Stop! Don’t read this post! That is, unless you fit one or more of these descriptions:
- Maybe you are teaching a few new things and need to find mentor texts to help you teach.
- Or maybe you have an expansive mentor text collection, but never seem to be able to find a particular text when you need it.
- Maybe you’ve been using the same mentor texts for years and years and need to freshen up your collection.
- Maybe you are looking for a better system for keeping track of your mentor texts.
A mentor text is a familiar text teachers and students can use as inspiration for their own writing by studying the craft moves and writing strategies the author probably used to create the text. Mentor texts could be any type of writing–picture books, chapter books, articles, comics, letters, essays… anything!
Personally, I fall into the category of being fortunate enough to have amassed, over time, a fairly large collection of mentor texts. I have enough texts now that I have choices for each unit. I try to limit myself to 3-5 strong texts per unit–and sometimes I really only need one. Having a collection to choose from allows me to adapt units of study to the needs and interests of each group of students and teachers I work with.
The problem is, I can never find things when I need them. Also, I often forget that I have certain things when I’ve stored them away “somewhere safe.” Additionally, some of my mentor texts are getting a bit outdated, and I have a constant goal of maintaining the diversity of representation of voices, perspectives, and situations of the authors and characters in the mentor texts I use. There is always work to be done.
Years ago, I learned from Katie Wood Ray, whom I consider to be the queen of mentor texts, to create “stacks” for a genre whenever I’m getting ready to teach. Inspired by the stacks, I’ve got big plans this year to take it a step or two further to get organized and grow my mentor text collection.
STEP 1: CREATE TEXT-TYPE BASKETS
I used to literally have stacks of books for each genre, and for years, those stacks have lived on my bookshelves. There was a time, a long, long time ago, when those stacks were neatly arranged on the shelves by genre or unit, and I could easily locate something when I needed it. But over the years, my stacks have gotten split apart, mixed up, and books are now just randomly stored on the shelves, on chairs, on my desk, some are tucked into folders or old conferring kits I don’t really use anymore. They’re everywhere at this point. My plan is to start fresh – I’m going to gather up all the books I have used or could use as mentor texts and organize them into four simple baskets:
Persuasive and Essay
Well, in actuality, I’ll probably have multiple baskets for each text type. In the past, I’ve tried to break them down further. For example, at one point I had baggies of books for Realistic Fiction, Fairy Tale Adaptations, Edge-of-Your-Seat Fiction, Mystery, and others. Later, I decided to try to arrange things by examples of qualities of writing or specific strategies: Specific Details, Beautiful Language, or Meaningful Dialogue. Now I’ve come to believe that a simpler system is going to work best for me–just three big categories of text types. I tend to do most of my teaching within those three big types of writing, and I find that one mentor text can often support many sub-genres within a particular type–so why divide them up when I’m likely to pull them back together again anyway?
STEP 2: GRADE LEVELS OR STAGES OF WRITING
As a literacy coach, I work K-8, so within each genre basket, I think it will be helpful to find a way to easily find books for different age levels. In the past, I tried to have a separate basket for each grade level, but I wound up “stealing” from primary grades to use in middle school so often that I think keeping them together will be helpful. I’ll mark an age range discreetly on the back with a Sharpie. Some of my books came with specific curriculum materials, or are integral to certain units, like the TCRWP Units of Study mentor texts. I’m constantly forgetting which book goes with which unit, so I’ll mark that on the back as well.
STEP 3: TAKE STOCK OF WHAT I HAVE
Once I’ve located everything I already have, I plan to do a little bit of an inventory and reflection to see what I’m short on and set some goals.
I use the Strong Classrooms Self Assessment from the Educator Collaborative often to reflect on my own work, and as a literacy coach I encourage the teachers I work with to use it as well. There is a section on Global, Diverse Citizenship I refer to often when I’m reflecting on the texts I use in my work.
Additionally, I think about the units my colleagues and I plan to work on, and how accessible those texts are to the students we’re working with. I take into account the level of difficulty of reading the actual text, along with factors like student interest, teacher interest, and if I have a number of choices to choose from for each unit of study. I also think about which texts teachers would need to scaffold considerably, versus which texts could fairly easily be put directly into students hands to study on their own.
Pulling all this together, I created this “Mentor Text Scavenger Hunt” for myself and for my colleagues so that we can create wish lists of things we’re missing and set some goals for gathering new texts: certain genre, longer versus shorter texts, new texts published within the last few years, voices and perspectives that aren’t represented.
STEP 4: CREATE STUDENT AND TEACHER-CREATED MENTOR TEXT FOLDERS FOR EACH BASKET
This step is last, but certainly not least. So far, I’ve been referring mainly to published trade books by professional, adult, authors. But, as we all know, there is much to be learned by studying mentor texts created by students and teachers. Inside each genre basket, I plan to gather up a folder of each.
The student-created mentor texts and teacher-created mentor texts I gather up don’t all need to be perfect examples, or even “on grade level.” The term I would use for examples like that would be “exemplar” rather than mentor. Rather than a folder full of perfect exemplars, I’m looking for examples of texts that have bits and pieces that I can point to and say, “See how I did this?” or “See how this other kid did this, right here? You can try that too!” That’s very different than having an entire piece that is exactly on grade-level or above. Don’t get me wrong… exemplars are helpful for certain things, like setting goals and self-assessment, but what I really need for teaching are pieces of writing that clearly show certain strategies being used in context, even if it’s only one part of the whole piece.
I find it helpful to brainstorm some of the predictable problems students tend to face for a type of writing, and then see if I have any student work that might provide a solution to that problem. If I don’t have any student work, I can create something using my own writing. In fact, earlier this week, Melanie shared great advice about strategic texts–a type of mentor text you can create for your students.
STEP 5: MAKE AN ACTION PLAN
After looking through my texts, I know I have to decide on just a few key goals. Unfortunately, I don’t have unlimited funds for purchasing new books, nor can I endlessly arrange and rearrange baskets and folders. Like you, I’ll have to prioritize.
This year, I have two priorities. Yours might be different.
My first priority is to look critically at who is represented in my collection. Who are the authors? Who are the main characters? What topics are included–and whom are those topics geared toward? I need to look more closely at how characters are represented across the whole collection. I want to make sure that my collection isn’t inadvertently reinforcing just one narrative about an entire group of people.
My next priority is going to be to update my collection. I have a lot of favorites that work well, but I’ve been using them for so long that they are starting to feel canned. I need new books not only to breathe life back into some old lessons, but also to share with teachers that I’ve now been working with for some time.
This is the year I’m going to grow and organize my mentor text collection.
FOR MORE ON THIS
There are a number of tried and true resources I turn to when I’m looking for advice on mentor texts. Here are just a few favorites.
Craft Moves, Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing With Mentor Texts by our own Stacey Shubitz
The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing by Ruth Culham
Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts by Alison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell
Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature K-6 (Second Edition) by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Capelli
- This giveaway is for a copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom (Link to https://www.heinemann.com/products/e09250.aspx). Thanks to Heinemann (Link to: https://www.heinemann.com) for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a copy of this book.)
- For a chance to win this copy of Kids 1st from Day 1: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, August 12th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, August 13th.
- Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book 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, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – KIDS 1ST. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.