Using Mentor Texts With Students

“I would never sign my kids up to learn swimming with a teacher who doesn’t swim,” Kelly Boswell stated in an NCTE session that had to do with mentor texts. She reminded us that using mentor texts is optimally a three step process, citing Kelly Gallagher as the originator of the “he go, I go, you go” mantra. Most of us forget the middle step. Even though I’m a writer, I’m also a rusher, and in the haste to get students off and writing when I am demonstrating a lesson using mentor texts, I have not always emphasized that critical second step of being a writer in front of students. 

Shortly after NCTE, one of our third-grade teachers asked about teaching a lesson together about the importance of establishing setting in narrative work. With the “he go, I go, you go” mantra in mind, she and I planned the lesson.

Her class has been using Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and C’mon Rain by Karen Hesse as mentor texts throughout the unit. I don’t like to use books as mentor texts that students haven’t already read, so I made copies of the first pages of those two picture books. For Owl Moon, I only needed the first page; for C’mon Rain, I needed the first three pages.

For my connection, I suggested what it might feel like to be placed into an unfamiliar setting with a blindfold on. We would all want to know where we were. In general, people want to know about their setting, whether it’s real life or reading life. I shared the chart I’d created and stated the teaching point, and then I gave every student a copy of the first page of Owl Moon for the “s/he go” part of the mantra. Each student had a clipboard, and I had them notice and note the ways Jane (and I said Jane) let her readers know about the setting. At first students just underlined the text, but I pushed them to write down what they would call the writing move. There wasn’t a wrong answer, and I repeated that several times. “Use your own words to describe what Jane is doing as a writer,” I kept saying.

We charted the responses, and then we moved to the “I go” step of the mantra. Their teacher shared her own writing, and she tried out some of the craft moves students had named from Owl Moon, as well as some others. We added Mrs. J.’s name to our chart. When I sent students off to their own writing–the “you go” step–, I asked them to add their names to the chart as they tried and showed us moves.

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Whether it was the act of marking up the text, watching their teacher write, or getting to add their names to a public chart, everyone was writing and working on making their settings clearer for their readers.

Yes, that middle step took an extra few minutes in the minilesson, but engagement was high, and the payoff was big.