Let’s invite every writer in our classroom to create mentor texts!

As a writing teacher, I am always on the lookout for rich and varied mentor texts to share with my students as we work our way through genres and, more importantly, try to live writerly lives.  Our classroom is filled with great books in these genres, and I have binders and charts on hand to share with my kids and inspire them to take their writing “to the next level”.  I am always mindful of this advice from Lucy Calkins:

“Teach the writer and not the writing.  Our decisions must be guided by what might help this writer rather than what might help this writing.”  

So, the decision to seek out engaging mentor texts to assist my young writers is a never-ending quest.  My students, however, have a different view about the purpose of mentor texts, as revealed by the results of our second week of school discussion:

What’s a mentor text, anyway?

*It’s a piece of writing by a famous writer.

*It’s awesome writing by an awesome writer.

*It’s stuff someone wrote and was published and now we have to read it.

*Pro-writing, like, you know, a pro in football, and other sports.

*It’s perfect writing we have to try for…we won’t be perfect, but we have to try for it.

*It’s got everything on the rubric.

How can writers learn from unpacking mentor texts?

*Well, we can figure out writing tricks.

*They show us what to do, I guess.

*We can copy the style to improve our writing.

*They help us take our writing to the next level.

*I don’t know…but I don’t want to write like Ralph Fletcher, I want to write like me!

Needless to say,  I left our discussions feeling that I had some new thinking to do on this subject.  My students seemed to have arrived in my writing workshop with the following impressions about mentor texts:

  • it was something done to them – they were somehow passive receptors of impossible to attain writing advice
  • this was writing to aspire to – but out of their reach
  • that it involved a simple mimicry of someone else’s style, rather than deliberate and well thought out writing moves

“Making mentor text work meaningful” was thus added onto to my workshop goals of the school year.  As I was searching for ways in which to accomplish this, I happily chanced upon Lisa Eickholdt’s new book:

learning from classmates

Lisa writes eloquently and persuasively, arguing that our students need to see more of their own writing held up as mentor texts to be emulated:

Everybody has something worthy to offer.  Too often gifted students are the ones who receive acclaim in our classroom.  When choosing writing to use as a mentor text, we must consciously choose to use writing from all students, not only a select few.  We need to send the message that we believe everyone, not just certain students, can be a great writer.  In order to ensure we include all students in the mentoring process, we need to search for the good in each and every piece of writing we read – a line, a sentence, a few choice words – no matter how small.

Lisa walks us through the four steps of writing workshop, each of which offer wonderful opportunities for discovering student mentor texts to share with our class, so that our students may learn from their peers in addition to writers like Cynthia Rylant and Ralph Fletcher.  

  • Immersion – why read and focus solely on the beautiful writing of published authors? Lisa encourages us to share student writing, and to spend time learning how to notice and name specific writing techniques in these writing pieces so that our kids know what to emulate in their own writing.
  • Assessment – it is critical to assess our young writers on a regular basis, since this will inform lessons for the class as a whole, for small groups, and for individual students.  Lisa advocates for us to find ways to gather samples, search for patterns in needs, and sort by the qualities of good writing.  In the process of assessing, we can discover student mentor texts that will be perfect to move the rest of our class forward.
  • Conferences – Lisa writes, “when I confer, my mind is on two things: the individual student and the whole group.  As I talk with a student about how to grow as a writer, I’m also aware of what I need to teach the rest of my students.  I ask myself,’What is this child doing that I can use in my teaching in some way?’ During the compliment or teaching portion of the conference, I may notice the student has implemented (or attempted to implement) something taught in a recent lesson.  Or he may implement the strategy we focus on in the conference in a particularly effective way.  If the rest of the students could benefit from having more instruction on this concept, I invite him to help me teach an upcoming lesson.” Brilliant! Lisa calls this the double lens in a conference, and I think it may well be something I will spend quite a bit of time in the next few months practicing and attempting to perfect.
  • Lessons – I loved the way Lisa focuses  on how important it is to scaffold student mentors so that they can explain their thinking process to their peers.  Students need to be taught how to be effective mentors, and we learn some steps we can take to empower them to do this in a purposeful way that will benefit their peers.

I was lucky enough to be able to see Lisa’s presentation at last Saturday’s Educator’s Collaborative Fall Gathering (these are archived, thankfully, so that all educators can take advantage of this day of amazing learning – thank you Christopher Lehman), and this question she posed about what we most often look for in student writing which really got me thinking:

“We start with surface feature errors, instead of asking ‘where are their hidden gems’?”.   Learning From Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts has set me on a path to finding more of these hidden gems in my student writers this year, and in the years forward.  It’s a book filled with rich teaching ideas, presented with clarity and so many well thought out and must-have ideas for organization.