Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Mentor Texts?

When I first started teaching, I was given a teacher mentor, Deb.  At first, this was a person that I would turn to for school related business:  What are the best ways to handle grading? or  What are some good classroom management techniques?  I’d ask.  She’d answer, patiently and politely, always impressing upon me her calmness and confidence.  Our relationship, and my teaching, transformed when I entered her classroom and observed the magic and joy that she brought to students.  I had known (and heard) that she was good, but I could tell in minutes that Deb was goooood.  I looked ahead 15 years of my career and I hoped and prayed that some day, one day, I could be as good.  So, I copied her.  Deb gave me a strategy and I tried it.  Over and over again, I mirrored her craft.  We learn from our mentors to become better.  Deb is a master teacher in every way, and now, I don’t just turn to her for school related business, but for personal and professional advice, too.  I am lucky, I know, that my mentor was a model of good teaching, an inspiration of learning, a friend forever, and a master of her craft.  That’s a mentor. 

So years later, when I began my inquiry into reading and writing workshop, I was inspired by the idea behind using authors and their words to help mentor student writers.  A mentor can shape who we are, who we will be, and who we strive to become, like Deb has done for me.  A mentor text can shape and develop writers to grow their craft and voice through words in many of the same ways.  I dove into the words of Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, Linda Dorfman, and Katherine Bomer to learn new ways to integrate mentor texts into my teaching of writing.  Actually, I also love to use Ralph Fletcher's memoir, Marshfield Dreams, as mentor texts.  When I began to teach students how authors elaborate with dialogue, organize through character perspectives, craft with punctuation and repetition, and write with detail and focus, I saw students transform their essays and stories into meaningful and important writing experiences. 

Here are a few ways that I have found mentor texts useful in my classroom(s) over the past few years:
  • Mentor Students with Specific Craft Techniques:  Choose a few mentor texts to teach a craft or strategy (could be something simple like dialogue, repetition or something complex like theme, suspense).  Ask students, independently or in groups, to study the text and notice the way the author makes the craft interesting in the text.  What does the author do?  Why is that effective?  How could you try it? 
  • Use Mentor Texts to Demonstrate Teaching Point Strategies:  In an earlier post about conferring, I shared the format of a conference that Carl Anderson reviewed in the TCRWP Writing Institute.  In every teaching point, Carl has a mentor text on hand to help teach students a strategy.  Carl reminds us that if students knew how to find the important parts or elaborate their writing, they would do it.  Mentor texts show students a concrete example of a writing skill and strategy. 
  • Teach Elaboration Strategies Through Mentor Texts:  We often say “elaborate” or “add more detail”.  Studying mentor texts and guiding students through the many different ways that authors elaborate can take the taboo out of the writing process.  Give students the opportunity to study a text and identify (and then use) the different strategies to make a detail, topic, or character come alive. 
  • Encourage Risk TakingWhen students are in the revision stage, ask students to choose a part of their text that they would like to revise.  Guide students to take a mentor text and try out a strategy in their writing.  Start the scene over again using a strategy by an author.   Build mentor texts and risk taking into the rubric or evaluation tool to encourage new writing techniques.
  • Encourage Reflection:  After a student revises and publishes a piece, ask them to reflect on the mentor authors that they have used.  Ask students to identify parts and sections of mentor texts and their writing that show the development of their writing process with mentor texts.    Sample questions might be:   How did the text help your writing?  What did you learn about writing?  Where can the reader see the mentor text in your writing?

Mentor texts should be pieces that students have already read and understood.  The focus, when teaching mentor texts with writing instruction, is not about comprehension, but about creating craft and importance in writing.  Carl Anderson recommends that for each unit of study, choose three or four mentor texts that you could use as a “go to” text for any strategy that you are teaching within that unit.  Carry those texts around with you in your conferences to pull out right away in your teaching points.   The blog, Teach Mentor Texts, is a great online resource.  Don't forget the books that I linked above, too!

A mentor text is not just a model text.  Model texts may be used to show skeletons of writing to guide students through the process.  A model text shows students the way it's supposed to look.  A mentor text, however, is a piece of writing from which students will emulate strategies and skills to hold onto forever as writers.  A mentor text is a master like Deb that makes you want to read on, learn more, and copy.  

We all need mentors help us learn and grow in many different aspects of our lives.  I've had so many different mentors in my life for many different reasons.  Using authors to show and demonstrate powerful writing helps young writers to see the strategies and skills that we want students to develop.  It’s okay for students to copy these authors’ strategies (not words) in order to find their own way.  I did it, and kids need to do it under our guidance while they are still learning how to take risks.  They’ll only find their own way if we teach them how.  J

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