Lessons Worth Repeating: Using “old” mentor texts for new learning

I love American Literature. Transcendentalism is essential to eleventh grade English curriculum.

When I was in the eleventh grade and I read Huck Finn say “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” my life was changed. It really was.

I am always moved by Atticus Finch when he tells Scout that the “one thing that doesn’t abide my majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

I have to ask my students, yes, every year, if they think John Proctor is a transcendentalist, and of course to support their assertions with analysis and evidence.

But this fall I had a major shift in my thinking and teaching.

Common core doesn’t mention transcendentalism.

It does require that students can read informational text. Phew.

I believe that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous transcendentalist essay falls into the category of “seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.9).

Here’s how today went. I kind of liked it.

After the book talks and independent reading, we moved into the mini-lesson part of the schedule. I introduced the idea of transcendentalism in our last session, so today I put the word aphorism on the white board. I asked if anyone knew it or had seen it before. No one had.

I cheered at their silence, and they looked at me quizzically.

I reassured them that they were going to learn something new today! That’s worth cheering about! A new, amazing word, that they already love, they just didn’t know it yet! Yes, I told them they were going to love this word. Aphorism.

(This is when you have to quickly move around the room a lot and talk louder. Or conversely, sloooow down and talk quietly. Be different. Make them pay attention.)

It’s also worth noting that one of the essential questions we are currently dealing with (which is perfect for the topic of transcendentalism) is How do we balance the tension between individual rights and the common good? 

Then, this newly developed readers workshop teacher really surfaced.

I asked them Have you ever written down a quote from a book? Have you ever marked in the margins with an exclamation point? Have you ever taken a picture of the text? It’s quite likely you discovered an aphorism without realizing it.

There were some head nods. Some yesses. I probably should have asked them for examples at this point, and the next time I teach this lesson, I will. I might even ask them next class.

But I already knew I had an example lurking at one of those desks, so I called on her. She had been reading Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist last week when I caught her with her phone in hand during silent reading.

But she wasn’t snapchatting; she was taking a picture of the page because she liked this quote so much: “Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.” ka-aphorism

I couldn’t have asked for a more authentic example of an aphorism, or a better way to show the students that what I was asking them to do with traditional American literature is something they already want to do with the books they are currently reading.

As a class we brainstormed a few more, talked about some Ben Franklin quotes, and then I gave them their task:

  1. Read a difficult text: an excerpt from Emerson’s Self-Reliance
  2. Understand the literal meaning.
  3. Discover the aphorisms and put them in your readers workshop notebook/blog (title: Emerson’s Aphorisms).
  4. Explain why you connect with the aphorisms that you have noted.

Here’s an example from one student:


Isn’t this what readers workshop is all about? Allowing students to discover that they can read difficult text, not only figure out what these texts mean, but then connect with them?

Also, finding the word hobgoblin in such a text is fun and silly.

Next, I’ll ask them to look for aphorisms in text of their own choosing. I’ll ask the to imitate Emerson with their own writing (and the irony won’t be lost on them).

I want my students to have the confidence that they can read anything that’s put in front of them, or anything that they decide to pick up.

Let’s get real. Emerson isn’t likely to be something they’ll pick up on their own, but when given Self-Reliance as a mentor text, they can do it, and they might even like it.

Author: adventuresinhighschoolworkshop

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for nineteen years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and is currently in her second year teaching in Managua, Nicaragua.

3 thoughts on “Lessons Worth Repeating: Using “old” mentor texts for new learning”

  1. Thank you for writing about workshop in high school! It’s inspiring! This is a post that I will share with the high school ELA teachers that I work with!


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