentor text, I think the amazing simile is pretty apparent, but I would want to point out why it’s so brilliant. There are multiple layers to it.  Students can examine how the t-shirt’s size and wrinkles relate to beef.

Passage #4 from Michael Redhill’s Bellvue Square

Only Nick can detect that I’m off. Beneath his shell, he’s a feeling boy. I go into his room at ten to turn out his lights.

“You okay, Mum?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Your face is white and shiny.”

“I had Filet-O-Fish for lunch.”

“You ate fish twice today?”

“I guess I did.”

“On purpose?”

“It’s lights out now, so let’s finish with the questions. Scooch”

He wriggles toward the foot of the bed and I pull his covers up.

“Can I ask you one more thing?”

“What?”

“Do you have cancer?”

The question shocks us both. “Why on earth would you ask me that?”

“‘Cause you look sick.”

I kiss his forehead. “You’re a good boy.” I worry about what goes on in their heads when they’re alone. “Everything is fine. We’re all together. We’re safe as houses.”

“Some houses fall down,” he says.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could record the dialogue of a conversation they’ve had, or may wish they could have. Students could also write about their parents, their childhood fears, or their own siblings who may ask startling questions.

As a mentor text, I love using this piece to show how dialogue works. Redhill only uses a speech tag once, but we can follow the speakers all the way through.  We examine this passage together and then come up with a list of suggestions to make dialogue work.

Passage #5 from Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter

Lima kneed me in the gut.This city of cathedrals was full of people.Crowds jammed the cobblestone streets, and vendor sold shakes from stationary bicycles with blenders attached, whistling boleros as they pedalled.Flies landed on papayas as fast as the vendors could peel them, but they threw the fruit into blenders anyway, topping it with milk that had been sitting in the sun for hours.All around us there were people hawking jackets and gold chains and little trinkets. Beggar children missing arms and legs were pushed around on homemade skateboards by bigger children whose feet were black with dirt.The boys who passed by winked their eyes and made kissing sounds, murmuring “Mamita” in your ears.Everywhere you looked, even on the cathedral steps, there were couples making out.Church bells rang and nuns asked for donations.Music blasted from every store, and groups of yelling men pressed up against shop windows to watch a soccer game on T.V.Buses never stopped honking their horns.The air stank of sewers and diesel………

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students choose an exciting or busy place they have experienced (the first day of school, Canada’s Wonderland, a visit to a different country),  and they write with each sense, unconcerned with having each sentence connect with that before it.

As a mentor text, Toby says that it is terrific for descriptive writing and mood.  He points how she describes unrelated experiences that just seem to come at her (you can hear it, feel it, see it, smell it, and taste it) smacking her in the face and overwhelming her.

Passage#6  from James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby has his students write as if they were looking at pictures in a photo album or on social media, reflecting on someone’s life (or their own).

As a mentor text, the full-length passage is an excellent example of how to write about a single moment using listing effectively.  It also would work as a handy passage for teaching how to use semi-colons and commas in a list (boring I know, but better than a worksheet!)

Passage #7 Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t

And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am

Frightened

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, I ask students to write about their own fears, or something they’ve done when they were afraid.

As a mentor text, we talk about how Giovanni is using her act of killing a spider to say something much bigger. This text would also be perfect for introducing Vicki Vinton’s Know/Wonder charts (see my earlier post about those here) so that students can discover the meaning in this poem on their own.

Passage #8 from  Anthony Swofford’s essay, “I was a Marine. I Don’t Want a Gun in my Classroom”

Before the United States Marine Corps allowed me to carry a live M-16 assault rifle, I went through hundreds of hours of firearms training. Classroom sessions devoted to nomenclature, maintenance and basic operation accounted for more than two weeks of study before I even set eyes on ammunition. For weeks, I carried an M-16 without a magazine — a dummy weapon, basically. I secured it with a padlock overnight while I slept in the barracks, and unlocked it each morning before chow.

Only at the shooting range was I allowed to check out magazines and ammo from the armory. The first day at the range I spent 12 hours disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the weapon. I had to do this blindfolded. I had to do this while a drill instructor hurried me, yelling that enemies were at the gate. I had to do this while fellow Marines wept nearby from doing hundreds of burpees as punishment for not being able to reassemble their weapons fast enough.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could experiment with writing introductions to opinion pieces where they use their own experiences and knowledge to establish their authority.

As a mentor text, you might want to use the entire piece from the New York Times. Toby uses it to teach how you could start an opinion piece with a personal narrative ( a lot more engaging than- “I think school uniforms are a good idea for the following reasons…”). Swofford actually takes three paragraphs to get to his thesis. Three! Throw out those 5 paragraph essay models!

Passage #9 William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students write to apologize for something they were sorry, but not really sorry, about. Later in the semester, he had a student write him a “This is Just to Say” apology for stealing one of his books. (These are the nerdy moments we live for!)

As a mentor text, Toby uses the poem to talk about structure and tone (sorry, not sorry).

Passage #10  Susan Marie Scavo’s “Food. Music. Memory.”

She says: Cupcakes. Brownies. Pies. She says:
Remember this. Bread. Stew. Sauce. She says:
All that time. She says: singing. All I taught
you. She says: Crayon. Alligator. By Scouts.
She says: Baseball. Soccer. Track. She says:
I was there. Remember?

I say: Shouting. Silence. Shouting. I say:
Remember this. Scotch. Vodka. Kahlua. I say:
Cupcake. Meatloaf. Sauce. I say: Singing. All
you would not tell me. I say: Crayon. Dancing.
Guitar. I say: Belt. Hairbrush. Hand. I say:
I was there. Remember?

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite students can write about a relationship, event, or disagreement from two different perspectives.

As a mentor text, there is so much to work with here. Again I would recommend using Vinton’s Know/Wonder chart for this. Toby delayed giving his students the second half of the poem, and then really enjoyed their reactions as they were creating meaning for themselves. It is interesting to point out that words change meaning depending on how they are grouped.

Hopefully, these ten passages will get you started on what is a very rewarding and effective classroom routine. Stay tuned for additional posts about mentor texts, including one I’ve started about passages perfect for middle school.

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