January 25

Mentor Texts

Inspired by Lauren Drew’s use of “Less Attitude. More Fitness.” as a #mentortext in the #writingthief #mooc Make Cycle 3: Mentor Scavenger Hunt, my mind veered to another well-known fitness slogan; Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Imagine my shock to discover the disquieting origins of this saying, which has been an upbeat, encouraging declaration in our cultural consciousness since 1988. This means students in our classrooms have heard it their whole lives. According to a 2009 New York Times article, “Just Do It” is a spin on “Let’s do it.” Those words were uttered in 1977 by Utah convicted killer Gary Gilmore just before he was executed by a firing squad. As reported in the article, a former Nike marketing chief  admits that “the origins of ‘Just Do It’ were not widely known or acknowledged.” Not surprising!

This discovery caused me to think deeper about words, phrases, slogans that are deeply embedded into our cultural fabric. How much do we understand about the origins and reasons we use those particular phrases?

The animated film Robots, released in 2005, is packed full of pop culture spoofs. It includes references to, among many others, Britney Spears, Star Wars, and Michael Jackson. Young children watching the movie at the same time I was were responding to the surface, slapstick humor. I found it to be hilarious because of the cultural references. The children missed that layer of humor, because those references were not (yet) part of their consciousness.

Isn’t that layering a common attribute in the most timeless texts? The comic series Calvin & Hobbes is a case in point. Young children can enjoy (and identify with!) the situations Calvin gets himself into beginning at a young age. As they grow older, they can explore those stories again and get a whole new level of understanding, not only of the plot, but the humor. Then, when they themselves become parents, they will understand Calvin’s parents better, and possibly show more sympathy for their plight!

These reflections impressed upon me how important it is to ask students to explore stories. Not just the surface level, but each layer. This investigation will vary, depending on the age of the students, but we can ask even young children whether they can name other stories that are similar to what we are reading to them. We can ask older students to think about possible influences that contributed to a writer’s storytelling. We can also guide them into drawing connections between past and present interpretations of common themes and characterizations.

In Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address to students at the University of the Arts,  he describes some of the steps of his journey into becoming a recognized writer. Gaiman is a brilliant writer and storyteller. Nonetheless, he has been a #writingthief of other writers, some apparent, others less so. He acknowledges influences as varied as  G.K Chesterton, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and C.S. Lewis.

My personal favorite of his books is American Gods. I love the way he weaves ancient mythical characters from several continents into a rich mythical tale of his own. In the process, he also creates a few new gods, to reflect current cultural preoccupations. Since I am a #lifelong #reader, I recognized many of the (renamed) characters in American Gods, and thoroughly enjoyed Gaiman’s representation of them. If I were less of a reader, I would have enjoyed the story, but I would have missed the richly textured layers he weaves into the plot.

Another excellent reason to inspire today’s young people to enjoy not only contemporary fiction, but to also reach back to stories told over the millennia, in order to build a rich understanding of who we are, and where we came from.



January 5


The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP) graciously included me in their list of invitees to the currently-underway Writing Thief MOOC, a deep examination of Ruth Culham’s book The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing. As I explained in my introduction to the MOOC participants, I’m an outlier in the group, as I am not a formally trained writing teacher. My passion is project-based learning, which encompasses all disciplines, and which is itself an (albeit quickly growing) outlier in educational methodologies.

I had encountered a number of the Writing Thief MOOC leaders and participants during the summer 2014 Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC). I learned tremendously from that experience. I received an introduction to many technology tools available to incorporate into writing experiences (as well as other disciplines). I encountered other professionals’ views on teaching and learning. Perhaps most importantly, I discovered that interacting with this virtual community of similarly-minded people is good for my soul.

Therefore, I was eager to join the current conversation. Similarly to #CLMOOC, The Writing Thief MOOC consists of a number of “make cycles,” in this instance related to topics and themes contained in The Writing Thief.

In the second make cycle, we were asked to “find a quote (or quotes) from The Writing Thief that resonates with you,” then “[l]ook at it closely and dissect it” before letting the quote inspire our creativity. We were also told to “give yourself permission…” As I browsed through the “makes” that others had posted to the G+ community, I realized that I would not be satisfied to simply gussy up a quote and call it complete. I needed to give myself permission to dive deeper, and to have fun.

A word Culham used multiple times (nine, to be exact) in The Writing Thief is “frisson,” how we feel “frissons” as we and our students discover great mentor texts, and discover ideas we want to write about. I think my attention was caught by the word “frisson” both because it is not commonly used in English, and because, as a French speaker, the word was familiar to me.

So, the investigation began. One of the beauties of e-readers is they make it straightforward to search for words and phrases. Once I had found all nine “frissons,” I needed to decide how to present my reflection about them. I chose the tool Haiku Deck, both because I had some experience using it, and because it was well-suited to my purpose.

Initially, I thought arranging the nine quotes into a “deck” would be easy. Ha! I had to create an introduction, so off to take photos of the definition of frisson from both French and English dictionaries. Oh, wait, the first quote needed a preamble. Then, some of the quotes didn’t want to fit anywhere. I arranged and rearranged them several times, attempting to find a narrative flow. Finally, I got stuck trying to figure out how to conclude the presentation. Not to mention choosing the images that best portrayed the sense I wanted to give to each quote. As I was working, I realized this was the same process that any writer encounters as s/he creates a piece of work. Although I was simply remixing (thieving?) words written by someone else, I was nonetheless seeking to tell a coherent story. After all, that is what humans like to do – tell stories.

My finished story may be found here: https://www.haikudeck.com/p/9PC9br3xby/frisson.