When my daughter was in her freshman year of high school, she was assigned to write a film review. Elizabeth had two concerns: she had never written a film review before, and this teacher was especially feared for her high standards and savage critiques. When some brave students had stepped forward in class to ask about how they should go about this writing task, the teacher had offered this curt advice: “read film reviews in The New York Times and the New Yorker, then figure it out”. So, Elizabeth dove into back issues of both periodicals, read as many reviews as she could find, marked them all up, and then went on the write her first ever movie review with some degree of clarity and confidence. She had discovered the power of mentor texts.
In their wonderful new book, Writing With Mentors: How To Reach Every Writer In The Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts, authors Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell offer every writing teacher a beautifully thought out methodology for carefully curating mentor texts, organizing them for purposeful access, and then teaching students (such as Elizabeth, who was left to learn this on her own) through the lens and power of mentor texts. They write:
“Mentor texts enable student writers to become connected to the dynamic world of professional writers. Mentor texts enable independence, as over time, students are able to find and use the inspiration and craft elements found in the sentences and pages of their favorite writers. Mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and instruction. Mentor texts enable a teacher, whose planning time and knowledge of every potential genre of writing is limited, to reach every writer in the room, on any given day, whatever the writer’s needs. Mentor texts enable all of us-teachers and students alike-to do far more than we ever could on our own.”
In the book’s first three chapters, the authors lead us through the “why?” of teaching with mentor texts, and then the “how to” of such a teaching practice:
- A Classroom Where Mentors Matter
- Developing a Mentor Text Habit of Mind
- Moving from Mentor Texts to Writing Lessons
These were rich chapters, filled with thoughtful and practical ideas for developing mentor text habits of mind and what this looks like and sounds like in real life classrooms. Our students come to our writing workshops with diverse interests and learning styles, and we teach many genres over the the course of a learning year. For our collections of mentor texts to remain current, and therefore relevant, to our students’ needs, we need to do more than simply tag our favorite picture books, chapter extracts, and articles for use on an “as needed” basis. We need to figure out specific ways of setting up our writing units, and then gathering and organizing mentor texts to support and enrich those units:
“Being a teacher who puts mentor texts at the center of the classroom is a rich and exciting way of life…It means tapping into your writing sensibilities every time you read and enjoying it doubly – as a reader and a teacher of writing. It means learning beside your students and keeping their interests at the helm. It means finding an organizational system that works for you and your students and puts the mentor texts at everyone’s fingertips for the moments when they will be needed in the throes of writing.”
If this sounds like a tall order, it is. But, Rebekah and Allison show us the way with clarity and purpose, from the fundamentals of organization (where I for one need a lot of help!) to the way in which to plan a unit of study built around a set of mentor texts. Each part of the process is unpacked and explained beautifully, with links and QR codes to text sets, student writing samples, and easy to decipher tables and charts for exploration and reference:
Most importantly, Rebekah and Allison give us the classroom friendly language we need to ensure that the intentional use of mentor texts becomes as evident and necessary to our students as it is to us, their teachers. As my daughter Elizabeth learned, it is not enough to just have access to mentor texts, students need to know how to put them to good use.
The authors set up the next six chapters as a “six-step process for planning a writing study that is infused with mentor texts from top to bottom”; here they are with some of my favorite quotes:
- Introducing Students to Mentor Texts:
“Right from the start, students need to spend time with mentor texts and see the role they can play in their writing lives. They need to understand they can consciously infuse their writing with the techniques of successful writers and recognize the value that adds to their work. Because students need time to intentionally learn how to learn from other writers, we teachers also have to give students time to breathe, to fiddle, to play, to figure it out.”
“To read like a writer is to be encouraged and supported in bringing the craft to your own work-in short, to read like the writer you are becoming.”
- Mentors Show Students How to Play:
“Regardless of the powerful mentor texts we share with students, older students are often reluctant to take risks and play in a piece of work that will be graded. Somewhere along the way they have become afraid of “doing it wrong”, afraid of doing anything other than what is explicitly set forth on a rubric. In order to grow as writers, students need safe places to play with writing – places that aren’t assessed or evaluated or given a grade. They need places where their work can be messy, where thinking outside the box and being wild with ideas is encouraged. This is why we have daily notebook time, a time where mentors show students how to play.”
- Mentors Show Students How to Plan:
“Mentor texts provide a bigger, better vision for students’ planning. Mentor texts help students anticipate the choices they will need to make as writers and give them the latitude to do just that – consider options and make real choices.”
- Mentors Show Students How to Draft and Revise:
“While the class collaborates during daily craft lessons and in mentor text response groups, students largely move forward on their own as they draft and craft, mentor texts on one side of the desk and notebooks on the other. Here, they make the choices writers make: what to put in, what to leave out, how best to communicate their purpose, which pieces of mentor text inspiration to include and how to include them.”
- Mentors Show Students How to Go Public:
“It’s not enough to have students share their work within the walls of our classrooms. If we are going to put true meaning behind the term writer, we need t make it real. We need to help our students ready their work for readers and then help them push it out into the world.”
- Mentors Show Students How to Be Independent:
“Finding writing mentors and using mentor texts isn’t only academic, It’s life. The ability to find good writing and identify what makes it effective will carry students through their education and into the world of work.”
Although Writing With Mentors is geared towards upper grades and high school, and both Allison and Rebekah teach at the high school level, much of what they have to say is just as true for those of us who teach fifth grade and middle school. In fact, this is just the sort of book I need as a sixth grade teacher, as I prepare my students to dig deeper and stretch themselves as readers and writers. Writing With Mentors is a must-have book for all writing teachers – my own heavily marked up and sticky note laden copy will certainly be an integral part of my writing teacher life.
Allison and Rebekah recently presented at The Educator Collaborative gathering, check out what they had to say about mentor text work in the writer’s notebook:
Would you like a copy of your very own?
- For a chance to win this copy of Writing With Mentors, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, April 19th 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 April 21st..
- 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, 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 – WRITING WITH MENTORS. 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.
I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.