Mentor Text Wednesday: The First Thing is a Letter

Mentor Texts:

Various letters from McSweeney’s “Best Of”& website

(The archive of letters on the website is huge.)


As you may have noticed, the folks that contribute to this site have been putting together ideas dedicated to kicking the year off in your classroom. I had to decide whether I would share something related to mentor texts, or something else.

In the end, since the importance of setting routines, and establishing a culture and climate is key to a good beginning, I decided that I would stick to my regular thing here at Moving Writers, and provide a starter from the mentor text world.

This meant putting a bit of thought into what I would want a mentor text to do right out of the gates. So I thought about what I want for my writers, as well as what i think they might need.

I let that roll around the ol’ TeacherBrain for the afternoon, and it was quite clear. I want to establish that when we are writing, we take risks, we play and we hang it out there – we go as big as we’re comfortable doing, and that’s our writing culture. Our writers, in my opinion, need to know where the boundaries are, and what we’re looking for.

Here’s the funny thing, though. I already had a mentor text set to help make this happen. I just hadn’t found the purpose for it yet.

Summer is reading time for me, which also means I’m amassing mentor text material. A great thrift shop find was a big ol’ brick of a book, The Best of McSweeneys. That quarterly, and site, have always hung out on the periphery of my interests. I’ve found cool stuff there, but hadn’t used any yet.

Best of
Image via Drawn & Quarterly Blog

In flipping through the book however, I came across a collection of letters written to McSweeneys. Some were ones they commissioned, others were submitted. Most of them, however, did not resemble the kind of letters we’re accustomed to seeing written to a literary journal. There were letters recounting dreams, sharing New Year’s Resolutions, or discussing what better name the writer might give himself. They were diverse, entertaining, and well, crossing the line into the weird.

So, I knew I had to find a place to use them in my classroom.

And when I started thinking about The First Thing related to mentor texts, I knew I had found a place for them.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Establishing Our Writing Culture – I’m a big proponent of young writers going for it. In the province I teach in, we have a Provincial Assessment in Grade 12. It’s a big deal, with readings and responses, as well as a Big Writing Task. I’m sure I could crunch numbers to generate data to prove what I’ve seen, but in my experience, my writers that take calculated risks in their courses previous, the ones that play and experiment while we learn about craft – they are the ones that do the best on this big scary final.

So, clearly, I need to establish this right out of the gate. Which makes these letters a perfect mentor text set to start off the year. To begin with, these letters ate about weird topics. This is not the getting to know you, what I did last summer writing piece to start with. I would give my students a really random cross section of these letters, just to demonstrate that breadth of topic is there.One could also dig through them, based upon the students you’ve got, and tailor a set of  these that guides them towards a single topic.

They’re just kicking their brains back into school mode. What a rich time to give them this kind of task. Their heads aren’t yet filled with the reality of the school year, and the volumes of information that we teachers feel the need to cram in there. How wonderful would it be to begin the year by letting their minds wander on the page, letting them capture daydreams and strange tangents on the page?

And in doing so, we can have a dialogue about what’s acceptable in our writing, and in our classroom. I teach in a small school, so a high percentage of my students have been in my class before, and know where they boundaries are, and what the expectations are. So, for them, it’s a good reminder, and a way to show that to our new classmates. If you’ve a whole new crew though, this would be an invaluable exercise in letting them know how far they can push things. I like to let things get a bit weird, so this could show them that.

I’s like to think that this could establish a culture of collaboration and conversation too. I frequently tell my students that I believe that learning is a social act. They should be talking often – bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing what they’ve written, and giving each other feedback. I’ve found that this happens best when they’ve got something to do that encourages them to do their own thing. Though they could strengthen their, say, lit analysis essays through this practice, they’re not likely too. However, if they’re writing a letter to me, about pretty much whatever they want, well, that’s a different story. I’d encourage this practice, and discuss the benefits of it right our of the gate. Then, hopefully, we’ve established it as part of the writing culture in our class.

The key part of this task, though, when it comes to what I want is establishing that we take risks, we face challenges, we play with words, and we work to write the best we can, even if it is a weird letter about a dream we had.

Establishing Expectations – Every year, I hear someone say, either teacher or student, that there is a “right way to write” certain forms. And I go nuts, I shout and pound tables.

Because this is a bald faced lie.

Well, actually, it’s just an incomplete statement – there is a right way to write for each teacher! We all expect something different. For some it’s a militaristic adherence to form, for others it’s about length, and there’s always that person who loves receiving long-winded pieces full of flowery prose.

In beginning with these letters, we can get some of those expectations out of the way. As I noted above, right off the hop, this lets students know where they can go with their topics. In dialoguing topics or ideas, we can let students know what we’re comfortable with them writing about.

We’ll get to that length question, and be able to discuss the practice of communicating our ideas, over meeting a magic number. For that purpose, I’d give them pieces of different lengths, focusing on the fullest expression of ideas, not the length. Hopefully, we can look at the mentor texts, and see how people can do things well in a short piece, and see how to develop a longer narrative. A letter is a short enough piece that we could easily try writing more, just to see if it helps our hinders, and discuss the impact.

We’ll probably get to answer the profanity question right away. When students feel encouraged to “write what they want,” they often want to use the words they’d use. In the past, we’ve talked about purpose and effect. Though I don’t actively encourage cussin’, we know that there are times when these words are the perfect words. The earlier we can establish where the lines are, the better.

It’s also a good time to discuss adherence to form. We can talk about the conventions of the letter, as well as how we can play with them. In doing so, we can communicate to our writers where we stand on adherence to form.

If this is a piece that we take to a polished draft, then we can also use this as a way to share what that process looks like, building the culture of writing in your classroom. we can model conferencing and drafting, revising and editing. Since a letter’s often a pretty short piece, it might give us a chance to explore letting go of a piece that isn’t working, and starting afresh.

I’m not sure about others, but I know that there always feels like there’s some struggle around deadlines and time management. I see this as being something we spend a few classes on, ideating, drafting, revising, editing and polishing. Starting them with a task that’s “due” in the first week actually allows us to see where they are with this. It will give us an idea of where challenges may arise for students, and figure out how this will play out as the course progresses. It may help us “flag” our writers that will need encouragement and support from us. We can also communicate that though creativity takes time, time is not in infinite supply.

If we’re “assessing” this letter for our own anecdotal purposes, we get two things to use as data: a sample of writing from each student, as well as an idea of their writing behaviours. This would be invaluable in planning the course that follows, from the academic and management standpoints. We can learn what is needed, and where we need to support. We’ll get an idea of how far we can push, and what we can expect. It’s like a great rangefinder, executed in the first few classes.

I’ll be honest, this was a mentor text set that I had without purpose until the First Thing series came up. I’m glad I found a purpose for it. Finding a unique way to start the year has been challenging, and though I’ve had various things I’ve done over the past few years, this might be the first one I’ve been excited to share. I love starting the school year with excitement.

What open letters would you have your students read? What open letters would you have them write? What open letters do you feel the need to write?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!


What open letters would you have your students read? What open letters would you have them write? What open letters do you feel the need to write?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!


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