Yesterday afternoon while I skimmed and scanned my inbox, I came across Lena Dunham’s latest piece for The New Yorker—”The Bride in Her Head“—a wonderful essay in which she examines her changing attitude toward marriage, reflecting on her own personal life particularly in the context of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage. It’s an example of the type of engaging personal essay that I want my students to write. Dunham draws from current events as occasion for deep, personal reflection.
After reading Dunham’s piece, I texted my colleague the link to the article. And like all good teachers on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of their summer “vacation,” we quickly exchanged some ideas for how to include the essay into our teaching next year. We teach AP Lang & Comp, and this type of essay fits naturally within our course.
Two things came to mind after our exchange.
First, it is incredibly difficult to turn off teacher brain. Nearly everything I see, read, and hear is filtered through my teacher brain. My teacher brain is relentless. It’s with me wherever I go, and it doesn’t seem to care how inconvenient its timing might be. For example, my best moments of inspiration often come at one of two times—in the shower or in the car. It’s happened so often that I’ve given serious thought on how to make an effective waterproof notebook. And although the thought of driver-less cars frightens me a bit, the advantage of freeing my hands to take notes might be worth it, and my teacher brain would rejoice.
Second, although I’ve been reading The New Yorker for years, I’m always surprised and impressed with not only the writing, but the magazine as a whole. Each section offers high quality mentor texts that can help to enliven and inspire student writing. After reading Dunham’s current piece, I eventually looked up The New Yorker‘s entire “Personal History” collection of essays—essays in which “writers reflect on the intimate events and memories that shaped their lives.” What wonderful mentor texts they offer students, with each writer’s voice expressed with such clarity and thoughtfulness. I could easily envision reading and discussing a few of the essays with students, and then having students go back and choose a few more to read on their own or in groups. As with all mentor text discussions, we would look at the choices each writer made—
First, why this event? How did it shape the writer’s life? How does the writer make it clear this memory was important? What details, literal and figurative, did she include? In what order does the writer reveal those details and why? How are the writer’s choices in diction significant? What is the writer’s general attitude or tone? Why? What does the writer want us, as readers, to take away?
One of the first writing assignments my colleague and I do with our AP Lang students is what we call the “On” essay—put simply, choose a topic or idea that that you know a lot about and tell us about it. We read several “On” essays, each focused on a very specific idea, and use these as our mentor texts (these texts include Philip Lopate’s “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” Lars Eighner’s “On Dumpster Diving,” Barbara Ascher’s “On Compassion,” Nancy Mair’s “On Being a Cripple,” and others). The essay is topic-focused, but students end up writing a variety of modes to explore this topic: narrative, compare and contrast, process analysis, classification/division, and of course, definition. A “Personal History” essay a la New Yorker style that asks students to write about an event or memory would fit nicely right after our “On” essay unit.
Of course, once I started looking at how to use The New Yorker‘s “Personal History” essays, I started to wonder what other sections in the magazine could inspire student writing (thanks, teacher brain). One type of writing The New Yorker is perhaps best known for is its profiles. The essays in the “Profiles” section—described as “an in-depth look at the lives and work of innovators, politicians, scientists, activists, writers, and entertainers”—can serve as mentor texts for how to describe a significant person in students’ lives.
Students could choose a person—parent, sibling, relative, teacher, mentor—and write about that person using illustrative details, narration, etc. Mentor texts might include Margaret Talbot on John Green in “The Teen Whisperer” or Rebecca Mead on Neil DeGrasse Tyson in “Starman” (And though not a New Yorker piece, Chris Jones’ Esquire profile of the late Roger Ebert is remarkable and really, just beautiful). Whereas the “Personal History” essay serves as memoir and provides an opportunity for students to write about themselves, the “Profiles” essay asks students to write about someone else. Here I imagine drawing on the work of great fiction as well, as students experiment and play with characterization—the telling detail that shows versus tells, the well-placed anecdote.
For the last few years, I’ve been struggling with how to transform the writing students do in school to reflect what writing looks like out in the real world. Drawing from writing found in literary publications like The New Yorker as mentor texts is a step in that direction. While many of the essays published in the magazine are beyond the scope of what students can realistically do, even pulling out excerpts or even snippets can be wonderful for students to see. For example, in another piece by Lena Dunham titled “Difficult Girl,” notice the self-deprecating tone and charm of these opening lines:
I am eight, and I am afraid of everything. The list of things that keep me up at night includes but is not limited to: appendicitis, typhoid, leprosy, unclean meat, foods I haven’t seen emerge from their packaging, foods my mother hasn’t tasted first so that if we die we die together, homeless people, headaches, rape, kidnapping, milk, the subway, sleep.
Using these lines as inspiration, students could choose an age and make a clear, concise claim about who they were at that age, followed by a long series of thoughts that support that claim. I might write about first becoming a mother. For example:
I am 29, and I am convinced I will be the worst mother in the world. I stare at my newborn lying peacefully in his bassinet, and I think of all the horrible things that will surely happen when I’m not looking: Will he stop breathing if I look away? Are there too many blankets? Is he too warm? Can babies get heat stroke? Is he too cold? Is that why his finger tips are so wrinkled? What was that noise? Was that a hiccup or a seizure?
Over the years, I’ve come across other New Yorker mentor texts with which I have had success. Some of my favorites include:
- Margaret Talbot’s “Best in Class” explores the controversies associated with the process of selecting a school valedictorian;
- Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting in” examines the history and complications of the college admissions process (Gladwell’s “Offensive Play” is a student favorite);
- James Surowiecki’s “Fuel for Thought” makes an interesting connection between the NHL’s helmet regulations and automotive fuel efficiency standards;
- Laura Miller’s “Fresh Hell” looks at the rise and role of dystopian literature among teens;
- David Grann’s “Trial by Fire” unearths the injustice of the execution of death-row inmate Todd Willingham in gripping detail.
Thanks to my teacher brain, I can see that there’s no shortage of engaging mentor texts in the real world. Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This is filled with examples of how to find mentor texts and construct real-world writing experiences for students in the classroom. I’m especially looking forward to the publication of Writing with Mentors by high school teachers Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell whose site, MovingWriters.org, I recently discovered.
As we inch closer to September, I’ll follow up on this post with how I draw inspiration for student writing assignments from other publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Harper’s. Until then, if you have any mentor texts or assignments to suggest, I’d love to hear about them!