Before mentors texts became the flexible frame onto which I could hang all of my writing instruction, I had nothing to do with all of the cool articles I stumbled across. When I found a piece of writing that connected with my curriculum, I would most often say, “Hey! Cool!”, print it or clip it, and let it sit on my desk for a few weeks before putting it in a file folder in my desk, never to be seen again.
On occasion, I would copy it, pass it out to my students, and ask them to read it. They would, and we would all kind of nod at each other when they were finished, crumpling the paper and shoving it into their backpacks. I would feel good that they had been exposed to the article, regardless of the fact that none of us knew the real purpose of them reading it.
Thankfully, mentor texts found me. And my first thought these days when finding a smart article is, “How can my students use this in their writing? Can I make this a thing?”
As my students round the corner toward the end of their year, I have been looking for something to help them put a cap on their writing year. As they polish, revise, and finish their portfolios, I am searching for small writing projects that will help them synthesize all that they have learned about themselves as writers — their identity, their process, their passions.
Most of all, I want them to leave my class confidently wearing the label of “writer” (a phrase I’m repurposing a bit from Donalyn Miller’s recent Book Love Foundation podcast interview), and I want to help them do this by inviting them to join the conversation of real writers.
Last weekend, I found three series in The Guardian — my new favorite source for writing about books — to help with this end-of-year need for writing closure. (The wonderful thing about finding a series you love is that there is no need to search for other mentor texts to pair with it; you have a ready-made mentor text cluster, offering your students myriad variations on a theme.)
I plan to offer all three as options for my students to reflect on who they have become as writers this year — and to add to their final writing portfolio:
What is it? This series of annotated photographs asks writers to “select and assemble the artifacts of a book in a way that they find meaningful and revealing.” Here, writers reveal the roots of their writing through photographs of notebooks, bulletin boards, pieces of inspiring artwork, personal photographs of their travels.
How our writers might use it:
- Topography of My Favorite Piece — Writers might choose to uncover the topography of their favorite piece of writing of the year, and then feature that topography alongside their final piece of writing in their portfolio. My students’ topographies would likely include photographs of their writer’s notebooks, post-it notes, screenshots of Google docs and notebook time invitations, and personal mementos that inspired their writing.
- Topography of My Writing Year — Rather than studying the artifacts that contributed to a single piece of writing, students might instead chronicle the artifacts that have built the body of the student’s work over the course of the school year. It would be interesting to see how these same artifacts developed and evolved as the year went on!
What is it?: This is a new series in The Guardian, so there are only two installments today. However, new pieces appear each weekend! In this series, writers describe their typical writing day in the style of their choosing.
How our writers might use it: Writers select one of the mentor authors and compose their own My Writing Day (perhaps narratively like Hilary Mantel or as a diary like Anne Enright). They might write about their typical writing routine during class writing time. They might write about the differences between their writing days (during school) and their writing nights at home — how the routines and patterns change as their location changes.
What is it? In this monthly series, writers make a mixtape (awesomely embedded via Spotify) to accompany their work. Some writers musically track themes in their writing, while others focus more at the tone of the piece, or kind of music that inspired the writing to begin with. The mixtape is accompanied by the writer’s explanation.
How our writers might use it: Most of my students write while listening to music, so I could easily imagine them compiling their soundtrack of favorite music to write by and explaining how the music inspired their writing. Alternatively, students might compose a soundtrack to accompany a favorite piece of writing in their portfolio and explain how the music speaks to the themes in their piece. I have a strong suspicion that this is the option that most of my writers will choose.
Each of these pieces is a good idea that you might have easily come up with on your own. In fact, you’ve probably had students write essays like these in the past. So, what’s so great about these mentor texts?
Studying these mentor texts as a first step toward this metacognitive writing not only gives students a model for thinking about the writing process, but it also joins our students voices with the voices of other writers out in the wild — novelists, journalists, poets. We value our students’ processes when we value their notebooks, the scraps of paper on which they jot and doodle, their unique writing rituals, and their sources of inspiration. And we value their identities as living, breathing, right-now writers when we tell them that their work belongs alongside that of the pros. I hope that long after they have lost their writer’s notebook, they will take this legitimized identity of Writer with them.
How do you help your students wear the label of “writer”? Do you have other ideas for helping students reflect on their writing process and rituals? Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or connect with us on Facebook!