Talking About Unlikely Mentors with Lisa Eickholdt

Teacher-Author Lisa Eickholdt talks about using student writing as mentor texts in writing workshop today. Read this interview, then leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of her book.

Teacher-Author Lisa Eickholdt talks about using student writing as mentor texts in writing workshop today. Read this interview, then leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of her book.

Months ago, I saw the title of Lisa Eickholdt‘s book and knew I wanted to read. Why? Because I had thought about writing a similar book, once upon a time, but never did.  I wanted to see how someone else approached the topic of using students as mentor authors in writing workshop.  Once it arrived, I began reading Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts immediately. As I read, I was thankful Lisa wrote this book instead of me.  She uses student writing as mentor texts so exquisitely.  Lisa takes the idea of using student writing, rather than published writing, as mentor texts and helps readers understand how to do this work.  If you’ve never experienced the power of holding up a piece of student writing as a mentor, then you’re sure to change your ways after reading Lisa’s book.

There are a number of books in the education market written about how to use published books as mentor texts.  (I’m at the tail-end of writing another one for Stenhouse!)  However, I don’t know of any books written in the past decade — other than Lisa’s — that will help you empower your students as mentor authors.  I wholeheartedly believe ALL children in a classroom should be held up as mentor authors (i.e., the sophisticated writers, the mid-range writers, and especially the developing writers)!  Lisa’s book will show you how to do this.  It’s a must-read.  But first, here’s my chat with Lisa about Learning from Classmates.

Stacey: What motivated you to write Learning from Classmates, which is like an exquisite celebration of student writing?

Lisa: Well, first of all, I am thrilled to hear you call it an “exquisite celebration of student writing.” What a beautiful description! Thank you. I had hoped people would see the book in that way.

I have spent my career working with kids who struggle. As a classroom teacher, a Reading Recovery teacher, an interventionist, or a literacy coach, these are the kids I like to work with and am often asked to work with. One thing I’ve noticed is that many kids who struggle with literacy also have low self-esteem. One of the things that always lifted them up was when I used their writing as a mentor text in my minilessons. One of my favorite things is to watch a student’s reaction when I ask if I can use their writing in a lesson. The kid immediately sits up straighter, smiles, and generally looks more confident. I think every child deserves to experience this. To feel like they are good at something, so good they have been asked to mentor others. And I want every teacher to have the pleasure of watching their kids have that amazing reaction. I believe this is the reason most of us became teachers, for the moments when we can watch a kid glow. Using students’ writing as mentor texts builds kids’ self-esteem and lifts the level of writing of every other student in the room. I see it happen every day and yet it never ceases to amaze me. It is quite remarkable. That was my motivation for writing the book.


Stacey: Let’s dig into the book! On page 28, you stated you believe the qualities of meaning/focus, structure, elaboration/details, craft, and conventions are the most helpful to student writers.  On page 30, you admitted that conventions are at the bottom of your list of writing qualities.  Please say more about this since often teachers have a hard time looking past spelling or grammatical issues.

Lisa: You bring up a good point, Stacey. I think it is often hard for teachers to look past surface feature errors and focus on the content of student’s writing. However, if teachers can learn to do this, they will be rewarded. Beautiful writing often hides beneath poor conventions. Once teachers start looking past the conventions in a piece, not only will they find the “hidden gems” as Katherine Bomer so aptly calls them, but they will find lots of other things to teach. Writing a well-crafted piece is hard work. It requires the writer to make a lot of important decisions such as exactly what are they trying to write and why (focus), which parts or scenes to elaborate and which ones to leave out or summarize (organization), how to tell more about certain parts (elaboration), and how to make the reader visualize (word choice). With all this to consider, it is rare I feel the most important thing to teach a writer is where to put a period.

One way teachers can help themselves start attending to the content in kids’ writing is to set a one month goal. For one month, vow to confer with your kids solely on content. Once you do this for a month, and see the effect it has on your students, you will be sold. All of sudden, your kids’ are more enthusiastic about writing and their work is better.

I recently saw a tweet that quoted P. David Pearson commenting on the purpose of reading. According to the tweet he said, “No matter how important code is, it is not the point of reading.” Since reading and writing are reciprocal processes, I think we could say something similar about writing. “No matter how important scribing is, it is not the point of writing.” When we focus our teaching primarily on conventions, we are sending a message to kids that writing is about spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is thinking. It’s about putting your thoughts on paper and making meaning.


Stacey: You wrote about troubleshooting during conferences in chapter 3.  Would you explain how you use student writing/mentor texts to help with writing process conferences?

Lisa: When we use traditional mentor texts or children’s literature in a conference we generally use them to teach lessons on craft such as elaboration techniques, leads, endings, word choice, etc. This is because we only have access to the finished product. One of the benefits of using student writing as mentor texts is that we can show work in progress. This is when picking up your group’s writing notebooks periodically is really helpful.

I may choose to read through all of my students’ notebooks and search for how they are going through the various stages of the writing process. Maybe I want to search for idea generation methods. I can read their work and ask questions like: What strategies are students using that I’ve taught them? How have they tweaked these? What new ones have they come up with on their own that others might be able to use? Maybe I decide to search for planning methods. I might ask questions like: What graphic organizers are they using before they write? What seems to be working well for them? I could decide to search for revision strategies and ask something like: What methods/tools are they using to add in text? Once I locate some helpful process strategies, I can ask students to share what’s working for them in a conference (or minilesson). In a process conference, I often invite kids to come help me confer. I might say something like, “Hey, Jack come over here and show Emily that cool thing you did to flesh out your character’s traits before you drafted.”

The awesome thing about using student mentor text is that you end up with 25 writing teachers in the classroom, as opposed to one.


Stacey: How can teachers new to writing workshop figure out how to use their students’ writing as mentor texts?

Lisa: I think teachers new to workshop will be successful at finding and using student mentor texts if they use their conference time to seek it out. This is when I find most of my student mentor texts. As teachers confer with individual students, they will want to examine their work through a double lens. The first lens is of course seeking out how to best help each individual child. Once their teaching point has been determined, teachers will want to ask themselves, “Is what I am teaching this one student, something that all my students might benefit learning too?” Whether they are teaching a totally new concept, reviewing something that they previously taught in a minilesson, or helping a child with a specific problem regarding their writing, many times the other students in the class can benefit from learning the same thing. If teachers will examine every interaction with an individual student, by also considering their group of children, they will have a never ending supply of mentor texts.

To ensure I use every child’s writing as a mentor text many times throughout the year, I use a checklist. I create a list with all my student’s names with boxes for dates. Then, I record the date I share each child’s writing as a mentor text in the box next to their name.

I also seek out the most struggling writers’ work first. I know I can easily find mentor texts from my kids who love to write. When I seek out pieces from the kids who struggle first, I know every child will get a chance to be a mentor many times throughout the year. Generally, these kids need the self-esteem boost the most too, so that’s an added benefit.


Stacey: What do you think is the most effective type of demonstration (pg. 65) teachers can use when utilizing student mentor texts in minilessons?

Lisa: That’s a hard choice for me to make… each method is powerful in its own way. Show and Tell is definitely the one I use the most often, primarily because it’s simple. Grab a child and their writing and help them teach the rest of the group. I think inquiry is powerful because of the whole detection factor. When students are encouraged to discover a new writing technique and allowed to name it themselves, it really sticks. However, I think one of the most powerful types of demonstration is Before and After. This technique is harder for the teacher to execute because kids generally make changes to their pieces when we confer, so their first version gets lost. Because I think it’s imperative kids both see and hear the mentor text in a minilesson, when I do a Before and After lesson, I often rewrite the child’s first version on a chart, and their revised version below indicating each with a caption. For example, “Before adding inside story (student’s piece)” “After adding inside story (student’s revised piece)”. When we can show students a piece before trying a writing technique, then show it afterwards and discuss how the content was improved, well that’s pretty powerful.


Stacey: You talked about scaffolding student authors (pages 66-67).  Would you share some of your tips for helping students gain confidence to talk about their writing/teach their peers here?

Lisa: Though students are always thrilled to be asked to teach others a writing strategy or technique, many will become nervous about talking in front of their peers. This is where the teacher truly becomes a coach. During the minilesson, I release as much control to my student authors as possible, but I am there to scaffold them if they need it. I might repeat back what they just said if they seem to get off course, I’ll ask key questions to get them to elaborate more on how they went about using a writing strategy, I often remind them of what they said or did in the conference so we can share it with the group, I may list the steps out on a chart as they explain them, and sometimes I rephrase what they said (I try not to rephrase too much because I think “kid speak” often makes more sense than teacher talk). All of these scaffolding moves seem to ease the student’s nerves and help them relax.

I have also found it helpful to allow kids to practice reading their piece a few times before helping me teach. Finally, I never make a student go in front of the group if they don’t want to. I always offer to present their writing myself and give them credit. Most kids don’t choose this option, but I want them to know we can go this route.


Stacey: What kinds of student writing do you keep in your conferring toolkit?  How do you keep it organized?

Lisa: Most of the student mentor texst you see in the book came from my conferring toolkit. They are texts that I discovered, loved, and used over and over again in my teaching. They are also pieces my teachers told me they used most often (we created a bank of student mentor texts on our shared drive at school for everyone to use). For years my toolkit was simply a three-ring binder that was divided by the major genres (narrative, informational, opinion/argument, and poetry) and a process and goals section. At one time I tried dividing it further by grade level, but quickly abandoned that idea. I use student mentor texts across grade levels so frequently, it really wasn’t helpful. Recently, I’ve just been carrying around my book and using it to confer. It’s nice to have all my favorite mentor texts in one convenient place, and it’s a lot less bulky than my old binder.


Stacey: What is your favorite part about the writing this Learning from Classmates?

Lisa: This book has been such a personal labor of love, it’s really hard to choose one favorite part. Working with my amazing editor, Holly Kim Price, throughout the process was phenomenal. I was told by a children’s author once that to get a book published, an editor has to champion the book for the author. This is exactly what I think Holly did-she liked my idea and really went to bat for me. I owe her so much.

Another one of my favorite parts was inviting students to contribute a piece of writing for the book. The students (and their parents) were always so excited that they would be featured in a “real” published book. When the book was released, we had a book signing at a local book store to celebrate everyone’s first publication. It filled me with such pride watching my students and son (he has a piece in the book) sit alongside me and sign next to their writing. It was one of the best days of my life.

Another favorite part was choosing the cover art. My designer, Monica Ann Crigler, and my production editor, Hilary Goff, were amazing with everything, but in particular with the book cover. I really wanted kids’ writing and pictures of kids to be featured on the cover. Monica created a lot of designs and kept tweaking them until she created something I liked. I think the final product turned out spectacularly. Actually, I think it is the most beautiful book cover I have ever seen (I may be a bit biased though)! The way Monica used a faded piece of kid’s writing for the background was genius! I also love the cover because the photos are very personal. I took the one of the two little girls when I was working in a second grade classroom (Zoe and Loan who both have pieces in the book), and the other picture features my son with two of his best friends from school.


Stacey: What is the hardest part about writing?

Lisa: Time (or finding time I should say)! When I set out to write this book, Stephanie Harvey, a dear friend and mentor, gave me some valuable advice. She quoted Donald Murray’s famous words to me, “Put your butt in the chair.” Well, when your butt is in the chair, it can’t be doing ALL the other things you still need to do! The laundry still needs to be done, the house still needs to be cleaned, and your kid still needs help with homework. It’s hard to put all those things aside and write, but you have to. When I was writing Learning from Classmates, I tried to write every day for two hours after work. My son and I would come home from school, I’d get him a snack and all set up to go out and play, and then I’d write for two hours (thank goodness he loves playing outside). I think writing each day is imperative. When I stop, even for a few days, it’s really hard to get going again. Real life seems to quickly take back over and suck up all my time.

A few years ago, we were fortunate to have Lester Laminack, speak at my school. Lester has written many books for teachers and for children. When I asked him about writing he told me, “Everyone wants to write a book, but no one wants to do the writing.”  I think this speaks to the issue of time. If you want to write a book, you must make time each day for the writing. This forces you to let things, like cleaning the house, go.


Stacey: What’s next for you?

Lisa: As far as writing goes, I have an idea for a picture book that I’d like to explore. It is an idea I have had for a while and haven’t been able to focus on due to writing Learning from Classmates. I have no idea how to write a picture book, nor do I know if any publisher would like this idea, but I do intend to write it.  It’s about another topic that’s near and dear to my heart, my mother.

Peek inside of Lisa’s book:

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Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. Many thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, June 5th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Sunday, June 7th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Heinemann will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – LEARNING FROM CLASSMATES. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Comments are now closed.  Thanks to everyone who left a comment about Lisa’s incredible book. I used a random number generator and The Real Nani’s commenter number came up so she’ll receive Learning from Classmates. Here’s what she wrote:

I would love a copy of this book! I really appreciate that she used to be a writing interventionist, which is what I do but I find there is a dearth of resources out there for writing intervention. I have a feeling it would be a useful tool for my work.