We believe a mentor text is a book that offers myriad possibilities for our students and for ourselves as writers.
Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli
Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children's Literature
I remember reading What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher and Lasting Impressions: Weaving Literature Into Writer's Workshop by Shelley Harwayne early in my teaching career. I fell in love with both of these books because they created a vision for me for a solid writing workshop–one that used great children's literature to help students grow as writers. It is that true reading-writing connection that has sustained me during times that writing workshop has been hard. Since then, other books have come out that have addressed the use of literature to support young writers. Wondrous Words and Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children's Literature are among my more recent favorites. There is also a blog (www.mentortexts.blogspot.com) that focuses on this topic.
In the 25 years since I read these two professional books about literature in the writing workshop, I have been adding to my collection of children's books that I can use for minilesson work in the writing workshop. I am always looking for great children's literature that can serve as our class's mentor texts — those texts we use as models or anchors, and return to again and again; text we can learn from and that can inform our own writing decisions.
I have thought long and hard about what it is I am trying to accomplish by sharing mentor texts with students. I want them to see the qualities of good writing and I want them to see mentor texts as invitations to try new things. I also want them to learn to read like a writer — finding the things authors do to make writing powerful. But, most importantly, I want them to find visions for their own writing.
Recently, I have realized that I have too much control over the mentor texts we study in the classroom. I have built a stack of the best of children's literature, taught my students to read like writers, to analyze great writing and to try new things in their own writing. There is no doubt that quality literature makes a difference in children's writing lives. But, I realize that I usually choose the lessons. I often choose the texts that we will learn from as a class.
This coming school year, I am hoping to take the idea of mentor texts one step further. I have always invited my students to think about the kinds of writing that they love — to read like writers and to find their own mentor authors — authors whose writing they can learn from. However, I have never had anything formal enough in place to make this as meaningful as it could be. If I want my students to find mentor text that they can learn from as writers, I need to give them a system to support this thinking.
My Own Writing Mentor Notebook
I spent time this summer gathering some of my own mentor texts–texts that when I read them, I think, "I wish I could write like that!" I purchased a new spiral notebook to collect some of the text that I have found–text that I can go back to and learn from. One of the first things I put in my personal mentor text notebook was this excerpt from Deborah Wiles' book The Aurora County All-Stars. I fell in love with this character right away. I think it is a character introduction that I can learn from:
Honey Jackson, age six, aspiring dancer and lover-of-life extraordinaire, sat barefoot and cross-legged at the top of the front porch steps. She wore her best pink leotard and tutu. Around her neck, hanging from some string, was a pair of toilet-paper-roll binoculars. Behind her, in a short, straight row, sat seven small stuffed animals–her audience.
The Aurora County All-Stars, Deborah Wiles, pages 12-13
I have other pieces too — a variety to help me create a vision of who I can be as a writer.
-I love to write with a bit of wit so I have included several lines from one of my favorite series books for transitional readers, The Talented Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. One line I chose was "I have noticed that teachers get exciting confused with boring a lot."
-I have an article from our local newspaper on the Italian Cookie table. Because I am Italian, I was drawn to this article and realized I don't write enough about the things I take for granted. I put that there to remind me to do more of that kind of writing.
-I also have some blog entries in my new notebook. I have a blog (www.readingyear.blogspot.com) and read other children's literature blogs often. There are some blogs that I love to read and others that I can learn from as a writer. I've included a few of my favorite posts.
-I have a piece of my own writing in my new notebook. When I wrote Fitness Boot Camp Helps Me Understand Struggling Readers, I played with the lead in a way that I hadn't tried before. It worked and I wanted to try it again in another piece of writing.
After sharing my collection with students during those first few days of school, I am hoping to make this part of their own writers' toolbox–a notebook where they could collect writing they love, and writing they can learn from. I am hoping this "Personal Mentor Text Notebook" helps students not only to read like writers, but also help each child create a vision for who they want to be as a writer.