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Teaching Mentor Process in an ESL Classroom

by Melissa Bryan, Guest Contributor

In the summer of 2017, I attended an NEH program at Amherst College entitled Emily Dickinson: Person, Place, and Poetry. The core end-product of the program was a curricular unit to be used in the classroom which involved Emily Dickinson’s work. Our summer cohort studied Emily Dickinson’s poems and wrote - as she did - about the wall-paper or paintings or objects in her brother’s home, the Evergreens. We walked through Ms. Dickinson’s nearly perfectly preserved gardens to write about what we learned from nature. We took tours of Amherst, read and touched letters and objects written and used by Emily and her contemporaries (realia). We explored the vistas of the Pioneer Valley and mountain range which inspired Emily Dickinson’s poems, and we imagined her soundscape by considering the proximity of The Homestead to the railroad tracks, the main roads in Amherst, and the path on which many Union soldiers marched as they headed south to fight in the Civil War. In those indelible moments, I realized how powerful inhabiting Emily Dickinson’s world and process was to my creation of poetry. Poetry, not a natural genre for me, became comprehensible and producible not in just imitating Emily Dickinson’s product, but in intimidating her process.

The program helped me realize that every writer has his or her own process that can be useful to developing writers. Already leery that mentor texts coaxed poor imitators into merely mimicking structure and syntax and limited stronger writers by corralling them into narrower concepts or forms than they might produce on their own, I considered how sharing the writing processes of a whole host of writers with my students might, in effect, generate more complex, linguistically rich, and individually expressive writing.

Writer Processes

● John Williams took a sabbatical to live in and walk around Italy for three months while writing Augustus. This is the logic behind place-based writing.

● Louisa May Alcott had a “mood” pillow to let her family know when she should not be interrupted while writing. She was also an ambidextrous writer. She cultivated the habit of writing with both hands in case her dominant hand got tired, but her mind still had ideas.

● Charles Dickens walked miles every day, and he was particularly fond of walking the streets of London - the very subject of much of his fiction. There is a lot of research on the connectivity between walking and developing ideas. Consider, too, Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.”

● Anton Chekhov had a writing house on his property which was set away from his family. Seclusion spurred his writing.

● Ernest Hemingway reread almost all of his working manuscript before he started writing for the day, and he then wrote dutifully until lunch. In the afternoons, he freely read books and wrote letters knowing that those afternoon experiences were just as generative as his morning austerity-writing regiment. Ernest Hemingway, A Biography

● Walt Whitman was prone to taking a bath every day. At the time he was alive, daily bathing was an uncommon practice, but presumably it had a restorative and clarifying impact on his work.

● David Foster Wallace wore intense noise-cancelling headphones while writing, and he wrote primarily long-hand on paper before typing and adding to his magnum opus.

● John Cariani, author of Almost, Maine, writes standing up, tapes poster-board sized paper along his office walls to map out his writing, and he practices controlled and scripted writing exercises to help him write his novels and plays.

● Jhumpa Lahriri, while writing In Other Words, read Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems in an Italian library every day before she started her work on the dual-language text.

● Jerry Seinfeld, when discussing joke writing and Is This Anything?, said he aimed to write every paragraph as a sentence, and he noted that some people re-write/copy other famous authors’ stories or comedians' jokes to get “a sense of the rhythm” of their writing.

● Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote about music and wrote with music on, delved deeply into art and film, and attended the theater all of which became part of the broth that flavors his thinking and prose.

● Toni Morrison wrote before the sun came up because there was a “solace” in the early morning that she enjoyed.

As a result of my experience at “Camp Dickinson,” I have come to understand that the teaching of writing can’t be singular, presumptive, or product-driven - it must be plural and process-driven. Students who have no idea that they can own their process will always see a product of a peer or of an author and feel inadequate or attempt to imitate it rather than find what inspires and continues their own writing.

When I returned to my English-102 Writing course at Union County Community College in NJ to teach my newly-crafted curricular unit utilizing Dickinson’s writing process, I was duly energized by the prospects of sharing “a way” with them. I had my students, some recent ESL students themselves, write their own Dickinson poems as a means of practicing English language usage through her form and “features” (Lighat & Biria, 2018, p 704). Even as I intended for them to ultimately make meaning from Emily Dickinson’s poetry through reading closely, the most natural starting point was having them write as she did in the 19th century. To that end, we worked through the processes that Emily Dickinson used to craft her poems.

Sense Experience With Realia

First, I asked my students to describe an object as a Phenomenologist would in a short narrative. The concept stems from a philosophical idea that we understand the world rather subjectively. A cup of coffee can’t or shouldn’t be objectively described (as in: coffee is made from beans imported from….), but rather a cup of coffee to me tastes like X and smells like Y and makes me feel Z when I drink out of this {insert any type} of mug. To a Phenomenologist, all of our experiences with the world are a phenomenon onto us, and onto us alone.

You could take a minute and try it now. Consider briefly how you would describe any of these objects or experiences:

1. Your notebook

2. A water bottle you use everyday

3. The smell of a warm summer morning

4. The stars in the sky above your home

5. Or, any tangible object you have on you that you use or see regularly

A note: When you try this activity with your students, you should have them bring an object of their choosing to class that day. Do not tell them why you are having them bring it to class, but be sure to ask them to bring an object that they see every day, know well, or use often.

Personal Figurative Meaning Making

After my students described their object phenomenologically, I asked them to explain what the object representationally meant to them in bullets. Their object, though utilitarian, functional, aesthetic, or otherwise merely material might have a figurative meaning to them or in their lives. It is their objective to unearth that meaning.

If you tried the subjective summary of an object as you read this, you might have, like many students do, selected your phone. In the bullet-pointed representational list portion of the activity, a phone might figuratively mean much more than its functional purpose denotes. For example, a phone might be:

1. A friend

2. Your beliefs

3. A punishment

Mentor Text To Examine Metaphorization

After my students explored the object in its relation to themselves and their experiences with it, and once they created a brief jot-list about its possible extended meanings, I asked them to “metaphorize” the object as Emily Dickinson would have. At this point, it helps to share a mentor text with students to show them what the end product of this process looks like. In my class in 2017, and in many classes since, we explore the metaphor of our objects alongside a discussion of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The props assist the house.” As research suggests, the use of the mentor text, “along with close guidance from instructors” can “help [learners] craft texts which approximate to those of the professionals in terms of various features such as complexity, depth, and sophistication” (p. 704).

Critical Writing As Creation

In the end, I ultimately challenged my students to write their own metaphorized poem derived not merely from reading and analyzing Emily Dickinson’s completed poem, but from the way she got to her product - through her process.

In my summer 2017 UCC English-102 course, a recently immigrated student from the Dominican Republic wrote about a necklace a friend gave to him. He produced the following poem through employing Dickinson’s process.

One string of rope, with 2 Picture on the end.

Two strings tangled together, they might

get separated and loose their shape if they

get twisted

But they will always be together, like when

they met.

Hold two hearts Proud of their origins.

In 2017, I did not anticipate just how effective the Emily Dickinson writing process exercise might be for my students, but over the years, I have come to love this writing event. For developing writers, indeed for all student writers, this authentic experience is a way to both bolster creativity by destigmatizing writing as only a fully formed product and a way to offer agency by reconceptualizing writing as an array of experiences. Given that it is as inimitable as a writer’s product, studying a mentor’s process might afford young writers a far

greater insight on how to form their own long-term writing habits. Afterall, writing isn’t a conclusive, static end-product, it is a life-long process.

Additional Readings

A good place to read about writer proces: Guardian’s My Writing Day

Knausgaard on Bergman’s writing process, Lithub

Links: Reading Rockets

Improving Writing Skills

Melissa Bryan is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She has an MA in Teaching English from Montclair State University, an ESL certification from Rowan University, and she is earning an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also is an adjunct professor at Union County College and at Drew University, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ.