Notes from the TCRWP workshop with Carl Anderson – Writing With Mentor Texts

I knew I’d learn something fabulous about the use of mentor texts in writing workshop at Carl Anderson’s session  during TCRWP’s  March Saturday Reunion, and I did! It was one of those ah-ha moments in teaching practice which all of us long for every time we engage in professional development opportunities.

Carl began by discussing two key elements of  teaching writing: envisioning – the thinking, planning, drafting work we do before writing, and revision – the work we do to polish and strengthen our writing piece.  For both these elements, we rely on our writer’s knowledge of texts, i.e. the mentor text work we’ve already done in our reading lives.  Sharing texts with our students in a systematic way allows them to take note of craft moves writers make as they structure and elaborate upon their writing; it allows our students to see what these craft moves do and also what they look like.  Carl shared four steps in this process of using mentor texts effectively in writing workshop:

Gather texts we love in the genres we teach, but especially ones that will entice our students. It does no good to share a piece we are wedded to, without considering the needs and interests of our students.

Immerse kids in the genre we are teaching in the beginning of the unit, and turn it into a reading event.  Here, we need to “find a way to make the genre provocative”, so that our kids will truly be interested in trying their hand at writing memoir, or argument, or whatever.

Select a few of the texts you’ve shared, two or three which you have had the chance to test drive and know inside and out (i.e. that you have done the work of figuring out structure and craft moves). Focus on:

  • meaning – figuring out what the author was trying to say
  • structure – the underlying design
  • detail – the tiny images that, woven together, create a scene
  • voice – how to set up thoughts and where to place emotional emphasis
  • convention

Break down this underlying structure, so that kids can “see” the layout of the piece – from lead to scenes to ending.

Carl's chart

I pride myself on the amount of immersion we engage in our sixth grade classroom, and the careful way in which we study mentor texts in order to learn effective writing strategies we can then model our own writing upon, but I am not sure that I always go about this in as systematic a way as the one that Carl presented.   That was my ah-ha moment, and this is what it looked like in my classroom:

First, I walked my kids through the process of naming and blocking out scenes and craft moves to create a chapter  flowchart in much the same way that Carl had done for us that Saturday.  We also used a chapter from Ralph Fletcher’s memoir Marshfield Dreams:

Flow chart 1
Then my students worked on another chapter in pairs to get a feel for this type of  thinking for themselves:

kids mentor text

And then we shared our thinking:

our flow chart As I watched my kids working, I was reminded of  the truth of what Carl Anderson had said that Saturday morning – writing is an act of making choices, and our kids need lots of practice with mentor text work to get better and better at knowing how to make those craft decisions that help writers embed meaning into the text.