S.I.F.T.ing Mentor Texts: "The Story of Stuff" and "The Town Dump"

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SWBAT analyze effective literary and rhetorical devices in Wallace Stegner's "The Town Dump" as a response to "The Story of Stuff" and "Beowulf."

Big Idea

Mentor texts empower student writing.

Teacher to Teacher: Lesson Overview and Context

How should ELA teachers approach informational texts?

This question informs the lessons in this unit, which emphasize approaches to teaching informational texts in the context of literature study. Rather than replacing or superceding the study of literature, I see informational texts as ways to amplify literature so that students see it as relevant to their lives.

Thus, rather than a shift away from both the literary canon and contemporary imaginative texts, the CCSS offers teachers a unique opportunity to embrace innovative approaches to teaching both informational texts and the imaginative literature that led us to teach English.

In its original context, this lesson is part of the unit We Need a Hero: The Anglo Saxon EpicBeowulf.

This is Lesson 3 in the Narrative/Descriptive writing unit

I teach this lesson in conjunction with Beowulf, where it is Lesson 7.

In this lesson, students do the following:

  • Watch and discuss "The Story of Stuff."
  • Analyze "The Town Dump" using the S.I.F.T method of close reading. 
  • Discuss the relationship among the three texts: "The Story of Stuff," "The Town Dump," and "Beowulf." 

S.I.F.T. is a fabulous close reading method. I use the attached notes as a reminder to myself about how I want to explain S.I.F.T. to students: Teacher Notes Teaching SIFT

Watching and Discussing "The Story of Stuff"

40 minutes

I remind students that Beowulf is, arguably, about the "stuff" of Anglo Saxon culture, as we saw in the Sutton Hoo exhibit at the British Museum. 

Ask: "What 'stuff' matters to Beowulf?"

Students Respond: His sword, Hrunting; his mail shirt; Hrothgar's mead hall; his treasures, for example. 

Then I tell students that they will be watching a "documentary" called "The Story of Stuff" that describes our "material economy." I caution them that the documentary is very one-sided. I suggest that they jot down notes but also say it isn't required. 

I explain that following the documentary, we will talk about their thoughts and observations. Then we will read a work of nonfiction, an excerpt from a memoir by Wallace Stegner called "The Town Dump." 

Following the documentary, I asked, "What did you notice? What do you think? What would you like to talk about?"

Almost immediately, one student said, "That's a really one-sided documentary." 

I responded, "Yes, it is one-sided. There is a rebuttal on YouTube." 

Another student fixated on the documentary's claim that women are forced to work in factories. He said, "People have choices. They aren't forced to work." This resulted in a lively discussion about what makes people choose as they do and whether or not we can be forced to do something. 

One student asked me:"Have you ever been forced to work in a factory?" 

"Other than teaching in a public school, which is based on a factory model of production? No. I can't say that I've been forced to do much in my life. I have however, made the decision to work, at times, in unpleasant circumstances because I have responsibilities that I take very seriously, but I get your point completely about having a choice." 

The discussion continued with students debating the merit of the documentary and mentioning the things they found interesting, such as the idea of a production economy. 

Others noticed the terms "planned obsolescence" and "perceived obsolescence." One girl told the class that she has only had her phone a year but that "it's a piece of junk, and I want a new one." 

Most students were fascinated about the value and harm of a society grounded in consumption and production. Some noted that people's jobs depend on this economic model. 

One student mentioned the fallacies in the claim that recycling is good because it also has negative production qualities. I shared that the benefits of recycling are overstated since so few actually do it. 

I allowed the discussion to continue until time dictated I cut it off and move on with the next part of the lesson. 

When the Class Won't Talk:

My students were eager to talk about the video, but that's not always the case, so I have some questions planned in advance to help move the students into a conversation about the documentary:

  • What did you think about Annie's comment that her country, the United States, simply takes resources from other countries when we need more?
  • How does our "material culture," a culture that emphasizes the accumulation of things, impact the environment? 
  • In the documentary Annie claims "it's the government's job to take care of us." What do you think about that comment? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  • Can you think of some places in our school and town and state where trash is a problem? 
  • In the documentary, Annie claims we spend most of our leisure time watching television and shopping. Is that true for you and/or your family and friends? How might you test the validity of that claim?

SIFTing Through "The Town Dump"

25 minutes

To signal that the documentary discussion was concluding, I distributed The Town Dump edited. This is a short version of Stegner's essay, which I choose for several reasons:

  • I have found students are more receptive to reading a one-page mentor text that a longer one. 
  • The edited version is the length of the essay I want students to compose.
  • The abbreviated essay makes the S.I.F.T. assignment more manageable for students, especially when they only have part of the period to work. 

I tell students that we'll talk about what they notice about the essay after reading and that they are welcome to mark their texts as we read. 

I give the class the choice of having me read the essay or of having student volunteers read. We split the duties, with students reading part and me reading the last part. 

After completing the reading, I ask students for their thoughts about the essay. One student said, "I like the sentence that says he learned more from the dump than he ever learned at school. I like that sentence because I don't like school either." 

I respond, "I like that sentence, too. We need to remember that there is formal education and the education we get from life's experience, which is also very valuable." 

Another student mentioned that he could imagine the Shakespeare moving to Seattle and to other places. I suggested that the syntax in the sentence has movement, that the way Stegner constructs it takes the reader on a short journey. 

As students mention the parts of the essay that captured their attention, I took the opportunity to teach a mini lesson on the concept. For example, if a student noticed a sentence with good parallelism, I mentioned parallelism and explained it briefly, noting that when students find sentences they like, they can make special note of them and practice replicating the style in their own sentences. 

I then gave students the S.I.F.T. chart: The Town Dump SIFT Chart and the option of completing it or annotating the essay based on the S.I.F.T. chart. The point of the exercise, I tell students, is to identify rhetorical techniques that they can practice in their own writing. I also project the tone words on the Tone Words and DIDLS list because Tone is such a difficult concept for students and becoming familiar with ways to label tone helps students understand it in their reading.

Next, students spent the remainder of the class period annotating the essay Student annotation or completing the S.I.F.T chart.