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:


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.

photo 1-3

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.