A Few Ways to Empower Writers Using Mentor Texts

Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.

I laid my coat on the back of the computer lab chair, blew into my cold hands, and rubbed my eyes.  It was late.  And the paper was due tomorrow.  Suddenly, an idea…call Dad.  “Hello,” my father’s voice sounded groggy, like I’d woken him up.  “Dad,” I said, “the final paper for my politics class is due tomorrow.  I just got off work, and…well, I haven’t started.  But I know what I want to write.  I just don’t think I can do it.”  Not even a beat passed when my father’s voice came, “Yes, you can. You can do it.  You know how to write.  You’ve got your outline, right? I think once you get going,” he continued, “you’ll find it to be fun. Trust yourself.”  And with those words, I suddenly felt empowered. “Okay,” I said.

It could be said that what sets a writing workshop apart from other approaches to teaching writing is a focus on empowerment.  In a workshop, we don’t tell kids what to write.  Although we may work within a writing type or a class topic for a while, we always allow for meaningful choice, as we know that ownership over a path of learning is critical. As researcher John T. Guthrie writes in a paper on best practices for motivating students (2013), “On a daily basis, teachers can give mini-choices.  They empower students to increase their investment in learning” (p. 15, emphasis added).  Thus, as workshop teachers we don’t prescribe with narrow assignments, and we tend to avoid forcing kids to complete complex graphic organizers or follow long sets of directions.

As I write this post, I am reminded of my own pre-workshop teaching during which I would assign kids a prompt (I had selected) about a book (I had selected), beginning with a graphic organizer (I had selected). I shudder at the memory simply because it wasn’t until, years after imposing this “assignment” on dozens of students, I tried out the writing work myself– the graphic organizer, the prompt– and found that, well, it didn’t work for me at all as a writer. Looking back, I see now that removing all choice, coupled with barely allowing for only a cursory journey across the writing process, not only bored many or most of my seventh grade writers, it disempowered them.

In writing workshop, we want to be acutely aware of the distinction between, “Here are the directions I’m giving you…” and, “Here is a strategy I’m teaching you.”  In the second statement, we are working to empower writers because our focus is less on them complying (first statement) and more on equipping them with a way to strengthen or improve their writing craft (second statement).  For many years now, as both a classroom teacher and coach/staff developer, I feel my internalized understanding of this approach to empowering writers has guided my work.

However, a few Saturdays ago I learned of a few new ways to empower writers: through mentor texts. 

Idea #1:  Choice of mentor texts.  At the fall Saturday Reunion at Teachers College in New York City, author and staff developer Pablo Wolfe suggested one choice we unknowingly remove for kids is what mentor text they will use.  Many of us have likely become accustomed to selecting a strong mentor text during a unit of study.  Stacey even wrote a book about this topic.  We encourage and  invite our writers to lean on this special text for ideas and inspiration, as we have deemed it worthy of study and imitation.  This is wise teaching, as mentor texts hold a unique power to support writers in lifting the level of their craft.  But what if we allowed for choice of mentor texts? 

During his workshop on revision, Pablo arranged for digital access to around four different, high-quality mentor texts written by different authors.  Each mentor text seemed to be carefully chosen and represented vastly different writing styles (e.g., Sandra Cisneros, Jack Gantos, Kate DiCamillo), as well as a student-written mentor.  Looking across these four selections, I found myself able to choose a text with which I could connect my writing style.  Imagine students being able to do this same work!  I realized then how important it is to consider the fact that it is unlikely every writer in my classes would connect to the text I had selected.  For example, are all seventh grade boys going to connect with a beautiful Cynthia Rylant story?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  What if we instead arranged for other options, like those found in Guys Write for Guys Read or Jack Gantos books?  As Guthrie writes (2013), “The most widespread recommendation for motivation is providing choices.  In the classroom, students are often thrilled to have a choice in their reading” (p. 14).  I imagine this would hold true for mentor texts, as well.

Idea #2: Turning a mentor text into a student-facing checklist. After allowing us all an opportunity to connect with a mentor text of our choice, Pablo took us through the process of turning a mentor text into a personalized, “student-facing” checklist.  This process involves a short series of steps that allow writers to meaningfully interact with a chosen mentor text and literally turn it into a revision tool.  The steps were as follows:

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By facilitating a process by which students can select their own mentor texts and transform them into writing tools, we can empower our writers.  For me back in college, all it took one spring night was to hear my father say the words, “You can do it.”  That belief voiced in just a few words empowered me to finish my senior paper.  But for our students, a simple introduction to choice and/or a few simple steps that they can replicate independently holds the potential to empower them in new and exciting ways.

* Special thanks to Pablo Wolfe for granted permission to share his work!