Tag Archives: mentor texts

X-Ray Reading

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Roy Peter Clark’s X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing is a must read for teachers. Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, has taught for more than 30 years and authored or edited 18 books. In this X-Ray Reading he encourages his readers to “put on their x-ray reading glasses” along with him and undress the text. This experience leads to deeper reading knowledge and deeper writing knowledge. Beginning with The Great Gatsby and working his way through contemporary literature, Clark spends time with the fine details and its literacy effects. He writes, “writing is a game of language connection and meaning.” Let’s play.

George Orwell said, “Good writing is like a window pane, a frame for seeing the world, a boundary that is hardly noticeable.”

What should we stop, notice, and note?  Here are some places to pay special attention:

The Opening Passage & Treasured Endings- These foreshadow the rest of the story. Great beginnings arc and hint at great endings with foreshadowing details. Clark utilizes The Great Gatsby to illustrate the strategic treasures of powerful endings and beginnings.

Lyrical sentences – “Long sentences that take us on a journey” (pg 46) whereas short sentences are the “gospel of truth.”

Intentional elaboration and Cliffhangers that propel the reader.

Symbolism –  Geography, names (“names are a tool to project and overview character”), and common objects with deeper meaning and or religious references. There is so much religious symbolism in literature and Clark tells all his readers to read the Bible to notice and note the religious symbolism.

Repetition or the “echo effect” – Not redundancy, but purposeful repetition and the variation of a word, object, and idea. Clark mentions language clubs and word associations to help be creative with repetition. Similarly, tropes and motifs that show up again and again are significant. Think of the powerful image of the green light in The Great Gatsby that emerges throughout the story with its literal meaning and connotations.

Word Choice, Punctuation, & Diction – “Structural, architectural concerns – the ways in which the patterns of language and imagery create the backbone of a narrative” (pg 22). Then look at “the feel and the effect of the writer’s vocabulary as a whole.” Clark references  American Scholar’s 10 Best Sentences in Literature as a place to begin studying the master craft of authors. The difference between “just the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Nature, Setting, and Landscape – Places in the text where authors harmonize nature with narrative action and emotion and then places where nature is indifferent. Weather is part of the setting of the story and can be used symbolically. Weather is a character and metaphor that provides tension with the plot. His example of Zora Neale Hurston’s passage under the pear tree in Their Eyes Were Watching God transforms language and images of nature into symbolically rich passages.

Characterization – Clark says that it is important to torture your main character and make them suffer. He gives permission to his writing students to kill someone at the end. Details reveal the complexities of a character’s inner life. What characters are not doing is important, often more than their direction actions. Referring to Kurt Vonnegut’s advice  on the relationship between plot and character in narrative writing, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for, every character should want something, and be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them” (pg 126). Harry Potter is one example of this test of character.

Time – Stories are about time in motion but there are moments when time seems to stop. As a writer you can freeze time or slow down time as with To Kill a Mockingbird during the court room scene and again with Atticus shooting the rabid dog. Look for places where the readers is eased into the complex because the author’s purpose is to make us see.

Titles – Clark cites as the most important element of stories

Clark wants us to OVER READ. He writes, “literature is about movie making with your notebook and choreographing a dance.” He is all for reading like a writer. He states, “To grow as a write, you should read the words of the writers you admire and look for ways to imitate that work” (pg. 184). Plus, incorporate the “reading of poetry to examine the beautiful compression of language, meaning, and emotion.”

There are specific chapters in the book that I will be sharing with my students to help them undress and close read the text. His chapter on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is great to read in conjunction with the short story and when my students begin reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I will share Clark’s x-ray chapter with them. If we expect students to read like writers then we must give them models what that looks like. They need opportunities to trace symbols across a text and see how writers play with words. Starting small with sentences, poems, and then short stories can help students crack open the masterful elements writers design.

Want more? Check out this podcast with Roy Peter Clark on Book Titans

 

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John F. Kennedy as a Writing Mentor & Model: Writing & Social Action

This week I took a trip to The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA. The museum is “dedicated to preserving and providing access to the legacy of the 35th President of the United States.”

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Among all the artifacts, photographs, and videos, JFK’s writings were at the forefront. The museum and library present the depth of John F. Kennedy’s writing from his schooling days, his honors thesis that was turned into a book, his writing Portraits of Courage, and the countless speeches he wrote (along with his aide, Ted Sorenson) and presented during the time he was in office. It is intriguing that the Museum begins with information about JFK as a young person and highlights his lack of focus and academic rigor in high school. In fact, it is clear based on his high school grades that school was not JFK’s priority. His French teacher wrote, “Jack’s work varies from excellent to extremely poor. . . he has to make the decision between mediocrity and worthwhile work, – and Jack should never be content with the former.” As one progresses throughout the museum, it is clear that JFK’s work moving forward was more than worthwhile.

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Looking at Kennedy’s writings it is clear that he borrowed from many models and mentors himself to produce one of the greatest speeches in American history. Kennedy’s inaugural address taps into key themes Kennedy wanted to convey to the American people at the beginning of an era:  peace, freedom, service to others, and personal accountability. The speech itself contains contributions or borrowings from, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and president Lincoln. It has been said that the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do from your country” was adapted from Kennedy’s headmaster at Choate.

As a writer, Kennedy was always revising his speeches and looking at the original scripts, one can see the revisions he made in his own handwriting to get the words out just right. His words are meticulous and thoughtful. He used his words to present ideas about war and peace, the possibility of the space program, to advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, when facing a moral crisis and efforts to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation, and to celebrate great writers and artists.

As a teacher, I am always looking for models and mentors for my students to understand the writing process, the craft of writing, and how words are powerful to move masses of people to change thoughts and actions.

Author and teacher, Kelly Gallagher writes in In The Best Interest of Students (Stenhouse, 2015), “students benefit when they pay close attention to models before they begin drafting, they benefit when they pay close attention to models while they are drafting, and they benefit when they pay close attention to models as they begin moving their drafts into revision. Mentor texts achieve maximum effectiveness when students frequently revisit them throughout the writing process.” Kennedy’s writing can be used to study history and the craft of writing. So many of his speeches are mentor texts for our students.

As JFK wrote in the speech for Dallas before his assassination (and was never able to present), “The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence.” Throughout his 1,036 days in office, John F. Kennedy’s words were clear and full of conviction, precise and provoking. Aren’t these the same characteristics we want to see in our students’ writing and thinking?

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Take 5: #NCTE14 Annual Convention Day One

It was an amazing first day at NCTE’s Annual Convention. I spent the day sitting in thought-provoking workshops and meeting a number of young adult and children’s authors. Below are some highlights and take-aways from Day One.

1. All great writers BORROW from one another.

Whether a published author or budding writer, good writers borrow ideas from other writers. If we want students to write like great writers, teachers must share with students exemplary models and mentor texts. Great authors borrow voracious vocabulary, style moves, strong voices, and literary techniques.  Surround young people with great books and amazing authors, and let them investigate, notice, and study the writers’ moves to encourage students to love writing and see the power of words.

2. REREADING is essential.

Author of The Writing Thief, Ruth Culham shared that every August she rereads To Kill a Mockingbird. She said she does this because she “always learns something new each time she rereads it and she hasn’t learned everything that the book has to offer.” I can attest to this myself as I am always learning something new and different when I read and reread a text multiple times. Teachers need to slow students down when reading and encourage them to read a text multiple times and search for the gems that writers leave behind in their texts.

3. Fold Away

If you are an weekly reader of my blog, you know that I use and create interactive foldables in my English classroom with my eighth grade students. I am not alone. Foldables are portals for teaching the what and why. They are more interactive than a worksheet, and they are wonderful tools to help chunk and scaffold information.

4. Looking in Awe at Each other

As much as teachers are in awe of authors, authors are in the awe of teachers. The young adult authors I met and heard in various workshops talked about teachers as the ones who encourage, inspire, challenge, and cheer both published authors and student authors. Make connections with authors and encourage students to reach out to authors on social media to share fan love and book love.

5. Engage With Others: Learn, Grow, and Collaborate

As schools continue to cut funding for effective professional development, teachers must take professional development and search out opportunities for professional growth. I am a teacher because I love learning as much as I love my content area. Everyday is an opportunity to learn, grow, reflect, and be a better teacher. Look around — professional development opportunities are all around us, and with the power of social media, we never have to stop learning, collaborating, rebooting, and reflecting.

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