Back in November, my daughter, Isabelle, and I went to a card-making session at Curio, which is a gallery and art supply store in Lancaster, PA. We went with a mission in mind: to create get well cards for a family member who was going to have surgery. When we entered Curio, we saw a table stocked with a variety of markers, pens, and colored pencils. For a child like Isabelle, she was delighted by all of the writing utensils and was ready to start creating. However, I steered her towards a wall display filled with greeting cards (for sale) by local artists. I encouraged her to look through the cards and borrow one she admired so she could emulate it when she created her own get well card.
Isabelle loves art, but didn’t want to take the time to look through the cards. I had to push a bit, showing her how I looked through the cards to find a mentor for myself. Reluctantly, she looked through the collection, found one she loved, and decided she wanted to use it for inspiration.
We talked briefly about what she noticed — in terms of color and shapes — on the card she removed from the display. We discussed that her card shouldn’t be an exact copy of the other artist’s work. Rather, it was to be used for inspiration.
Isabelle sat for nearly an hour designing her card and writing a caring message inside of it. I noticed she selected her colors carefully and didn’t get frustrated when her card didn’t look exactly like the one she was mentoring herself after. In the end, she was proud of what she created and liked that she created her own design inspired by a local artist.
After we left the card store, I thought about the connection between this experience with Isabelle and the reluctance some of young writers show when we give offer them a mentor text. Sometimes a student has their own ideas and wants to rush into writing. Other times the mentor text is beyond the student’s ability as a writer so using it feels overwhelming. And, of course, there are students who just don’t want to be bothered reading someone else’s words and then going through the mental work of trying to emulate an author’s style.
If you have students who are resistant to using mentor texts — for whatever the reason — then one way you can invite them to understand the importance of mentorship is through art. Consider an art activity where YOU and your students look at artwork in an effort to get some inspiration prior to creating your own. (You could even use Visual Thinking Strategies, which you can find more information about here and here, to start a conversation about the artwork.) After you and your students have created beautiful art inspired by another artist’s work, take time to celebrate your creations and how they were inspired by another artist. Once students have reflected on their ability to create something beautiful inspired by someone else’s work, you can make the connection to using mentor texts to help students become stronger writers.
The ability to seek out mentor texts independently and use them to become a stronger writer is a skill we want students to develop since they won’t always have a writing teacher available to coach them. If we lay the groundwork for meaningful mentorship in elementary school, then we are giving students the gift of becoming independent writers since they’ll know how to seek out and meaningfully use mentor texts as they go through life.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent over a decade working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grade K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).