One of the things I like about the Sunday paper is the coupon section. When I’m finished cutting up the paper, there are coupons strewn all over my kitchen table. Throwing them in a box and then trying to find the coupon I need when I need it would take a long time. Or, I could organize my coupons in groups so when I need a cereal coupon, I can go right to the cereal section and there they are! Another way to organize would be prioritizing the ones I am most likely to use.
Sometimes organizing writing is like organizing coupons. Writers often have a lot of good ideas, but they need help organizing them. When readers read our work, they don’t want to have to sort through all the boring stuff they don’t really need to know. They want to get right to the “good part” — and those good parts vary for every kind of writing.
When students want to write about their summer vacation, they might spend a page just getting to the beach. They might want to write about their football game, and it’s pages and pages of reciting each play. These kids need a vision of how to organize their work in a meaningful way. More important, they need multiple visions of the many ways to organize information, so they can become more thoughtful, sophisticated, and independent as they make choices for organization on their own. Here are some examples of mentor texts that have a clear organization for the writing.
Diary of a Worm: This book has quick diary entries that last over several weeks. The entries are short and to the point. Longer entries reveal more action, and shorter entries move us through time.
Sea of Ice: This book tells the story of The Endurance, the ship which attempted to cross Antartica in 1914. Each chapter is labeled by date.
Exploding Ants: This book is organized by grouping similar behaviors of animals.
Girl Wonder: A Baseball Story in Nine Innings: This is actually a biography of a female baseball player. Each ‘inning’ has an important event from her life. Students writing sports stories often find it helpful to dwell on one thing from each section of the game rather than every single play.
Roller Coaster: This picture book zooms in on one experience on one ride. Instead of trying to tell about the entire day at the amusement park, the writer chooses one thing and then tells about the wait, the ride, and what happens afterwards. It’s a step-by-step type of organization, but because it zooms in on one event, it works.
Flying Solo: This novel focuses on one day at school. The author uses the class schedule and times to move the reader through the day.
Twilight Comes Twice: This picture book describes what twilight looks like in the morning and the evening. Instead of starting at the beginning of the day, Fletcher begins his text at the end of a day, moves us through the night, and ends his book with the next morning. I love the clever organization of this text.
Lightning by Stephen Kramer has an intriguing question/answer format.
Food Fight!: This book uses a metaphor of a food fight between good foods and bad foods.
Now & Ben: The reader learns about the many inventions of Benjamin Franklin and how we’re still using them today. The author starts with something we have now (like bifocals), and you turn the page to see the original invention by Ben Franklin. It’s a clever way to look at some of his accomplishments, and to compare the past with the present.
Anchor Chart for Organization
To teach students how writers form a vision for their writing by thinking about how to organize the information, we build an anchor chart together. There are many ways to build the chart. It can be completed slowly over time, and linked to a series of read-alouds. It might be sketched out fairly quickly with older students, using texts from their independent reading. In the end, the goal is the same for students at any grade level — developing a quick visual reference for the many ways information can be organized.
Just as I need to decide the best sorting method for my coupons, so must the writer make intentional choices about how to organize their writing. Most teachers use mentor texts to study craft. However, mentor texts can help us make so many other choices as writers. As we help students towards becoming independent strong writers, we need to give them multiple options for mentor texts. A student will not find all the things they need as models in just one book. By providing many mentors and options to students, we help them develop richer texts on their own.