Teaching High Schoolers How to Read Like Writers with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains

Fact: high schoolers love storytime. They love sitting cross-legged on a patch of carpet as the teacher reads a story from a chair, fanning open the pages of the book.

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When I told them we were having storytime, my ninth graders appeared confused at first, exchanging dubious glances around the room.

“Like in elementary school when the teacher read aloud?” someone asked.

They gathered around me on the carpet in front of the white board, fidgety at first. I held up the cover of the book. “When I Was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Does anyone want to make a prediction? What do you think this story will be about?” I summoned the calm reading voice of my mother, an amazing first-grade teacher and storybook reader, and we began.

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What a High School Writing Teacher Can Learn from Preschool Writer’s Workshop

I teach big kids and always have. High schoolers. But since writing instruction is my great teaching passion — and since summer provides few outlets for actual interaction with students — my almost-three-year-old daughter became my student as I subjected her to a summer of preschool writing workshop.

How does this endeavor equal summer fun and relaxation? Well, let’s be honest — it was mostly a convenient excuse for me to spend some time studying writing workshop with our very youngest writers, something I know absolutely nothing about. But Allison and I borrow and adapt techniques from elementary workshops in our high school workshops all the time — I figured, why not extend that into preschool? What gems might I find?

Also: it was just a fun experiment for mom.

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I did a bit of preliminary research on the Internet to try to find an answer to my central question: what do you do with a toddler writer. Every source I found redirected me to a single book, so I digitally scurried to Amazon and ordered a copy of Teaching, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers, the bible of primary writing workshop. While most of the lessons and techniques outlined in this book were a bit advanced for Georgia, it was an absolutely fascinating read and got us started with doodling, captioning, and dictating.

As we worked, I wondered which elements of a pre-writing writing workshop, if any, could be useful in a high school workshop. I took away three big ideas to try with my classes this year:

Make writer’s workshop more like play

With my daughter, writing workshop meant stickers, a pretty notebook, and special markers. We put these items in a writing workshop box, and only when we were doing workshop could she use them. She begged me for writing workshop time every day. 

This was hugely incentivizing for her , and, when I thought about it, it would still be hugely incentivizing for me! In fact, I do motivate myself with pretty school supplies — the new post-its I buy each August, the colorful pens I purchase to make sitting down with a stack of papers more fun.

Why shouldn’t it be this way for my students? This year, I want to make writing workshop — and particularly my students’ writer’s notebooks — more playful. I am encouraging my students to decorate the inside of their notebooks as much as the outside. I am suggesting they doodle when they have run out of ideas during notebook time rather than merely allowing them to doodle. I am not just acknowledging that markers exist, but actually setting them out while students work in their notebooks.  

My hope is that this will bring more ownership and joy into our work. 

The writer’s notebook is the writer’s notebook

To that end, I am trying to do a better job of constantly reminding myself that the notebook belongs to my students and not to me. I want it to be sacred to them, so I need to treat it as sacred and keep my hands off!

This summer, I constantly fought the impulse to insist my daughter use her notebook in the way I envisioned. My blood pressure shot up when she would want to color on two (or three! or four!) pages instead of just one in order to tell her story. I would get anxious when she left one story unfinished before moving on to another or change stories midstream. I’m just that uptight. With the possessive truth of a three-year-old, Georgia consistently reminded me that her notebook was “mine” and I should keep my hands off.

And it is her notebook, so she should use it in the way she sees fit. So should my students. Though I almost never write in their notebooks, I do tend to micromanage them. I like for all writer’s notebooks to be organized in my image. My students, especially my younger, struggling writers, need help with organization — they need a vision and sometimes a prescription for what that should look like. But they also need the freedom to explore what feels right to them. If given room to grow, this freedom will breed independence, and both their learning and writing will be better for it .

So, even though I have prescribed the basics of notebook setup for my students this year, I keep repeating aloud — for my benefit more than theirs — “This is your notebook. Do this the way that makes sense to you.” 

Baby steps are big steps

When you are writing with a three-year-old, you go slowly. In tiny baby steps. First, we worked on drawing. Then a one-word caption. Next, putting that caption into a sentence. (We never actually made it to dictating a story.)

But I knew that the slow-going baby steps were big steps for my daughter when she proudly paraded her notebook around the house for her father, her grandparents, for anyone who would look at it.

In my classroom, I am always poised and waiting for those big, dramatic growth moments — when a struggling student suddenly (and miraculously) turns in brilliant, inspired work.  I have a tendency to move too fast in an effort to get that result, afraid that we won’t “cover” enough, afraid that students will get bored. But warp speed has a lot of drawbacks, so, I am trying this year to do a better job of reading my students, getting a pulse on how quickly they need to move, and celebrating the little baby steps of mastery along the way.

What techniques have you borrowed from the classrooms of younger or older writers? Are you a high school teacher who borrows from elementary teachers? Are you an elementary teacher who adapts the work of a high school workshop?  Do you engage in conversation with teachers of students radically different from your own? How do you adapt their curriculum, tricks, and techniques to meet the needs of your students?

We would be so interested to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @allisonmarchett.

 

The First Six Days of School

Every August teachers everywhere lose sleep over the first days of school. Some of us dream of showing up without lesson plans, copiers that break down leaving us syllabus-less. Some dream of classrooms without enough desks, of desks without chairs.

The thing that keeps me up at night is the impression I’m going to leave with students in the first few days. I rack my brain every year for an activity that will accomplish the following:

  • set the tone for the year
  • inspire students
  • get students writing and reading right away
  • show rather than tell about the routines of the class
  • help students learn one another’s names and get to know one another on a meaningful level

As usual this August I spent several sleepless nights trying to invent an activity that might fulfill this criteria. And I kept coming back to this book that I couldn’t keep on my shelves last year: Robin Bowman’s It’s Complicated: The American Teenager.

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Introducing Mentor Texts & Introducing Ourselves

In my classroom, the school year typically comes on like gangbusters. I begin fast and furious as a sort of illusion — more for my benefit than for the students. It’s as though I feel that the faster I tread the beginning-of-school water, the less I’ll feel like I’m drowning.

This year has been very different.

My maternity leave it looming large, and in an effort to stick with the plan I made with my substitute in the spring, I am slowing way down. The result is that we are spending our days doing all of the activities I have always wanted to do to build community .

A couple of weeks ago, Stacey at Two Writing Teachers posted a great idea for using a book of author-inspired art to help students introduce themselves to the class. I decided to take the leap and try it with the added bonus of using it as a means to introduce students to mentor texts.

On Tuesday,  the first day of class, I shared the three illustrations that Stacey shared in her original post. I told students that these, while visual, were still texts that we could study. In fact, they are mentor texts — any text that inspires writing or teaches us something about writing.

I asked them to study these examples and, together, to make a list of “rules” for creating author introduction art:

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I wanted students to go through these steps in order to learn how we use mentor texts. What I was surprised to learn was how much my ninth graders really needed these rules in order to create their own author introduction art.  To shift their dependence from teacher to mentor, I redirected all of their questions back to the mentor text.

“Should I use color?” Look at the mentor text.

“How many images do I need?” What does the mentor text tell you?

Students shared their introductions in the form of a gallery walk. As the students roamed and read, I asked them to jot down any questions they had for one another (either clarification or follow-up questions) and to make note of commonalities they noticed among class members.

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When we had all had a chance to silently “meet” one another, we had a group discussion — asking follow-up questions, playing impromptu games of, “Does anyone here have a ____?”, “Has anyone here been to_____?”   By the time class was over, my previously nervous freshmen were smiling and talking to one another.

Only time will tell if this activity had a deep impact on my students’ understanding of mentor texts, but it certainly them some important, early exposure to mentor texts. It set the tone that individual study and inquiry — independence — is going to get them further than asking the teacher. And it helped my students feel more comfortable in my classroom.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #1

Our most-viewed page during the 2013-2014 school year was actually the link to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project.

Finding mentor texts can often be one of the most challenging – and time consuming! – parts of  effective writing instruction.

Why spend hours flipping through books and surfing the web when we can share? The link below will take you to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project, organized by genre and by technique. Feel free to use the mentor texts already shared and please add your own!

Mentor Text Dropbox Project

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #2

Responding to the Writer Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

But what exactly does that mean? Is there a noticeable difference? Here’s what I came up with:

Assigning Writing

Teaching Writing

Teaching Writers

  • Giving students a topic to write about

  • Asking students to write a paper for which there is no “real world” facsimile

  • Commenting only on the final draft

  • Covering a final draft in red pen

  • Requiring all the writing to be done at home without your tutelage

  • Assigning a grade to anything you don’t explicitly teach

  • Assigning a paper that must be written in a specific genre
  • Helping a student develop a topic for a specific assignment
  • Conferring with a writer about a specific paper
  • Guiding a student through on-going revisions of a specific paper
  • Finding genre-specific mentor texts that will assist and inspire a student to write a specific paper
  • Giving feedback throughout the process
  • Grading the skills you have explicitly taught for that particular paper
  • Helping a student publish his paper
●      Encouraging a student to make long-term writing plans●      Helping a student find a form or genre that fits her idea 

●      Conferring with a student about his growth from paper to paper

●      Encouraging a student to revisit older papers and use her present perspective to improve and transform old work

●      Incorporating mentor texts that cut across genres and demonstrate skills that individual writers need

●      Incorporating self-reflection into the assessing of writing

●      Writing narrative feedback that requires the student to revisit lessons and learn something new

●      Assessing the skills you have taught from all the previous units of study

●      Helping a student build a writing portfolio

 Assigning writing is to be avoided at all costs. Teaching writing focuses on the short-term needs of a writer, and teaching writing, on the long-term needs. Teaching writing helps students write papers; teaching writers helps build writing lives. Both are necessary, but one is transformative.

As I prepare to hunker down and assess several class sets of editorials this week, I’m particularly interested in how the ways in which we respond to student writing can help improve writers in the long run. I have found the following four types of responses to be effective:

 Responses that

●      redirect the writer to previous lessons

●      show the writer his work is part of a larger conversation

●      encourage the writer to make plans

●      invite the writer to see the possibilities

Redirect the writer to previous lessons. Writing is recursive, yet students go through the motions of the writing process with little understanding of this. Brainstorm, draft, revise, submit. We have to un-teach the “one and done” mindset under which many of our students operate. Some writing calls for more revision while other pieces beg to be scrapped entirely. How can we help our students understand the writing process and make it work for them?

One way is to direct students to previous lessons that will help them hone in on skills they still need to master. Perhaps when they rewatch or review the lesson, they will see something they did not see or understand before. This redirection, coupled with the invitation to resubmit work, encourages a culture of revision, forcing students to take this step more seriously—to see revision as something that will boost their growth rather than their grade.

Show the writer that his work is part of a larger conversation. When I can, I try to make connections between the student’s writing and the mentor texts we’ve studied in class–or even something I’ve read on my own that I see as somehow “talking” to my student’s writing. Sometimes just pointing out to writers that they are behaving like other writers can make all the difference.

Other times I will direct the student to a relevant article or other published piece.

I want students to view themselves as writers who are making important contributions to a large corpus of work rather than teenagers who are writing for school.

Encourage the writer to make plans. Good writers have plans. We must invite students to think about writing they’ve started and want to finish, writing they have yet to begin, and audiences they want to write for. We must ask them to think about how each piece fits into the larger scheme of their writing. Here are some of the questions I have posed to students in the margins of their paper and encouraged them to respond to:

  • What other topics might come out of this paper?

  • How does this paper fit into your writing plans?

  • How would you rank this paper in terms of its effectiveness? Compared to the other papers you’ve written this year?

  • For whom did you write this piece? What other pieces might you write for this audience?

  • How does this piece demonstrate your overall growth as a writer this year?

Invite the writer to see the possibilities. Writing is about discovery, yet many students believe that their initial idea is the one thing they need to communicate through to the end. Good writers often begin without a clear picture of where they are headed, and this uncertainty excites them. Good writers understand that the process leads to meaning. To help our students realize the potential in the process, we must share what we notice while refraining from telling them what to do with it. We must help them see that their writing is a rubik’s cube with a thousand combinations. Success comes from noticing possibilities and running with them until they lead somewhere or don’t, so when I notice something interesting in a student paper, I share it with them.

Good Feedback is a Two-Way Street

You’ll notice that all four types of responses require the writer to do something more: to revisit an old lesson, reread a mentor text, respond to his work. Narrative feedback–especially when provided on a final draft–can breed passivity. Students read–or don’t read–the comments and move on to the next thing. But narrative feedback, when done right, can spur action. We must invite students to join the conversation about their writing and continue the process, or they’ll miss out on a powerful opportunity for growth.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #3

The Fifth Pillar of Writing Workshop

Lucy Calkins says that kids “need to see their work reach other readers.”

This explains why I spent much of winter break planning and writing posts for the new blog, checking blog stats, and refreshing my Twitter feed. Have my words reached anyone? Have they made a difference?

A blogging neophyte, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to know that someone is listening.

Human beings crave attention, hunger for an audience, yearn for feedback… and even though we may bring excitement and passion and craft to writing instruction, when we fail to provide students with opportunities for publication, we are doing them a major disservice. Let’s face it, when your primary audience is your English teacher (and possibly your dad who was kind enough to proofread your paper before post-dinner tv), the experience of writing is going to lack a certain kind of joy and meaning. Real writers need real readers.

As I participated in a tweet chat earlier in the week, watching the notifications column on Tweetdeck flitter with every new connection made, I thought to myself: I want my students to have this experience, to feel this excited about writing. To know the effects of their words on others.

In order for this to happen in our classrooms, we have to give equal weight to all five pillars of writing workshop: choice, active revision, author craft, broader visions of assessment, and publication (The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks).

Choice lies at the center of our workshop: students discover topics in their notebooks and develop them into fuller pieces. I consistently model active revision and give students two minutes after every quick write to make their writing “a little bit better.” I could survive on a diet of teaching and talking about author craft. I let my students revise all papers until the last day of the school year, demonstrating broader visions of assessment…

But where is the sharing of writing beyond classroom walls? The hope that their words matter to someone? The proverbial retweeting of one another’s work?

While I often end class with a “share out” or golden line activity, or have students “turn and talk” about ideas, or collect favorite pieces for a class anthology at the year’s end, the opportunities my students have for sharing their work with ever-widening audiences are few and far between.

So in an effort to find and create these opportunities for my students, I forge ahead with some resolutions for 2014:

Reaching Readers Within the Classroom

Utilizing writing groups. I want my students to share in groups on a regular basis. The possibilities are limitless: read from a draft, talk about process, brainstorm, troubleshoot, revise collaboratively. As far as a ritual goes, NWP’s bless/press/address provides a good heuristic for helping students talk about their work in meaningful ways. When my students leave me in June, I want them to be able to move forward in their writing without me. So they must begin to do more of the heavy lifting that is conferencing themselves. Additionally, group conferring will build confidence and pave the way for sharing with wider audiences.

Handing over the torch. In the past, I have always found an excuse for why I don’t let students lead workshop: I don’t have a document camera. I don’t want to put students on the spot. I like to know exactly what’s on the menu. I don’t have enough time. Yet I know that I am doing a disservice to my students when I don’t let them take on more of the teaching and coaching of their peers. Conferences provide a perfect opportunity for noticing something a student is doing that is share-worthy (and it’s all share-worthy). These students can then be asked to lead with their process or writing during class the next day.

The future leaders of workshop!

Reaching Readers Beyond the Classroom

Cultivating a digital writing environment (DWE). In his book The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks notes that the methods teachers have used in the past for helping students share their writing beyond the walls of the classroom are “highly teacher dependent” (80). But with the advent of blogging, Twitter, and other social networking tools, students “now have the ability to publish their work directly to the read/write web” (80). He goes on to remind us that for digital writers “the audience is extended, and students become much more aware, as readers and as writers, of how they both share their work and respond to the work of others” (81). Our DWE will have three parts: blogging, blogfolios, and RSS feed-reading for inspiration. More to come on this experiment in future posts.

Making student processes and experiences available to all. After each genre study, students submit a paper as well as reflection notes. Click here for sample questions. Through these notes, students provide unique insights into the writing process, as well as vivid portraits of themselves as writers. Without a doubt, students would benefit from reading one another’s reflections. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making these reflections available in another medium, in a form that would allow our busy students to listen to one another “on the go” and would showcase the voice of the writer: podcasting! Podcasts could then be linked to finished papers on student blogs.

Until we create and locate opportunities for our writers to reach ever-widening circles of readers, we are only teaching the writing, not the writer. Because a true writer writes to reach.

What opportunities do you provide students to reach authentic audiences? Please respond in the comments section to share your ideas.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #4

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing a Persuasive Conclusion

“What do you need more of?” I queried.  Within minutes, more than a dozen post-its on my board read:

“A mini-lesson on conclusions!”

“Conclusions! Please!”

“Conclusions — I don’t know what to do! Help!”

And these were my IB seniors, still convinced at the end of their K-12 careers that they couldn’t successfully wrap up their essays.

But they aren’t alone. Writing the conclusion causes anxiety in all of the young writers I have met. They innately know that simply regurgitating their big ideas isn’t enough (and, even if it were enough, it wouldn’t be interesting, and as Allison reminds us, all writers want their words to matter.)  However, they are devoid of better tools to deploy.

I started to think about how I wanted to articulate the qualities of a good conclusion. A conclusion should do some reminding and recapping. It should link those ideas together, creating a drumroll beneath the text, culminating in a trumpeted ta da! The grand conclusion. The bigger point. The ultimate moment of persuasion. The zoomed-out larger significance.

Now, where to find the mentor text to show this in concrete terms? I immediately thought of the source of consistently epic conclusions that cause jaws to drop: Law and Order.

I often reference courtrooms when teaching analytical and persuasive writing. Mentally playing the part of attorney helps students (most of whom are very familiar with TV  courtroom crime procedurals) make claims and present and explain evidence. The attorney’s opening and closing argument parallel a writer’s introduction and conclusion. And who better to persuade in that closing argument than Jack McCoy?

For this lesson, you could use just about any closing argument from Law and Order (just search YouTube!), but this is my favorite. Its plot features high school students and a particularly entertaining guest-starring role by Kathleen Turner as the misguided defense attorney.

I tell students to watch the clip carefully, follow our hero, Prosecuter Jack McCoy, and to notice what he includes in his conclusion. There will be a recap of his major claims and evidence … but then what? We watch the clip, sometimes twice for a closer read, and then students share their findings. In his closing argument, McCoy

  • Connects his pieces of evidence together, showing how they build on one another

  • Uses a tone of authority

  • Broadens his argument past this single defendant and pushes toward more global significance — not why this one trial matters, but why the outcome of this trial matters to society, too.

After we talk about it, students try to mimic the ta-da. Some reach for the closest tool and literally mimic the mentor text by connecting the ideas of their paper to their implications in society. And often this doesn’t work seamlessly. Not every text is meant for this treatment, making for another great teachable moment when we share. Other students make the leap to greater relevant significance immediately. We share the ones that work and troubleshoot the ones that aren’t quite there yet.

Here is one student’s “closing argument” for her essay on Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs:

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She did it! She synthesized her major arguments, zoomed out toward something broader, and then came to an even deeper understanding of the text.

After this mini-lesson, the hard work of critical thinking and connection-making still lies before the students. But, finding a way to point to the qualities of a strong and persuasive conclusion has allowed my students to articulate what their conclusions need and a way to begin — a drumroll and trumpet call for which to strive in their writing.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #5

When Even Writing Workshop Doesn’t Work

I am almost obnoxious in my whole-hearted evangelism of writing workshop. (Just ask my colleague who has banned the phrase “mini-lesson” from our future conversations.)  And still, in all my crowing about the successes of writing workshop, I have to admit something to you.

Sometimes it doesn’t work.

“Kevin” nods furiously during our writing conferences. And still he turns in papers written in one, giant paragraph.

“Mary” conferences with me during every class period. We read her work aloud. I highlight places she needs to double check for word choice, grammar, and syntax. We work together to tab the mini-lessons she needs to return to in her writer’s notebook. She turns in a paper unchanged since our conference.

Let’s be honest, when these papers finally land on my desk, I take it a little bit personally. I’m disappointed. I wonder where I went wrong. What mini-lesson could I have offered? What could I have said during our conferences to have made a difference?

The truth is that sometimes our best efforts don’t yield a student’s best work. On occasion, students (particularly our older writers) don’t meet us halfway.

The cornerstone of writing workshop is choice. While this typically translates into the choice of topic, it also means that students are given the freedom and respect to make writerly choices. Sometimes, a writer chooses not to take feedback, chooses not to revise. Now, this makes more sense if you are Hemingway than if you are a 9th grader in my English class, but,nevertheless, if we are truly embracing a workshop model, we have to content ourselves with giving our students all of the choices — including the choice not to conference with us or to ignore the suggestions we helpfully make.

And then there are those students who are just not ready for what we are offering. We all know that even in its purest forms, leveling is a joke. There are as many different levels and abilities in our classrooms as there are faces. There are students in each workshop who have mastered our skills early on and are ready for more. I use conferences to push them to deeper levels of thinking and more advanced writerly techniques.

But there are also students who just aren’t there yet. For whatever reason — cognitive, emotional, social — they can’t accept all that I’m offering.  With these students, I chant a mantra: They aren’t there yet. They aren’t there yet. They probably will get there someday.

And even today, they are doing more than they have been able to do before.

I have taught students whose daily victory was just getting words — any words in any order with no punctuation — on paper. Those successes — however small — need celebrating, too. Some writers are ready to move a mile. Others are ready to move an inch. Both are triumphs in their own right.

And there are days that I’m just not a perfect teacher. Lots of those days, in fact. There are lessons that go awry, explanations that don’t help, conferences that are lackluster. There are days when I don’t feel like pushing Kevin’s understanding and times when I am frustrated with Mary.

Sometimes, it really is on me.

I think it’s important for us to share stories like these — stories of what we consider to be our failures in addition to our successes. Too often in these public forums — our Twitter chats, blogs posts, professional development workshops —  we all come across as experts.  More than experts — we often come across as perfect. I have been discouraged  in the past when, upon asking a teaching guru how something works in her classroom, hearing, “Oh, it just works seamlessly.”

These aren’t perspectives that help.

Share your stories.  Being connected educators is a wonderful thing — transformative and invigorating — but we must connect like human educators.  Sharing not just what works, but also what is really hard. Sharing not just when you feel like the Teacher of the Year, but when you feel like you have utterly failed.
We need to share our success stories to build up the profession, to proclaim that education makes a difference in the lives of kids. But we also need to be vulnerable and share our failures to build one another up, to forge a chain of support, to hear colleagues say, “Man, I’ve been there, too. It’s okay.”

 

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #6

Mentor Text Wednesday: Creating Writers not Writing Automatons

MentorTextWednesdayCan we agree that we hate the five paragraph essay?

Every time I confer with a student who says, “Well, I have two body paragraphs, but I need one more”, I shudder. FIVE IS NOT A MAGIC NUMBER has become my mantra. I’m thinking about making a poster to hang in the front of my classroom.

A few months ago, Allison and I sat in a meeting in which a teacher bristled at the idea that “teaching the five paragraph essay” might not be the most productive way to substantially improve a student’s writing. In the moment, I wondered, “Why is he so upset?” When I thought about it, I knew why — he wanted a formula into which he could fit his students’ writing. A formula that he felt guaranteed success — or at least sufficiency.

It’s the same reason our students love the five paragraph essay and glom on to any template we offer them. They want a formula into which they can fit their writing with the guarantee that they will be successful — or at least sufficient. Unfortunately, this creates writing automatons not writers.

But this is the exact problem with formulas and templates, right? In offering the easy way out, we are not actually moving writers toward growth and discovery. We are teaching them how to fill in elaborate blanks, not teaching them how to truly write.

Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, even after we have eschewed the five-paragraph essay, our use of mentor texts becomes one more formula in writing workshop.  When writing an editorial, we give our student one editorial. A brilliant one, mind you. The perfect editorial. We ask them to mark the structures, identify key features, note the tone. Now, go and do, we say.

And we do teach mini-lessons. And we do confer on those editorials. And we organize students to work in writing groups to give and solicit feedback. But, ultimately, we have offered one more template, one more formula. If we have done our job well, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have the exact same structure, the exact same tone. More than likely, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have very similar ideas.

How do we combat this? What do we do to ensure that our mentor texts don’t become one more fill-in-the-blank writing exercise for our students?

One thing Allison has been working on recently is trying to humanize writers by using interviews to guide and inspire students. This takes the focus off of the magical words on the page and reminds all of us that there are people behind these words who have made conscious decisions in the writing that we are reading. After all, we are trying to teach our students to make choices as writers. Real writers. Formulas and one-size-fits-all templates also ignore that real human writers lurk behind each piece. What serves the purpose of one writer doesn’t always work for another; a tone that is authentic to one writer sounds stilted in another.

Another way we can bring our focus back to writerly choices through the use of mentor texts is to give our students multiple mentors to illustrate a genre or technique. In the fall, I did a This I Believe workshop with my ninth graders. I selected six mentor texts that showed variety and were relatable to a teenage audience.

Once we read through (and listened to) all six, we went back and examined all six for the writer’s choice of topic, the writer’s tone (and shifts in tone), the writer’s structure. Students created charts to track these choices in their writer’s notebooks.

Then, since thisIbelieve.org is an easy place to send students to gather their own mentor texts, I asked them to read a few more at home and select another mentor. They shared in small groups and added their insights about topic, tone, and structural choices to their charts.  Through this work, students were able to tangibly see that there are myriad right ways to write this kind of paper.

With lots of inspiration under their belts, most students were able to jump into their own authentic drafts, often combining elements they admired from several mentor texts. Those who needed additional support could still use a model we had studied, but with at least seven available mentor texts in hand, they still had to make a writerly choice of which model to follow.

Mentor texts are a wonderful thing — one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox. But like any good thing, we have to be thoughtful about how we use them. We have to subvert our natural inclinations — and our students’ natural inclinations — to use them as shortcuts and easy, interchangeable models. Emphasizing the authors behind the work and flooding our students with mentors can be a big step toward the development of real writers.