Ever since I learned about the value of mentor texts to help students’ writing, I have tried to use them as often as possible. I thought I was doing a pretty good job.
I already had my routine in place for using mentor texts. I would find examples of the types of writing we were going to do, read them with students, and then project them on the document camera and model marking them up for the things we identified as part of the craft of writing in that mode. Then students would work in groups to identify more writing strategies, we would co-create an anchor chart identifying those elements, and I would send students off to write.
It seemed to be working pretty well, until the moment on that day in May when John came up during writing time and asked me a question that would flip the switch on perspective for me.
“Mrs. Heise, can I look at that example article again? I want to see how he wrote that lead.”
In my head I was thinking, But we’ve been working on leads all year! And I sometimes worry about my students relying on a mentor text too much, to the point that it seems like plagiarism or just copying and changing a few words. However, I’ve come to realize that imitation is a great scaffold while students are learning to write better. Once they become adept at using the craft strategy the mentor writer has used, they can start to internalize it and it will become something they can rely on as their own strategy for writing.
Unfortunately, John’s question made me realize something important about using mentor texts. You see, I had already put the argument-piece mentor texts in my labeled folder and put them away. We all know how easy it is to lose those pieces of paper in a teacher’s file cabinet from one year to the next, and I wanted to ensure I would have them in the future because they were strong examples that the students enjoyed and understood. But my students were still working on writing that piece! What had I been thinking to have already put the examples away?
This was the epiphany that helped me realize that if we’re going to use mentor texts as examples for imitation, to help students learn to write better, we need to allow them to be accessible and in their hands. Reading a mentor text just once isn’t enough to figure out all of the writing craft and internalize a strategy. I wouldn’t allow myself to read a model only once to learn what the author did that worked, so I shouldn’t ask my students to either.
The lesson I learned from John’s comment is that for students to be able to use mentor texts effectively, they need to have immediate access to them while they are actively writing.
Some ways to make this work in the classroom:
- Have several copies of the mentor text and leave them out in a central location where students know they can just grab them when they need them.
- Make a copy for each student to mark up and keep with them (although in my classroom this would often lead to lost papers, so I would need extras).
- Tape a copy of the mentor text to the chart paper and create the anchor chart around it. Color coding and underlines/arrows can be used to identify the elements in the paper and connect to the strategy or element.
- If students are writing online, have the mentor text linked on your class website or attached in Google Classroom (one of my favorite features).
I try to teach my students to be reflective, so I need to model that for them. If we listen to our students, we can learn a lot. And that day in May, I listened. I stopped my class for a moment, grabbed those mentor texts out of that folder, handed one to John, and let my whole class know that they were available if and when they needed to reference them.
What I learned that day upon reflection is that if we just cover characteristics of a type of writing and have students write, we don’t get great results. If we use mentor texts and create charts identifying the elements of craft, we get better writing.
But what happens the next day when students come back to write more and are stuck? They get stalled out. So why not make it easier for everyone and have that mentor text available for them to have in their hands? If it leads to better writing success for my students, I’m all for it.