I’ve long believed teacher-written texts can serve as excellent mentor texts during a unit of study. While I’m a huge advocate of student-written mentor texts, sometimes student writing doesn’t have everything we need it to contain. We can tailor our own writing to our units of study. We can do this because we can be mindful of our students’ ability levels while meeting all of the objectives we have for a given unit.
Meghan Hargrave was my section leader for a week-long course on information writing at the TCRWP Summer Writing Institute. We did quite a bit of writing, under the influence of The Art of Information Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleen Cruz, which is the third-grade information writing unit. Meghan took us through the first and second bends of the unit, while providing us with scaffolds to create our own demonstration/mentor texts.
The Art of Information Writing is a unit that focuses on personal expertise. Basically, kids take something they already know about and teach others about it in their writing. The topics student write about are comfortable to them, which means they only have to do one or two days of research. In other words, the unit is about the craft of information writing, not research. (In fourth and fifth-grades, the TCRWP units focus on a content area and something more research-based, respectively.)
Meghan started us off by having us brainstorm lists of “everies,” which are things you do every day, week, month, season, etc.
Bam! I found my topic. I’ve been hosting Thanksgiving since we moved to Pennsylvania, even the year when I was very pregnant with my daughter. It’s MY holiday. I knew I would have a lot to say so I zeroed-in on that as my topic.
Meghan got us thinking about ways to organize topics by considering ways, kinds, parts, types, and examples. This is what I did:
Meghan told us that each section was its own little part. She encouraged us to think about each part as a file and asked us to be the kind of writers who would know what to include in each part. Class ended so she charged us with going home and coming up with a Table of Contents for our information books. This is what I came back with the next day:
That’s right? After all of the work I did the previous day, I realized I didn’t have an engaging and accessible topic for third graders. While I love spending weeks searching for new recipes, I don’t think that’s something that would interest most eight- and nine-year-olds. Why spend time creating a demonstration text that might not be accessible to many third graders? I thought about my passion for cooking and honed-in on something most third graders enjoy: cookies.
Meghan continued to move us forward (with the third-grade unit as a guide), but I had to go back and do some catch-up work. (Does that sound like any of your students?)
Instead of taking you through every step of my process, I want to skip ahead to my final product. After spending some time with the unit on my own, here’s the text I wrote for the purpose of using it as a demonstration text with third graders who are engaged in this unit.
Want to create your own mentor texts for use with your students? Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Work through the minilessons — in order. It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you’re teaching, you should try to craft your demonstration text as you plan your minilessons. Going through each minilesson means you’re trying out all of the strategies you intend to teach in your own writing. Doing so allows you to encounter the same kinds of troubles your students may encounter, which you can discuss with them.
- Use Learning Progressions & Student Checklists. Once I think my demonstration text is ready-to-go, I check it against the TCRWP Student Checklist and the Learning Progression.
As I did this, I realized I didn’t use enough transition words in my writing. Once I realized this, I went back to add some sequence words to my text.
I’ve consulted with teachers who’ve taught this unit, but I’ve never taught this unit to a class of my own. I discovered there were aspects of my writing that were beyond a third-grade level, which is the grade level of The Art of Information Writing. This required me to revise.
- If you have student writing available, try mirror writing. As M. Colleen Cruz asserts in The Unstoppable Writing Teacher:
- “[D]emonstration writing alone can sometimes not be enough. Sometimes we write too high for our students to follow what we are modeling. Sometimes we are too simplistic in our efforts to make our models more accessible. We also sometimes tuck in way too much to teach in any one demonstration. … The way mirror writing typically goes is that teachers choose a piece of student writing that is typical of many students in her class. She then spends some time reading the piece very closely and looking for what the student is doing as a writer. Not looking at what is absent. Looking at what is present. There’s a reason for this. We can’t mirror something that is not there, only what is there. Then, the teacher usually thinks of a topic she can write about that is different, but can hit the same points the student hits” (2015, 137).
- “By the end of mirror writing a kid’s piece, a few incredibly helpful things happen. First and foremost, you now have a perfectly tailored piece of writing to demonstrate with, that encapsulates lots of teaching points you can use with students without writing above or below their ability level. You can also pick an assortment of pieces from different levels or with different patterns so that you have a repertoire of pieces to turn to in order to highlight certain strategies to teach” (2015, 139).
- This is where you model your own sentence structure after a student’s text so that it’s accessible for your students. Sentence by sentence and part-by-part, mirror your writing off of a text.
Do you have any other tips for creating teacher-written mentor texts that you’ll use in minilessons and in conferences with your students? If so, please share them below.
Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.