Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiring Mentor Texts


Mentor Texts:

“Repetition” by Phil Kaye

“In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez

Skill: Seeking inspiration from outside sources

Most discussions about writer’s workshop usually center around two components: mini lessons and conferring. They are the favorite children of workshop. But lately Rebekah and I have been turning our attention to mentor texts.

When students leave us in June, mentor texts will remain as the sole source of instruction for students. Not all of them will be lucky enough to enroll in a workshop-style class complete with conferring and mini-lessons the following year. And in college, aside from office hours, they’re on their own. But they will have mentor texts.

With this in mind, we’ve been looking at how to better teach students how to use mentor texts. Recently Rebekah posted a great chart that uses an if-then structure to enable students to utilize mentor texts. The chart notes that students can gain a lot from reading mentor texts, including finding inspiration. I think this an essential piece–helping students seek inspiration from sources other than themselves.

Throughout the year I carefully plan notebook time, bringing in mini mentor texts that may inspire my students to write, as well as offering them prompts that bubble up from these mentor texts. As the year goes on, however, I remove some of this scaffolding and put the responsibility to find the inspiration on my students.

How I Used Them:

We begin by reading (or viewing, in some cases) the mentor texts twice. Then I ask, “What topics, lines, or patterns do you see here that might inspire some of your own writing?”

Students have listened to me present topics, lines, and patterns throughout the year, so they know what I am asking:

  • topics that are present in the mentor text that might inspire some of their own writing

  • lines that might serve as “jumping off points” for their own work

  • sentence patterns they might “try on”

Below you’ll see the two mentor texts I recently used to inspire student writing, as well as the Topics, Lines, and Patterns my students culled from each one.

Mentor Text: “Repetition” by Phil Kaye

Read the transcript here




  • words that hurt me

  • divorce, separation, falling outs

  • family stories

  • routines that become dull unless we “live in a way” that allows us to find joy in them (students made a connection to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “An Invitation to Ernest Mann”)

  • “My mother taught me this trick”

  • “You watch the sun set too often, it just becomes 6 PM”

  • “Nothing is forever, she said”

  • “___________ is a cage made of mirrors”

  • “Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor”

  • Using the phrase “even now” to show your present perspective

  • Repeating the word “every” and following it with a specific detail before summarizing what these things mean together

Mentor Text: “In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez




  • childhood stories

  • poverty stories

  • tricks of the imagination

  • building/making

  • “In childhood, ________ and I…”

  • Last sentence opens with a participial phrase that zooms in on the action, and is followed by a series of four verb phrases that elaborate on the actions

  • Alternating simple and complex sentences

  • Writing a 7 sentence, 8 line poem

When my students leave me, I want them to know how to be a writer, which means, at the most basic of levels, to seek inspiration in everything around you and write into that inspiration.

Which mentor texts inspire writing in your students? Feel free to leave a comment or join us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

– Allison


Moving Students from Idea to Draft: a Sticky-Note Structure


Structure seems to be something young writers innately sense … or don’t.  Those who don’t tend to have explosive bursts of thought, leaving word shrapnel all over the paper.

To try to combat this, one of my first mini-lessons of the year is on brainstorming — hoping that if students write their ideas down somewhere, there is a better shot of putting them together in a meaningful order. I emphasize that brainstorming — at least in my class — needs to be tangible. It can be listing, jotting, even doodling, but it has to happen on paper.

When I taught the mini-lesson this year, I ended by rattling off a list of potential supplies to help students get going with their tangible brainstorming: “I have blank paper if you need it, markers, colored pencils, highlighters, I even have sticky notes if you think they would help.”

Please note: at this point, I had no plan for those sticky notes. I just threw it out into the void as an option, not knowing what anyone would really do with them.

Students got to work. Cecile , an ELL student, was working on a critical review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (a book that is in high rotation on my bookshelf. If you don’t have it already, get it now!). She started off with pen-on-paper, writing down the ideas that came into her head about plot and important thematic elements. If you look at the picture of her notebook, you can see that she quickly got stuck. She asked me for some sticky notes.

Cecile spent two entire workshop days listing facts and tiny tidbits of ideas on post-its. When I conferenced with her, she would reply that she was brainstorming, “Getting it all down.” So, I let her go.

When she was done brainstorming, she spent another two class periods carefully moving the stickies around — grouping them, rearranging. She would stare at them, peel them and re-stick them somewhere else. Finally, somewhere around day five or six, she wrote. She wrote furiously.

With her structure complete, the writing flowed easily.

At the beginning of our next workshop, I asked if she would share her sticky-note method with her peers. She told them:

  1. Put no more than one sentence on a sticky note

  2. Write down every single thing you can think of

  3. When you’re done writing, you will have a lot of sticky notes. Don’t be afraid.

  4. Look at them for a while, and think about which ideas go together. Put them in an order.

  5. Write.

Sticky notes have since become a hot commodity in my classes. They help so many of my students who have trouble organizing their ideas. Here are some tips and variations for your students:

  • This is a great activity for writing groups or writing partners  — introduce the idea by giving students the ideas from a mentor text and ask them to organize them. Compare to the original mentor text, discuss the differences, and their effect.

  • Writing groups can also use sticky notes to help one another organize during pre-writing.

  • Smaller sticky notes work better than large ones — when they are small, students make their ideas smaller, more isolated, and this helps students see the different nuances of a single idea. (This is particularly helpful for students who want to write in one giant paragraph, claiming their paper only has one idea.)

  • For students ready to take their writing to the next level, I offer a second color of sticky note for them to add transitions between paragraphs as they organize.

  • Some students work better on a large sheet of poster paper rather than smaller notebook pages — they use their phones to take pictures of the different iterations they work out as a record of their thinking. Those pictures then get pasted in their notebooks.

  • For students in a structural danger-zone while drafting, I occasionally encourage them to take their draft and go backwards to sticky notes. Sometimes pulling the ideas apart helps students see a better, more cohesive order to their thoughts.

Do your students use sticky notes to organize their writing? For brainstorming? How do they work in your classroom? Leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.


Mentor Text Wednesday: Ken Tucker’s Review of Pharrell’s New Album


Mentor Text: Tucker, Ken. “Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy”. 6 March 2014. 

Technique: Using Figurative Language as Evidence


Ken Tucker read his review of Pharrell’s new album on Fresh Air as I drove home after work one Friday. “A MENTOR TEXT!” I screeched. (Literally.) And sometimes — the most wonderful times — we find mentor texts this way, in moments of spontaneous inspiration, rather than hours of deep searching.

In my current workshop on the technique of using evidence, my students are prone to view evidence only in its driest iterations —  for them, statistics are evidence. Quotes from the text are evidence. Expert testimony is evidence.

But I want them to see that evidence is anything in our writing that illustrates or supports the point we are trying to make, the perspective we are trying to present. Evidence is both the logical facts we present and the playful way we mold our language.

What jumped out at me as I listened was Tucker’s use of figurative language. When we use figurative language — making comparisons, using idioms, engaging in hyperbole — we are supporting our point in a different way. We are illustrating our perspective by helping the reader make connections. I was struck by this particular piece because Tucker’s review wasn’t a lilting narrative. It wasn’t a “This I Believe” essay. This was a critical review using figurative language to illustrate its point to incredible effect.

How I Used It: 

I used it really simply.

I gave students a definition of figurative language & five kinds of figurative language on which to hone in:

Figurative Language: Language that is not literal. In other words, it doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

  • Simile: a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as”

  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things without using like or as.

  • Personification: giving human qualities to an inhuman object

  • Hyperbole: extreme exaggeration used for effect

  • Idiom: common, local sayings that don’t have a literal meaning

We chatted about these — sharing examples. I then asked students where they expected to see figurative language. Naturally, they expected to see it predominately in narrative. And that’s true.

But my goal was to show them how this can work in genres other than narrative.

I pulled up Ken Tucker’s review – it was perfect timing since the album is new and Pharrell recently performed on the Oscar’s. It also worked well because though students are familiar with Pharrell, most had not heard the songs mentioned in this excerpt.

I asked them to zoom in on the second paragraph to see where they could locate examples of figurative language:

“Brand New” is a song that dares you to think of it as brand new, as opposed to a canny recasting of riffs reminiscent of the Jackson 5. Pharrell is so confident in his ability to beguile you as producer, songwriter and singer, he all but buries the major guest star on that track:Justin Timberlake. Even when Pharrell dares to come off as slightly predatory, as in “Hunter” — about tracking a woman — it’s all done in the mildest manner possible. “Hunter” is also one of the high points of this album, with a rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity. His high voice can remind you of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody with sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.

The students found:

  • “buries the major guest star”
  • “rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity”
  • “his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody …”

After we located these examples, we talked about their connotation — what they make us think of, how we connect to them and what it makes us understand about music we have never heard.

Figurative language is not your standard kind of evidence — nevertheless, the well-placed use of figurative language can help the reader see a new perspective, understand a new topic, or “hear” a new album in a way the reader couldn’t otherwise.

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Sentence Study

Last week Rebekah blogged about teaching students how to find and use mentor texts to increase their independence and cure their writing blues.

She posted a fantastic chart that uses a problem-solution or if-then approach to guiding students to and through mentor texts.

As her chart indicates, sometimes a mentor text is just a sentence. How many times have you watched students struggle to put their idea into a sentence? To get the first words down? Sometimes individual sentences seem to pose a greater challenge to students than the essay itself.

We can help students get started by directing them to mentor sentences and showing them how to fit their own ideas into a sentence’s framework. This is known as the pastiche technique.

Sentence Study: An Example

Last week I happened upon a great sentence from an old New York Times article written by Anna Quindlen:

Every year about this time I get the urge to buy a copybook. And some of those little rectangular pink erasers that look good enough to eat. And a whole lot of those round reinforcements, which were supposed to be pasted around the holes in your loose-leaf paper but were more often made into designs on the inside cover of your loose leaf binder.

I knew it would make for an excellent mentor sentence because 1) it offers a framework (Every year about this time I…And…And…) and 2) it packs in detail.

When studying sentences, the first thing I do is project the found text onto the board. I read it aloud twice and ask students to jot down anything they notice in their notebooks.

Here are some of the features we noticed:

  • She begins her sentences with “and”

  • The second and third sentences give specific examples of supplies she wants to buy

  • Each sentence becomes longer and more descriptive

  • She uses the second person in the third sentence to draw the reader in

  • She uses a triplet (three sentences) to convey her point

Then, I help students find the framework in the sentence and the creative parts. In this case, the framework is the idea of getting an urge to do something at a specific time of year (Every year about this time I…And…And…) The creative parts are: the specific time of year, and the things you get the urge to do. For this sentence, I asked students to brainstorm other moments or times of year that might elicit imagery and examples. Possibilities include:

  • Every Saturday morning

  • Every first day of spring

  • Every Christmas

  • Every Fourth of July

(Found in Peterson)

  • Every time I put on my basketball sneakers

  • Every time my alarm goes off

(Created by students)

Then you write in front of them, modeling the process of using and adding to the framework. Here are two examples that I wrote with different classes. You can see the edits I made in later periods (in red).

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.24 PM.png
Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.44 PM.png

Finally it’s time to let them go. I give students 5-7 minutes to craft their own sentences. If students need more scaffolding, have them choose one moment and brainstorm, alone or in groups, different details that describe that moment. Then they can play around with placement and rhythm within the template.

Students who finish early can revise to make their sentences a little bit better. Later, invite students to share their sentences in writing groups or pairs. Ask a few volunteers to share out.

Here’s a sentence written by my ninth grade student, Benton. I can still hear the collective gasp of awe and admiration that filled the room when he finished reading his gorgeous sentence.



Peterson, Art. The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 1997.

Quindlen, Anna. “Life in the 30’s.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co., 9 Sept. 1987. Web. 10 March 2014.

What sentences have you stumbled on that will make excellent mentor texts? Please contribute to our dropbox project and add your sentences!

– Allison

Mentor Text Wednesday: China’s Web Junkies Op-Doc


Mentor Text: “China’s Web Junkies,” an Op-Doc from The New York Times

Skill: Using evidence to support a position


Every year it seems that more and more of my students are denouncing Facebook. They talk about it freely during passing time as they unpack their bags. “You’re still on? I’ve been off for a while now. It’s pointless.”

“Yeah,” another student chimes in. “It was ruining my life.”

Sometimes the things we hear our students say in passing can be great fodder for important classroom and life lessons. This is one of those conversations worth bringing into the classroom.

Continue reading

Connecting Writers’ Struggles to Mentor Text Solutions

I have recently found myself reinforcing (and re-teaching) the fundamentals of how to use a mentor text with my ninth graders. After our most recent unit, I asked students how many of them went back and looked at the mentor texts I provided on their own after we had used them in a mini-lesson. 56% of my students reported that they didn’t.  They “forgot.” Or, they “didn’t see how a mentor text would help.”

So, even if it’s March, it’s time to go back to the beginning.

As teachers, we know that a good mentor text can accomplish myriad miracles for our students. Ralph Fletcher notes that  “if you really want to write in a powerful way, you’ve got to read powerful stuff and just feel the power of it, because nobody writes out of a vacuum.” So, we tirelessly search for just the right source to inspire our students, to illustrate our mini-lesson. We walk them through the highlights — helping them zoom in on what they need to see.

But how do we teach them to do this for themselves? When they move into a different English class and aren’t given explicit mini-lessons, when their ninth grade writer’s notebooks have been lost, when they go to college and are entirely left to their own writing devices, when they go into the working world and need to produce a written product, mentor texts are the thing that will remain.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Concrete Details


Mentor Texts:

Has Snowboarding Lots Its Edge” by Christopher Solomon. The New York Times, 16 January 2013.

“A Sports Star’s ‘Crash,’ Then The Search For A New Normal” by Ian Buckwalter. NPR, 4 July 2013.


“The Power of Snowboarding” by Jordan., 15 December 2010.

Writing Technique: Using concrete details


I am experimenting in writing workshop.   (In some ways, writing workshop always feels like a wonderful, high-flying experiment, doesn’t it?)

I am teaching a unit based on a technique that crosses genre — using evidence to illustrate and support the writer’s purpose.  And I’m doing so with four mentor texts that will remain consistent for the whole unit.

Two weeks ago, I showed how I use these mentor texts to talk about how writers find their genre by beginning with their ideas.

Today, I am using these same mentor texts to show how writers use concrete, specific details as a type of evidence.

Continue reading

A Writer’s Secret Weapon

“I don’t know what to write about.”

As a teacher and writer with “so many ideas and so little time,” I find this common student response troubling. But when I pause to reflect on why students might be uninspired or why they have difficulty finding ideas, I realize that, in some cases, it’s because they haven’t been taught how–or worse, many of them have actually been force-fed ideas, forms, sentences, everything, in the past.

While professional writers do sometimes write on demand (job interviews, article deadlines) or to a specific prompt (“Hey you, cover the rally downtown today…”), writing seems to emerge from a place far more natural and common…from experience.

Writers experience moments and write into those moments.

Continue reading