Curating an Array of Mentor Texts

The Chocolate Pretzel Crinkle Cookie Debacle

I recruited my children to help me bake Chocolate Pretzel Crinkle Cookies one snowy Saturday night in January. My two-year-old son, Ari, helped dump items into a bowl to create the batter, while my eight-year-old daughter, Isabell,e volunteered to roll the cookies into balls and coat them with powdered sugar. Sounds idyllic, right? Here’s the thing: the dough was super-sticky! Isabelle felt as though she was failing when she was unable to roll the dough into balls so we could coat the dough-balls in powdered sugar. After several attempts, she watched as I continued to struggle as the dough stuck to my hands. The end result was a cookie that Isabelle declared “tastes like a snow day.”

I replayed the baking episode in my mind while I cleaned up that night. While Ari was content to dump items I pre-measured into a bowl, Isabelle was frustrated when she struggled with the dough. No one wants to struggle… in the kitchen or with anything. It made me think I should’ve given Isabelle a different task (e.g., rolling the dough-balls I made in powdered sugar rather than rolling the sticky batter into balls) that was more appropriate for her ability level as a baker. After all, I’ve been baking for years and found the recipe so frustrating to make that I tossed it even though it was one of the most balanced salty and sugary gluten-free cookies I had ever tasted.

On Sunday morning, I looked at the photos my husband took from the previous night’s baking and thought it related to the teaching of writing. Specifically, I thought about the way we choose mentor texts to share with kids to lift the level of their writing. Sometimes we provide kids with mentor texts that are beyond them as writers. We tell kids, “You can write like (insert author’s name).” And that’s great. We want kids to aspire to writing like published authors. However, sometimes the texts we’re showing kids in writing conferences are ones they can barely comprehend independently. That’s not fair to the child since it won’t grow them as a writer. Instead, it’s important to share texts with kids that are a bit beyond them as writers, but are texts they can read independently.

Many teachers use the mentor texts that come with the curriculum their school has purchased. Those books are fantastic to use during minilessons while providing instruction to the entire class. However, in my work as a literacy consultant, I’ve noticed the same text is often used to model a strategy during small group instruction and 1:1 conferences. And that’s a fine thing to do since one knows students are familiar with the books. However, I’ve noticed there are times a teacher is modeling with a text that’s beyond the child’s ability to read. Then, when it’s the student’s chance to “try it,” s/he struggles to write in the same style as the author since the text is out of the student’s reach (just like rolling that sticky cookie dough was beyond my daughter’s ability level as a baker).

One of the reasons I wrote Craft Moves was because I know how challenging it is to find mentor texts. It takes time to find texts that serve as windows, mirrors, and sliding doors (Bishop, 1990). (Click here to read a post I wrote about inclusive mentor texts earlier this year.) However, one of the best ways to invite a striving writer to the table is by sharing mentor texts that are truly within their reach.

Allow me to back-up and explain what I mean by a striving writer. This is a term I have adopted from Melanie Meehan who explains it beautifully in her forthcoming book, Every Child Can Write, from Corwin. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction of Melanie’s book:

While some people think of these students as strugglers or high-need students, for the rest of this book, I will refer to them as our striving writers. I prefer the term striving to struggling because striving implies effort, and I want to believe that everyone is wired and at some point willing to try; people don’t choose to struggle.

Striving writers might have obstructions in their learning pathways that get in the way of their cognitive engagement. In addition to learning disabilities or processing disorders, they could also have inconsistent or incomplete skill sets from previous years. Our strivers may have missed out on instruction because of various reasons; maybe they received some sort of intervention during writing time. Maybe they moved from a district without a strong writing program. Maybe they didn’t master an earlier concept that was foundational to the development of other skills. For example, many of the skills within writing are developmental, and they might have been not quite ready to learn how to form letters when it was taught. Without that skill, they missed out on how to create words and sentences. Whatever the case, a gap starts to form within the writing life of strivers, and without intervention and targeted instruction, that gap has the potential to widen.

It is more work to curate an array of mentor texts that will reach students of different writing/reading abilities for each unit one teaches. However, if we’re committed to differentiating instruction, then it’s important to use a variety of mentor texts to meet students’ needs. This doesn’t mean having 15 – 20 mentor texts per unit. Rather, having at least five mentor texts — of varying levels of difficulty — for each unit of study is helpful. (Not sure where to start? Check out our archive for posts about mentor texts that can help you find more titles you can use with your writers.) Easy readers and early chapter books can help striving writers to lift the level of their writing just as much as a middle grade novel can help another writer who is ready for a more complex text.

Happier times making black bottom cupcakes.

Two weeks after the crinkle cookie debacle, we had another snow day. This time, I selected a Black Bottom Cupcake recipe to make. Black Bottom Cupcakes are something I had made before so I felt confident having my kids help. (Ari did small jobs while baking.) I read through the recipe with Isabelle, in advance of baking, so she’d understand the order in which we’d be making the recipe. She helped me gather all of the ingredients to have on our island before we started. While baking, I noticed she exuded confidence as she measured the dry ingredients, whisked the dry and wet ingredients, and spooned the batter into the cupcake tins. She had a smile on her face before, during, and after the cupcake-making experience. Plus, she asked to bake again soon!

The desire to bake again at the end of a positive baking experience reminds me of how we want writers to feel when they leave a conference. We want kids to feel excited about trying out the strategy we’ve taught. Enthusiasm should be just as high at end of a writing conference as it was for Isabelle wanting to bake more after feeling successful for baking a recipe that was new to her.