Mentor Text Wednesday: The Feature Article

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text:

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative presentation of learning and research
  • Combining different kinds of writing
  • Writing extended pieces
  • Discussing layout and presentation



This week’s column is a bit different.

As I was working on this column recently, I was reflecting upon some of the things that I try to do in my classroom, and the things I value. Critical thinking, and a willingness to explore ideas are very important to me. As an English teacher, I feel I have the best curriculum, as it gives me a wide-open field of opportunity, and many ways to meet my outcomes – all of which I can tie back to thinking and learning.

I’ve been working quite hard lately to find ways to handle the notion of research-based writing. Generally, it becomes the role of the traditional academic essay to fulfill this need for us as teachers. Which means I get to teach something which many people bang on the table about, trumpeting about The Right Way To Write This.

I hate that. If one writes well, and with passion, then they can fit whatever standard we throw at them. I guess I’m presupposing here that you also feel that there is no Right Way To Write anything, just a way that is acceptable for each teacher or professor. I do cover academic writing, but I make it clear up front that it is for academic purposes, and that step one of any academic writing task is to learn the taskmaster’s Right Way To Write.

A strategy that I’ve been using instead is the writing of a feature article. This idea is not something I came up with in isolation. In 2014, I was lucky enough to hear Penny Kittle speak at our provincial PD day, and this was one of the ideas that she shared with us. I’ve taken her suggestions, and worked it into a version for my classes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.15.36 PM

How This Works For Me:

Creative presentation of learning and research — Idea generation is a first stage. I actually like to distance these two tasks, the research and the writing, a bit. The students are aware of the task, but I stress that generating ideas, and discovering what we want to say is it’s own task. The issue, in my opinion with so much of the research writing that we have students do, and subsequently, need to mark, is that students are too often trying to do two key tasks at once — figure out what they’re saying, and trying to say it. I simply tell them we focus on the learning first, and we’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of the writing later. We decide what we’re going to research, and begin that process. Sometimes, I give them parameters for topics, but other times, we can explore what interests us.

Combining different kinds of writing–Much of the research process is the same, and I scaffold it well. In their research, I have them try to keep in mind that they will be looking for information that helps them do three kinds of writing:

  • Informational writing – They need to share information, and help their reader understand their chosen topic. This is as close as they hew to the traditional academic essay.
  • Narrative writing – Humans are a story species. Even as we learn, we like to have a narrative to our learning. Sometimes it gives it a human face, sometimes it makes it interesting.
  • Persuasive writing – There should be a purpose for our writing, and we should be trying to pull people towards our bias.

The beautiful thing is that the students start to see the overlap between these three types of writing, and see that they support each other, as well as help the writer communicate effectively. We build focus questions, and discuss frequently how we want the writing to unfold, and what we want to communicate.

Writing extended pieces

Then, we spend some time with magazines. I keep a bin of Rolling Stone in my room, and I raid the periodicals section of our library. As they’ve been researching, I’ve been dropping articles on them all along anyway, but they need to sit, and study what happens in a feature style article. I present them with a broad range of stuff, and we discuss the key features. They get to see how the narrative, persuasive and informational writing works together, as well as seeing how visual elements are used as well. This gives not only our notes for writing, but gives us an idea of what things should look like when we’re done.

Then, we write. That process looks different for each writer, as it should. Some outline, some simply hammer it down. Some weave the three types of writing I expect to see right from the start, others write it as three separate pieces and edit it together. There’s a lot of discussion and sharing, questions and conferring. Some students need a lot of support, others just need you to unlock the classroom door. I tell them at this time to focus on creating that first draft, to get it on paper and we’ll fix it later.

Discussing layout and presentation — Invariably, there’s a panicked moment when they realize that I’m asking them to write what may be their longest piece of writing. They freak out. I generally ask for a 5-7 page piece. I’ve been working on sneaking the length of our writing pieces up across the board, but building a “do more” culture is challenging. We pull a magazine article and look at it. This chat really becomes about the layout. When we start considering images, titles, pull-quotes and sidebars, we’ve got that 5-7 pages whittled to the 3-5 page range. There are sighs of relief, and we go back into the work, focusing on augmenting the piece for layout.

This big writing task has served me well the last couple of years. Our school decided to fold a Global Issues course into English. I’ve used the Global Issues material as the source for our feature articles, having students pick something from that material as the basis of their articles. This year, it was a semester long project, and we used our Thursdays to research and write. I love this task, and have found a place for it in my Grade 11 classroom. It builds upon many things that I’ve pulled together over the years, and, in my opinion, is one of my most important projects students do in the time they spend with me.

What are other creative ways that we can have students present their research and writing? How else can magazine articles be used as mentor texts in our classrooms?

— Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy


  1. I am planning my research unit for my 8th graders this week. What a great way to think about presenting their work, as a feature article. Thanks for sharing and I am so glad to have found your blog.

    1. Thanks Janet! I’ve gone through this twice now, and I’ve had good results. The beauty of it is the flexibility it provides, length, content and whatnot. Hope it works for you!

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