Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” as Teacher and Muse— Using Writing Models to Enhance Essays
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe simplified the infinite when he said, “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.” With only a bit of tweaking, we can get “Writing starts when you carefully put two words together. There it begins.” Both statements are true in the sense that due consideration needs to be given to even the most minute addition to the whole. The choice of those first two words confounds millions whether they are aspiring to write, needing to write, or simply trying to write. Like architecture, the complexity of the writing process requires a foundation, understanding, and a specific set of skills. Some of these can be had for the price of a song.
Non-native speaking students approach the English language essay much as they would advance toward a student-visa interview, frantically checking their backpack, folder, or briefcase for all the right elements: passport, education records, admissions letter, recommendations, and bank statement. They believe, fervently, hopefully, unswervingly, that having all the right ingredients, or papers, will bring about a positive result. Alas, that is no more true with essays than it is with visas.
As Dr. Jordan Peterson, author of 10 Step Guide to Clearer Thinking Through Essay Writing, cautions, “Every element of an essay can be correct, each word, sentence, and paragraph — even the paragraph order — and the essay can still fail, because it is just not interesting or important.” If this depressing result awaits even native speakers of the English language, and it does, imagine what pits of despair lie in the path of those desperately trying to learn the language they must use to write. With them, each word is a potential semantic trap, a malapropism mine field, one that even Norm Crosby would cautiously tip-toe ‘round while holding his nose. Each sentence conceals a Rubics cube or geometric theorem — one misstep and the instructor scrawls SYNTAX in purple pen.
Modeling, that is using the structure of an existing piece of text as a means of creating something likewise grammatically accurate, is a way for student writers to bridge their lack of grammatical complexity and their desire to say something meaningful. A phrase or sentence model, sourced originally in the work of another, gives them an accurate platform on which to create, without copying, without plagiarizing, and, when done well, without the grammatical soup that prevents communication. Anything can be a model. We start out with Descartes, he of the semi-syllogism, originally in French, “je pense, donc je suis” or “I think, therefore, I am.” Using this model: pronoun (or noun) + verb in the simple present + comma + therefore + pronoun (or noun) + verb in the simple present, students create a wide array of mirror-image prose:
“She shops, therefore she pays.”
“They study, therefore they win.” (Study references are everywhere.)
“He cheats, therefore he fails.”
“America elects, therefore it loses.” (Political reference.)
Model phrases and sentences answer a variety of needs: 1) they offer a grammatically accurate platform for creating something new, 2) students can approach a model writing task with confidence, 3) models offer limitless possibilities within a measured frame, and 4) sentence models of this type prime the students to think creatively about a topic, a nuanced distinction that sets synapses firing.
As students become more confident and competent, the models, which punctuate their compositions rather than dominating them, become more complex. Rachel Platten’s anthemesque tune, “Fight Song”, is one example. As a paean to independence, autonomy, and personal choice, her powerful melody is carried by gently compelling lyrics. She begins with a metaphor:
“Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match,
But I can make an explosion.”
The rest of the song expresses a young person’s concerns about doubts, conquering fears, and following through on dreams. The lyric offers specific examples to bolster these themes, thereby winning an English teacher’s approbation and delivering an example of “best practices” that can be transported from the music synthesizer to the Word doc. Platten’s lines below shout of regret and express that idea with illustrations of pain and planned actions.
For a student writing about ecology, for example, the above lines might reappear thus:
Like a plastic bottle in a trashcan, joining many others in there,
Like how a dropped wrapper can ruin a scene,
This is our only world and it needs protection.
In another thematic arena, focusing on relationships, a different set of lines from “Fight Song” delivers an alternate message.
All those actions I didn’t take
Painful guilt inside my heart
They will move to number one,
You will know my goal is done.
In these models, Rachel Platten is the muse, but not specifically the author. Nevertheless, in-text or on the Works Cited page, students are instructed to document the source of any literary reworking.
In class, after analyzing the source work, dissecting the ideas, noting the specific structure and outlining each theme, students next try to put their own stamp on a new version. A rhyming dictionary, syllable count, and patience can transform “Fight Song’s” lyrics, redesigning them for a different purpose.
First, students have to decide what social or other issue to discuss, what important message they want to send. Next, they review the words and ideas in the original song, and use a dictionary/thesaurus to discover lexical items relevant to another topic. I suggest listening to the song several times to push open the creative portals and then reading the lyrics aloud several times to embed the rhythm and stress. The message in the lines from the original song aids their youthful understanding of how to approach a difficult, complex topic, and how to create a dynamic argument around success, freedom, equality, violence, romance, or another subject.
Like how a tall ship,
With powerful radar
Sends a rocket,
To a near star…
Certainly, models are not the “Open Sesame” to consistently great writing, but they propel the students beyond mundane sentence construction and into a realm where means is partnered with message. Just as important, a successful model re-creation, one which guides the reader into interesting new content, raises student confidence.