Moving Writers’ Summer Mentor Text Countdown – Week 1

Screen Shot 2015-04-15 at 10.56.45 AMSchool is winding down, and summer is upon us, but Allison & I are just getting started as we gear up for the September 3rd release of our first book with Heinemann, Writing with Mentors.

We are working on some exciting things to share with you as we get closer to the official launch! In the meantime, we are going to spend a little bit of time this summer sharing our top ten most popular mentor text posts.

Our #10 post is a great place to start — “I Have Some Mentor Texts…Now What?” shares the process we use to introduce a new cluster of mentor texts, collecting a list of noticings with our students, and moving into explicit writing lessons. I do the study described below — a mentor text study — as the first writing workshop of the year.


cropped-moving_writers_rework1.jpgI Have Some Mentor Texts …Now What

(February 2015)

You’ve collected some awesome mentor texts to support your writing study. You’ve photocopied them and passed them out.

Then what?

How do we connect students with mentor texts in a way that will actually help them write? photo 2-6What are the first steps?

My students have been immersed in a mentor text writing study for the last few weeks. A first study in a semester of writing workshop, the goal is to practice the process of reading like writers, extracting writing techniques and craft moves that students might want to try in their own writing, and using that inspiration to inspire and enhance their own writing. (I tried dedicating a whole workshop to learning how to use mentor texts at the end of  last year, and thought it was so helpful for my students that, with a few tweaks, I bumped it to the beginning of this year’s writing studies.)

For this study, I pulled five great mentor texts demonstrating a range of genres and lots of different writing techniques. I just looked for variety in good writing. Here’s the mentor text cluster I gave students:

“A Lesson Not Learned” by Carol Sherman-Jones (Memoir)

“Let it Snow” by David Sedaris (Memoir)

“Are Blockbusters Ruining the Movies?” by John Guida (Commentary)

“Creating the New Joe Cool” by Chris B. Brown (Sports Analysis/ Sports Profile)

“Truant” by Margaret Hasse (Poetry)

Here are the steps I follow:

  • Read the mentor text cluster like readers.

Students need to reader like readers first — for understanding, for enjoyment, for the gist.

For this study, I gave students all five mentor texts at once because I wanted to highlight their differences. (I don’t always do this — sometimes I dole out the mentor texts one at a time as they correspond to the writing lessons throughout the unit.)  Since some of these articles and stories were a few pages long, I gave students 15 minutes of class time, and then they finished for homework.

  • Go back and read each mentor text like writers, jotting down the interesting craft elements.

I am not very prescriptive here — I don’t give students a requisite number of craft elements to find. I simply ask them to mark the craft elements they see (the pieces of how the piece is written) and to give it a name — any name that makes sense of what they are observe. Later, I will try to subtly infuse our conversation with literary language, but that’s not the top priority. I want the craft students notice to be useful to them, and it will be most useful if it’s in terms that make sense to them.

  • Collect the noticings and translate.

Once students have read the mentor texts like writers and made their own observations about the craft, I project the mentor texts on the board and we collect all of the noticings together in a master list.

We don’t stop at simply identifying the craft elements, though. We try to translate each observed craft element into a “rule” for writing.

Here’s why: say a student observes that the writer frequently uses dashes. This is a great technique to notice! However, if we leave it at that, many students will then go into their own writing and fill it up with dashes willy-nilly. We can’t leave students at the what, we need to push them toward the why — and translating our noticings into rules helps accomplish this.

Instead of “The writer uses a lot of dashes”, we write “Writers use dashes to create longer, dramatic pauses.”  This is a tip students can actually use.

Here are all the rules we created based on the five mentor texts in our cluster:

Text Rules
“A Lesson Not Learned”
  • Writers use details (clothing, what other people say) to characterize characters
  • Writers use an abrupt change in tone to engage the reader and/or make the reader feel what the characters feel
  • Last paragraph communicates the lesson or the “so what”
  • Use parentheses to give additional details/descriptions
  • Writers use sentence fragments to draw the reader’s attention
  • Writers can use exclamation points to communicate anger
  • Writers jump around in time to add a “so what” to a story
  • Writers use repetition to signal something important
  • writers build up details to make us sympathetic to a character
  • writers zoom in on personal memories to convey a bigger life lesson
“Let it Snow”
  • Writers use dialogue to show us what a character is like
  • Writers use similes to give interesting descriptions and to add humor
  • writers use occasional short paragraphs for emphasis
  • writers occasionally use strong language to create an aggressive tone
  • writers use repetition for emphasis, to create a child-like tone
  • writers use contrasting words or images to surprise the readers
  • writers use compound sentences ( , and) to join together two complete thoughts
  • writers make their writing easier to read by 1) short paragraphs 2) multiple paragraphs 3) dialogue
  • Writers think about their readers
“Are Blockbusters Ruining the Movies?”
  • Writers use whole quotes AND interweave little bits of quotes
  • Writers use parentheses to add examples
  • Writers of opinion articles consistently use short paragraphs
  • Writers use quotes/opinions of experts to prove their point
  • Writers use dashes to give longer, dramatic pause
  • Writers use comparisons to help the reader understand
  • Writers try to relate to their reader
  • Writers use conjunctions to connect ideas
  • Writers use italics to emphasize individual words
“Creating the New Joe Cool”
  • Writers use images to 1) add visual interest and 2) to demonstrate something that can’t be easily explained in words
  • Writers of digital texts use hyperlinks to connect readers to other helpful information
  • Writers use facts and statistics to prove their point
  • writers use footnotes to give optional extra information that might help the reader
  • Writers use ellipses to add suspense
  • Writers use words to convey memories and their lasting effect
  • writers use italics instead of quotation marks to show something being spoken
  • writers use metaphors to exaggerate
  • writers use personification to create images for the reader
  • Writers use a funneling structure to add details
  • writers use sensory details to connect with readers

photo 3From here, I took their rules, and re-organized them into three big categories: Ideas/Detail moves, Structure moves, and Sentence moves. I wrote their rules on large posters in these categories and posted them around the room. Students already had these rules written in their notebooks and mentor texts, but these posters serve as useful visual cues that students should be consciously thinking about these craft elements as they write.

This process — reading like readers, reading like writers, collecting noticings, translating noticings into rules for writing — works when you are studying one mentor text or when you are studying five. It provides a starting point for teachers and students alike. Students walk away from these lessons with tangible techniques to try in their writing and professional examples of writers doing them well. Teachers walk away with a sense of what their students are interested in as well as ideas for writing lessons that might be taught throughout the unit.

What are your first steps when you put a mentor text into the hands of your students? What works? What doesn’t? How do you connect the dots between mentor text study and student writing?

Leave us a comment and share your ideas or find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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