About envy: Using mentor texts

We guide students to use “mentor texts” in their development as writers.  Ralph Fletcher explains that mentor texts are, “…any texts that you can learn from, and every writer, no matter how skilled you are or how beginning you are, encounters and reads something that can lift and inform and infuse their own writing. I’d say anything that you can learn from – not by talking about but just looking at the actual writing itself, being used in really skillful, powerful way.”


Some mentor texts

Adults use mentors in their writing also.  I look at exemplars of excellent writing when I set out to write a particular piece.   I also also collect examples of fine writing to use later.  This is the close relationship between reading and writing that we encourage our students to embrace.  We read to think and we write to think and this forms a cycle that feeds on itself.  Effective writers are always looking for examples of mentor texts to use in their work.

But Leonard Cohen makes me angry.

Leonard Cohen is a Canadian writer and musician who has been around since the 1950s.   He’s got a new album out so he’s doing lot’s of press lately. I recently heard him interviewed on the radio.  I listened in my car and at one point he read one of his poems:

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

I had to pull over to the side of the road. Really!? REALLY Leonard Cohen ?!download-7

Reading these lines, you feel like you’ve been shot with an arrow. Maybe two arrows; one that pierced your brain and the other one that shot you right in the heart.  Leonard Cohen is so awesome that it makes me mad.  

When you think about how we learn to do things and study mentors it’s an interesting thing. Consider basketball.  I don’t think kids who watch Steph Curry are angry at him, they actually love him. They watch him play and they feel that one day they’ll hit three pointers from the 50 yard line. I love watching him play, but I rarely play basketball anymore so I’m existential about his abilities.

I’ve been teaching myself how to cook for the past seven years. I still consider myself a rank amateur but I love it. When I eat out at a restaurant and the food is fantastic, I’m not angry at the chef like I am at Leonard Cohen.  Perhaps I feel that cooking like a chef is within reach. I have a few recipes in my cooking repertoire that my wife finds sublime. This gives me hope that one day I can cook like Mario Batali.

I don’t cook as often as I write however. With work and everything else going on in my life, I have little time to devote to cooking except maybe on the weekends.  But I write every day. I email, text, tweet, blog, pen letters, Post-it notes, greeting cards… I’m writing all the time.   Yes, WRITE! —  the same thing that Leonard Cohen does. But reading him makes me think I need to find a different word for what I do, because they seem like completely different human functions.  

There is a lesson in here about the examples we hold up to students in the learning process.  The challenge for educators is finding models for student that are both lofty and seemingly attainable.  This is a dynamic process.  The goal is constantly changing as students develop and skillful teachers are able to find that “just right” text or individual that will inspire students to do their personal best.

In the interview, Leonard Cohen talked about his life and his poetry.  He’s dated Joni Mitchell and Rebecca De Mornay.  He spent five years in a monastery in the mid 1990’s  meditating.  He was even ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning “silence”.  You know I’ve been trying mindfulness, I really need it.  So far the best I can manage is 8 minutes before I start thinking about the scarecrow and the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz (they were so mean to him).  Or bicycles. Or tomatoes (they’re fruits?! No way). But this guy managed to do it for five years.  More reasons to be angry at Leonard Cohen.  

Prior to the interview, Leonard Cohen had not existed in my universe except on the edges of my consciousness. I’d heard the name and I know he has a song in the first Shrek movie.  But he makes me angry.  I’m so mad at him that I’m going to read every novel and poem and listen to every song he’s ever written.  




About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Best Practice, Educational Focus, Personal Best, Random Thoughts, reading, Reflections, Teaching/Learning, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to About envy: Using mentor texts

  1. Very interesting post, I like the detailed and often humorous look at how we compare ourselves to others. Where you had me going, besides writing, is how we constrain learners by implementing overly prescriptive curricula. Just like the developing writer who mirrors a mentor text, a student who is a product of a system that tells them what they should know by the end often ends up being extremely homogeneous. While recognizing other writers stylistic nuances is essential I would argue that we do pupils a disservice by asking them to emulate their writing. Am I missing something, would there be a benefit to having a class of students all turn in Hemmingway-esque essays?

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