Conferring Toolkits: Mentor Texts

I have streamlined my conferring toolkit over the years, partly in an effort to be more effective and productive during those time-challenged sessions when I have just a few minutes to convey an important teaching point, and partly in an effort to maintain my sanity.  After all, even as I am conferring, I am also paying attention to the 25 other kids in the classroom – the student who has developed an unusual interest in the pencil sharpener, or the one who seems to be making frequent trips to the water fountain, for instance.   As every writing teacher knows, we have less than ten minutes to assess a student’s need, figure out a strategy, share it, assess if it “took”, practice a bit, clarify, and then send off the student to give it a go.  I better be able to find what I need in that toolkit!

Two elements form the very heart of every conference: the student, and the mentor text I can use to nudge her writing piece forward.  A mentor text is a powerful tool to make a writer’s thinking visible, and in doing so, share something concrete from which to model a craft move.  I think Ralph Fletcher said it best in a Choice Literacy podcast he did not so long ago:

“I think that you need to see somebody doing something in order to do it well yourself, whether it’s baking bread, whether it’s skiing, whether it’s writing. And I think writing is very complicated, so when you read a powerful piece, what’s really wonderful about that is you see it in its gestalt, all fitted together. You still need to, at some point, break down the individual — it’s like wanting to be a dancer and going to see the ballet. You’re inspired. You may not be able to do many of the moves that they’re doing on stage, but you definitely need that as your head as you try to become a better dancer.”

That is the function of mentor texts in my conferring process – to share how good writing is structured carefully with each part integrated into the whole with thought and care.  Here are some elements to think about when gathering examples for writing conferences:

Find texts you love and know well:

I’ve discovered that it’s not necessary to find the latest fabulous picture book or memoir to use as a mentor text.  The better you know a piece, and the more you have studied its parts and come to understand and appreciate its craft, the more effective  you will be in making your teaching points with clarity.  Jim Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay” (from When I Was Your Age, Volume One: Original Stories About Growing Up) , Lois Lowry’s Looking Back, and Mario Cuomo’s picture book The Blue Spruce, have been the only texts in my memoir tool box for many years now.  I know them by heart, and have figured out the many writing moves each author made in order to create powerful and moving  narrative structures.  When I bring these texts to my conferences, I know exactly how I can use them to help my kids with their own drafts and revisions.

blue spruce   looking back      when i was your age

It’s the quality not the quantity:

We are blessed to live in an age of gifted writers dedicated to the idea that children and young adults deserve great literature.  As wonderful as that is, it can also be a problem – sharing too many mentor texts with our kids can be confusing and distracting.  The focus in writing workshop, after all, is not exposing our kids to tons and tons of great writers (luckily, that is where reading workshop comes in!), but sharing texts that can inspire them to try a new strategy or embellish upon one they have mastered.  A few well chosen  examples of rich writing will go a long way.

Use texts your students are familiar with:

This was a lesson I learned the hard way my very first year of teaching.  Then, as now, we launched all our genre studies by immersing ourselves in exemplars of the genre. I don’t know what possessed me to add many different texts to my conferring mix, but I did.  What I found was that I wasted a lot of time explaining the context of the story or piece of information at the expense of demonstrating how a writing move was used.  When students have already read or heard the story, it seems to be easier to zoom in on the craft and stick to the writing point.

The same text can serve many writing purposes:

This is another lesson learned the hard way.  The same “tool kit” text can be used to teach many different writing moves, depending on the student and his need.  Here’s one by the peerless Seymour Simon, from The Brain: All About Our Nervous System And More!

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I’ve used this text to teach everything from broad concepts (effective, engaging leads which pull the reader right in) to  narrower techniques (listing, beginning a series of sentences with strong verbs).  Great writers give us this gift, they give us what we need  to be efficient and effective writing teachers.  We don’t need to have tool kit folders crammed with zillions of mentor texts we need to sift through and hunt from each time we need to “show” a student what some craft move looks like.

Student mentor texts are essential:

I owe this one to Dan, now at the Rochester Institute of Technology doing something great in genetic science which I will never understand. Many years ago, I shared a mentor text from Cynthia Rylant in a conference with Dan, a reluctant and yet very able writer  who believed that writing was just something to “get it over with”.    Many of us will recognize Dan as one of those “I’m done, I have nothing else to say” students.  I shared an excerpt from Cynthia Rylant, thinking that that would do the trick to move Dan along in a particular writing piece. Instead, Dan listened, sat back and said, “Yeah, well that’s Cynthia Rylant, she’s been like writing forever and all, but I’m just a kid and I think this is all a kid can do.”

I didn’t have much to say then (it was, in my defense, my second year of teaching) but I would today…because I have student writing in my tool kit.  There is something very powerful in a student seeing what someone in your sixth grade class last year or in the years before was able to craft. I try not to use current student work in conferences because I feel it sets up unnecessary competition, although current writing is in display all around our classroom.

Demonstrate with mentor texts:

I make photocopies of mentor texts to underline, draw loops and arrows, and make notes as I confer and teach, rather than use prepared, laminated  “here’s the teaching point” examples.  Doing this allows me to be in the moment with the student, responding directly to writing in front of me.  We talk through the teaching point, so that my thinking is visible and clear, and done in the presence of the student I am conferring with.  This type of demonstration, I believe, better allows for the next step in conferring – the transfer of the writing move from mentor text writer to student writer.  Best of all, the student has this annotated copy to back to her desk for easy reference.

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Foster independence: display mentor texts/make them accessible:

There is nothing more frustrating than finishing a conference with a student, and then having that very same student signal that they need to confer again two minutes later.  Especially if you feel that the conference had gone well and that the student was on his or her way for the rest of writing workshop.  Ugh!

I have found, however, that keeping a genre study bulletin board where students can find the marked up versions of our whole class mentor text investigations, mini lesson anchor charts, and student examples has been an effective way to get my students to look for ways in which they can help themselves … other than only looking to me.  Often, my kids will look to these first for ideas about moving along their writing, before asking for a conference with me.  Which is, I think,  a good thing.

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How do you organize and utilize mentor texts? We look forward to hearing and learning from you next week. Let’s chat on Monday, May 11th at 8:30 p.m. EDT, when the six of us host a Twitter Chat about conferring toolkits.  Search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.

Click on the image for more information about the Twitter Chat.