immersion · mentor texts

What’s the Big Idea?

I am a detail person to my core. It can come in handy when scheduling appointments, planning for meetings, and making reservations. It helps me to execute clear objectives for lessons with students and professional learning experiences for teachers. It gives me an edge in data analysis and conversations that dig into standards. 

And—as with must superpowers—it is also my kryptonite. I can get so lost in the details that I don’t take in the big picture. Not seeing the forest for the trees can be a real struggle.

The secret to balancing this strength that can also be a weakness? Plan for it. Yes, plan for both the details and the big picture. Writing workshop happens to be a perfect place to strike this balance.

When I first learned about using mentor texts in a writing workshop, I remember getting so caught up in the noticings. My picture books were flagged with sticky notes stuck to other sticky notes. I could notice for days, and because of that, I’d lead my students in this way. In the style of Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven, we would notice topics, writers’ work, and craft moves. Here is what our anchor charts for a unit of persuasive genres looked like after several days of noticing.  

The level of detail is dreamy even if a bit overwhelming. Through our noticings, students and I began to brainstorm our own topics, began to engage in research and began to emulate some of the craft moves. Pages in our notebooks filled with—you guessed it—details. 

What we need at this point is a unifying vision, a big idea. What is it that we are going to be creating as writers in this unit?

The plan for this big idea begins as we set the stage for a unit of study: A carefully chosen mentor text helps to create the spark. In this unit, I am sure it was a piece of commentary by Leonard Pitts, Jr. We are going to write like this! I tell them, and from that first day, we start to define what this is.

Then, as we proceed through our noticings, we bookend each workshop with the big idea. Notice how students help to revise our vision as we go; it is a work in progress.

My favorite thing about this is the way that it begins to incorporate more universal and transferable language and really hones in on the purpose. I never could have imagined my sixth graders would notice that persuasive writing is intended to invite readers to interact, not just act.

As with most big ideas, they are greater than the sum of their parts. We maximize this by striking a balance between the details in our noticings and the direction of our vision. We get stuck in one, we shift to the other.

If it works in writing workshop, why not in life? Most recently, this intentional shift helped me revise a letter to my insurance broker, diagnose my beeping washing machine, and overcome the overwhelm of a broken well.  Take in the details; then take a step back. Live among the trees and stop to take in the beauty of the forest. Whole-to-part, part-to-whole and everywhere in between. A beautiful balance, indeed.