I have been a bit of a mentor text aficionada for the past three and a half years. It all started when I asked an incoming class of fifth graders this question at the end of fourth grade: “What have you learned about writing from reading?” Every-single-kid’s-response can be boiled down to one word: “Nothing.” After I got over my initial shock, I attempted to help my incoming class, who were voracious readers, into students who made reading-writing connections regularly.
I initially hoped I could do through whole class instruction. However, I quickly found my students were more apt to make mentoring moves (i.e., try out a craft move they saw an author utilize) if I showed them mentor texts in my one-to-one conference. As a result, I often found myself carrying around a bunch of picture books we had read, as a class, when I set off to confer with my students. This quickly grew old since it was not only heavy for my arms to carry, but it was difficult for me to remember to constantly have to decide which book to use in a given conference. When I started using mentor texts I had the notion that I had to utilize different books with a different student every time I met with him or her. Over time, I realized that notion was false.
I spent a week studying in one of Lucy Calkins’s advanced sections at the 2008 TCRWP Summer Writing Institute. The course was about reading-writing connections. The implicit message of the week was this: Get to know a few texts really well and use them to teach a variety of crafting techniques to your students. Before school resumed in September 2008, I scoured books I planned to read to my students (i.e., A Sweet Smell of Roses, The Pencil, and Those Shoes) to look for all of the possible things I could teach my students just by using those three texts. I created craft tables of teaching points and my thinking about why each author chose to write in a particular way so I’d be prepared to use each book with my students in a variety of ways. When I look back on the craft tables I created almost 18 months ago now, I realize I could add on to them since I’ve uncovered new things I could teach students from those texts based on my experience of using the text with my students.
It’s one thing to have a few mentor texts ready-to-go when you pull-up alongside a student, investigate what the child is doing, and then decide to teach the child something, using one of the mentor texts in your repertoire, during your demonstration. However, you can also hold a planned mentor text conference with one of your students where you sit side-by-side studying a particular element of an author’s text, which the child should be familiar with, together. Here’s an overview of that type of conference:
- You come into this conference with the agenda and the mentor text set, giving the child a chance to study a text with you. You’ve pinpointed a strategy you can teach the student to lift the level of their writing.
- Once an element of the text has been studied, you invite the child to find ways to weave that craft into their writing repertoire, first in the writing they’re working on, and then by asking them how they can use this strategy in future pieces of writing.
- Duration: approximately five – seven minutes.
Planned mentor text conferences remind me of what Don Murray calls “the working talk of fellow writers sharing their experience with the writing process” in A Writer Teaches Writing (2004, 148). I think these conferences are extremely useful to use during the nurturing and revision stages of the writing conference when you pinpoint something you want to teach your student ahead of time, whether it be after a traditional R-D-T Conference you have with the child or after reviewing the child’s writer’s notebook or a draft in progress.
Next week: How to use one book for many teaching purposes/creating craft tables.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.