It’s like I can hear her talking right to me, my student said, and all the students around her murmured in agreement, and I knew I had found another great teachable piece of writing.
We were reading Marina Keegan’s essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, as a model text to help them get ready for writing personal essays. A former student of mine had bounded into my classroom two weeks before, saying, “Ms. Regales, you’ve got to read this book!” so I had taken her copy of The Opposite of Loneliness home with me and read it fairly quickly, enjoying the book itself very much but also thrilled to be able to tell her how much I had liked it.
Marina Keegan was a young and incredibly talented writer who died in a car crash five days after her graduation from Yale. Her work was collected by her parents and some of her professors for posthumous publication, and the shadow of her untimely death is hard to put aside while reading her pieces. However, I think the book stands alone as a fresh young voice, and the personal essays are strong, well-written, accessible, and provide excellent lessons in voice, focus, imagery, alliteration, and many other tools in any writer’s toolbox. Several of her pieces from the book, like the title essay and Why we care about whales (would make a great mentor text for “why we care about _____” essays), are available online, and I also chose “Against the Grain,” an essay she wrote about having celiac disease, as a longer example. Again, my students loved it, dissecting paragraphs and discussing her humor and voice, while recognizing how skilfully she portrays her mother and her childhood self. Her essays show her skill, but they also show my students how beautiful work can come from seemingly mundane experiences.
Teaching mentor texts as a scaffolding for teaching writing is a technique I’m still mastering, especially since most of the writing I assign is standard literary analysis. The Poet to Poet project I did last year was a successful experiment with mentor texts, and as a complement to Persepolis, we decided to begin our 9th grade year with personal essays. The first time around, I used This I Believe essays as a framework, but I found that for whatever reason, the payoff wasn’t what I was expecting, so I knew I had to tweak it some this year. In addition to choosing new mentor texts, I’m giving them a menu of options, including This I Believe, but also some current college essay prompts, as well as the Letters About Literature contest, with examples from the previous winners. Allowing for more options, while still guided, will hopefully be inspiring to my students.
We’ll see how it goes!