Considering Mentor Texts 5: The Emulation Issue


(Note: this blog post and a few more this week is part of a series around mentor texts and digital composition. The blog posts are all being collected over at Mentor Texts in the Digital Writing Workshop)

I’ll start with a little story.

Remember this? This was a commercial created by Google for the Superbowl one year, and the video itself went viral, partly because of it storytelling (as an advertisement, of course).

Two years ago, as we were discussing the concept of “inference,” we watched the Parisian Love video and talked about what we saw. We talked about what was missing and who the typist might be. I then brought my students up to Google Search Stories — a digital storytelling tool by Google that lets you create a short digital video using only search engine tools. The inferential part of it is that the viewer has to fill in the narrative gaps between the search criteria to understand the bigger story. As is usual, I had created a search story myself, and shared the video and my own reflective analysis, with my students. Then, I set them loose on the site.

The result?

About a quarter of the class created search videos that looked and sounded and “read” almost identical to mine. I hesitate to call them remixes but it was if my idea for my story had gotten lodged into their brains and could only be shaken free by creating a replica of what they saw the teacher doing. This problem of how we can bring students into something new, share an example of our own making, and hope for original work is one is that not confined by digital tools — but it seems to be made easier with technology. Visually, the digital stories were appealing (it is a Google template after all), and the student work seemed polished, almost professional. This is something a digital tool can bring to the table, right?

But underneath the hood, many of them had not gone off in their own directions, as I had hoped. They had closely stuck to what they saw in the Mentor Text and followed that line as closely as possible. I understand the reasons why this is, as they were no doubt thinking “if the teacher shares out a piece work with X, Y, Z elements, my project must have X, Y, Z elements to get a good grade”) but I wish it weren’t so. I always try to remain open for students taking a piece of work in a new direction, and actively encourage it.

For example, here is what I shared with students:

Here is just one example of a student video that echoed mine:

Sometimes, Mentor Texts hem them in.

And sometimes, given the affordances of a tool of technology (like the Search Stories, with its limit on search queries and its format), a user can still feel stuck and confined. I didn’t regret the use of my own Mentor Text for this kind of video project, but I did wish I had found more ways to encourage students to push beyond what they see, instead of just creating a bunch of “Mini-Me” replicas.

So, the next year, when we did Search Stories, I took a different tact. I had them create a digital search story based on a short story they were already writing — this gave them some of their own content to pull from to use as the narrative frame of their video, and allowed the Mentor Text to become a way to talk about format and technique, but not content, since my own story that I was writing with them was different from their own. The result was a much wider array of interesting videos.


Peace (in the story),

PS: Also blogging about Mentor Texts and Digital Composition this week are:

Bill Bass, Technology Integration Specialist in Missouri and author of the upcoming ISTE book on Film Festivals tentatively titled, “Authentic Learning Through a Digital Lens” will be blogging on his blog MR. BASS ONLINE.

Katie DiCesare, a primary teacher in Dublin who runs an incredible writing workshop will be blogging at her blog, CREATIVE LITERACY.


Tony Keefer, an amazing 4th grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio will be blogging at at ATYCHIPHOBIA.

Franki Sibberson, a librarian of many skills and knowledge, and also from Ohio, over at A YEAR OF READING


One Comment
  1. I love hearing about the change over 2 years with search stories. And it is interesting that it worked out when kids used a story they were already working on. We found a similar thing with comic books–2nd graders didn’t really understand that graphic novels were another way to tell narrative stories. By using a story they had seen in a familiar format, and changing the format was powerful for them in terms of expanding the possibilities for comics. This reminds me a bit of the units of study/minilessons where we invite kids to try the same topic in various forms. With the new forms, it makes sense to begin with a story they know. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

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