Sometimes when I am working with students, we delve into a mentor text and find so many elements to admire that it becomes overwhelming instead of inspiring. As with so many things in life and in teaching, sometimes less is more.
One of our third-grade teachers uses mentor texts incredibly effectively. When I asked her students where they find inspiration for their writing, they pointed to a display of picture books. The students and I talked a bit about how they use books to improve their writing, and their reflections, combined with my own creative writing practices, led me to some important reminders I want to hold on to about mentor texts and how we use them in classrooms.
Love the book you’re using. Sometimes, we use a mentor text in a classroom because it’s the book a colleague uses, or it’s written into our curriculum, or we’ve read a blog post about it. Honestly, mentor texts are helpful to use in front of students (or for your own work) only if you truly relate to them. When we love a book and admire an author, our students sense it. My best mentor texts are books I know almost by heart. They are my literary friends.
Whether it is a picture book, poem, chapter book, or other text, it’s important to read the work first, and it’s important for students to read/hear the work first, as well. Many teachers want to use mentor texts in their classrooms, and they think of a picture book they’ve read that illustrates a concept they want to teach in a writing unit. Yes, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen has a fabulous sensory description on the first page, but students—regardless of their age—will appreciate it more if they experience the whole story before studying the craft moves in that opening scene. I may possibly soften on this reminder when it comes to works of nonfiction; maybe for works of nonfiction, a cover-to-cover read isn’t necessary before studying craft moves, but for almost all works of fiction, we should appreciate the work as readers before we try to emulate the work as writers.
Follow the mantra of she or he does, I do, you do. Like many, I am sometimes guilty of skipping the crucial second step of modeling how I would use a mentor text for inspiration in my own writing. Yes, notice the craft move, name the craft move, and try the craft move yourself as head learner in your classroom. Students need to see what it looks like to try it out. They need to see the process of revision or interpretation of a craft move. Seeing the process, especially if it’s a little hard and doesn’t go perfectly, gives students more courage to be brave writers and experiment with new skills.
One mentor text can teach many skills, but focus on one or two skills at a time. Students need to focus on just one or two skills even more than I do. That first page of Owl Moon offers opportunities to learn about sensory images, sentence variation, establishing a story—so many craft moves, it can be overwhelming! Limit your teaching to one teaching point, and use the mentor text to support just that one teaching point.
As writers and teachers, we have many tools we can offer students to develop their independence and repertoire. When we teach students how to use mentor texts, we develop their ability to read, analyze, reflect, appreciate, and emulate.