Mentor texts aren’t just for English class.
If mentor texts are meant to inspire writing and teach us something about our writing, then they should exist in every genre. And they should exist in every classroom where writing happens.
It can be challenging, though, to wrap our heads around mentor texts in the content areas. Every kind of good writing can apply to a writing workshop, but not every kind of good writing is applicable in science, in math, in world languages, or in history.
I have some very cool colleagues in the social studies department who have challenged me to think about how the workshop model — and mentor texts in particular — can be used in history class. Here are two, big broad ways to start thinking about this:
- What are history mentor texts and how to find them?
- How can non-historical mentor texts teach good writing?
History Mentor Texts
When Allison and I look for mentor texts, we look for writing that is accessible and engaging for our students. But it’s also important to us that we give students authentic examples of professional writing. We want them to see that the kind of writing they will craft actually exists in the real world. We want to make writing real, not just an academic exercise.
So, where does real writing about history exist? Sure, current event writing is easy to come by, but what about authentic writing about history outside of academia?
I stumbled upon an exciting source — Lapham’s Quarterly — through The New York Times’s What We’re Reading email (I highly recommend subscribing — you receive an email twice a week. In it, NYT writers and editors recommend a handful of articles outside of the Times itself. Not only do I read a lot of interesting content that I might not otherwise see, but I get at least one mentor text per week from this course! Subscribe to this FREE email here.)
Lapham’s is a literary magazine edited by the former editor of Harper’s. Each month focuses on a new theme, and all of the writing is about history. The website explains, “Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.”
Y’all — this source is an absolute mentor text gold mine.
The magazine features essays about historical movements, important historical figures, big topics and questions that cross multiple time periods, and imagined conversations between historical and contemporary leaders. Also included are maps, charts, and graphs — history Notebook Time, anyone?
Lapham’s also hosts an interesting blog called Deja Vu, which features a current hot topic and a historical corollary. For example, the most recent entry has to do with family planning in the Catholic church in 2015 and in 401. What a rich mentor text this would be for writing in history class, a way of taking current event reports to the next level!
Using Lapham’s Quarterly as a mentor text demonstrates authentic historical writing and expands the potential for many different kinds of writing beyond a traditional, academic paper. Finding real mentor texts inspires students that they can be poets, and memoirists, and editorialists, and historians in their writing lives.
Using Non-Historical Mentor Texts to Teach Good Writing
We stand by the motto that good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre. And so, if framed the right way, any excellent piece of professional writing can serve as a mentor text for writing in history.
Consider sharing any piece of writing you admire with your students, asking them to read like writers, and challenging them to consider how the techniques employed by the writer could be used in their writing for history class.
To be honest, I wasn’t always sure that students would successfully make this jump. However, for our recent mentor text study, one student chose to revise a piece of writing he had completed for Western Civ using mentor texts. Since the goal of this study was to see if students had adopted the practices of reading like writers, finding inspiration from mentor texts, and using that inspiration to enhance their own writing, I agreed. When I looked at his work, I was astonished and tickled to see the meaningful revisions he had made using a piece of sports analysis and a memoir. The student had:
- added a subtitle as a teaser into his writing
- added captioned images to enhance his argument
- used bulleted lists to organize information
- drawn comparisons between the historical context and a modern context
You can see his whole piece here. (Though the comments say “Rebekah O’Dell”, I copied those comments from the students’ original work and simply put them under my name to protect his identity.) Not only did this student use mentor texts to inform a piece of original writing for history class, but the ideas he implemented affected meaningful change in his final work.
Moving forward with mentor texts in history
So, this is cool, but what should you do with this information?
First, you can join us as mentor texts evangelists — share this information with a colleague in the social studies department! We know this works. We know that mentor texts make writing better and make the writing experience more authentic and more powerful. Imagine how powerful it would be for students to use this resource in multiple disciplines — for every kind of writing that they do! When students see the connections between the ways we write and the ways we approach writing in English and in history and in science and in math and in foreign language, this will impact their entire lives as writers!
Second, consider using this as a way to collaborate with a social studies teacher. Many schools take a team approach to instruction — share this with the social studies teacher on your team or down the hall and see how you might collaborate on a piece of writing. Students’ facility with mentor texts and reading like writers will grow exponentially when they are using this skill across disciplines.
Finally, be on the lookout for other mentor texts that work in the content areas. Are there other go-to sources for history? For science? For math? For world languages? For art? Share these with us, and we can add new folders to the Mentor Text Dropbox so that we can spread the mentor text love past the boundaries of the ELA classroom.
Does this get you excited about the potential of mentor texts? Share your experiences or vision for mentor texts in the content areas with us in the comments below or on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.