3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.


He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.


Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 


How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 




Writing With Mentors on the Talks with Teachers Podcast!

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We were so excited to chat with Brian on an episode of one of our favorite education podcasts, Talks With Teachers! 

Listen to us talk all things mentor texts here!

Mentor Text Wednesday: You Don’t Know Me, But…

Mentor Texts:

Excerpts from Nathan Rabin’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Memoir
  • Taking Risks
  • Humour


Early in the school year, my Grade 12 classes are traditionally neck deep in memoir. Each student is reading one, and we are writing a variety of memoir based pieces. I get excited about this, because my writers can’t really stand to firmly on I Don’t Know Anything About This Subject Rock. They know the topic, and can sift through ideas and inspirations easily, focusing, hopefully, more strongly on craft.

Also, I love reading memoir myself, so their writing coupled with all the “research” I need to do for our memoir study, and to build our memoir library gives me great material to dig through.

rabinI just finished reading Nathan Rabin’s great memoir You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. Subtitled, Phish, Insane Clown Possee, and My Misadventures With Two Of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, it is a neat bit of memoir, mixed with rock history. Rabin details a couple of years spent immersing himself in the fandom of these two artists, discovering much about the stereotypes attached to each group, and some things about himself as well. Continue reading

Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading

3 Simple Exercises to Help Your Students Read Like Writers

Imagine you’re eating at your favorite go-to restaurant, that small table for two in the back corner by the window. You place an order for dinner without the menu. You have been here more times than you care to count. You don’t need a menu!

Now imagine that the head chef at this restaurant has invited you to cook alongside him in the kitchen. You’ve been eating at this restaurant for years — you know the menu like the back of your hand, but as you enter the steaming kitchen, your body seizes up. You know the food by heart, but you don’t know the first thing about making it. “Just watch,” the chef says to you, pushing you into a row of line cooks. He smiles, assuming you’ll be fine since you frequent this restaurant so often. But eating the food and cooking the food are two very different things, and the cooks are moving so quickly. Even though this restaurant has always been dependable in the past, suddenly you find yourself wishing you hadn’t come here tonight.

This analogy is my best attempt to describe how our students might feel when we first introduce the idea of reading like writers. As in the scenario above, our students have been eating at the same restaurant for years: they are experienced readers, and they have been “eating” books and texts like readers for a while. But for these same readers, the concept of reading like writers–or reading to identify writing techniques–is brand new.  It’s hard to “cook up” techniques when you don’t know what to look for.

To grow, young writers must be able to recognize craft in professional writing and bring it back to their own work. But this kind of reading does not come easily. At the end of a year, we still have students who struggle to read a text in this way.

In addition to notebook time invitations, and inviting your students as often as possible to notice craft in a text, here are three simple things you can do in your classroom this week to help your students read like writers and start them on their writing journey:

Use the magical phrase, “Writers of __________…”

At the beginning of a new writing study, in our classrooms, students spend time reading a cluster of mentor texts as writers to get a sense of what the genre looks and sounds like, and to begin making a list of craft moves they can take back to their own writing. One of the benefits of doing this activity on large post-its notes (see below), is that you can invite students to do a Gallery Walk of all the posters. Giant post-its also let teachers see clearly when students (or an individual) are still reading like readers.


Student noticings about poetry

In the example above, one student wrote “the girl is fire and a happy part of a tough life.” After talking to him, I discovered that he meant, “The girl is a symbol of fire — the happy part of a tough life.” While this observation is interesting and grounded in the fire imagery of the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto, it’s a r-e-a-d-e-r-l-y noticing. So I used the magical phrase to redirect him.

“Can you rephrase your noticing by completing this phrase: Writers of poetry…?” I asked.

He thought for a minute, then scribbled what you see in yellow at the top of the poster: use people as metaphor

Writers of poetry use people as metaphors. YES!

A different student in this same group observed that the writer was using “lots of words like ‘bright’ and ‘light’ and other happy words.” Since the goal of reading like a writer is to create a list of craft moves that can be taken back to the writer’s work, the observations must be general enough to describe craft in a handful of poems. I asked this student to “think bigger” and complete the magical phrase. His revision can be seen in yellow marker: use similar words for emphasis. 

Poets use similar words for emphasis.  YES!

These are just two quick examples that illustrate the power of the magical phrase. Because we have had so much success helping our students read like writers with this phrase, Rebekah and I have started to head all of our noticings materials with it.


Student noticings about analysis with magic phrase at the top

Spend more time reading like readers 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my goal of helping writers discover possibility in their own writing by  spending more time reading like READERS. In this post, I confessed to getting carried away by mentor texts — to skipping ahead to the what-do-you-notice part of reading without appreciating the ideas of the text first. So I vowed to spend more time lingering on a piece as readers first. 

While I knew it would be good for my students’ writing to spend more time discussing the ideas of a piece, I didn’t expect it to simultaneously lift their ability to read like WRITERS. My theory is that when we spend more time reading like readers, we make clear the difference between these two types of reading, strengthening the students’ ability to do both. We clarify and validate the different ways of thinking about a text when we give them equal time.


Some ideas for reading like readers

Prepare an inquiry lesson

One day my lack of preparedness lead to an amazing discovery: the inquiry lesson as a way to help writers read like writers.

I had planned to teach a lesson about repetition in poetry, but had failed to complete my presentation in time. As my students entered the classroom, I panicked and did the only thing I could do: throw something together quickly that I hoped would work (ever done that before??).


I chomped on my finger nails as I walked around the room, nervous to see the results. Since it was only September, I was very worried that my students wouldn’t have had enough practice looking for craft to successfully complete the task…

But then something wonderful happened. A student said, “Can we put our notebooks under the document camera and talk about what we found?”

The first student brought this:


Student notebook page filled with noticings about repetition

One representative from each table presented their notebook page to discuss the groups’ noticings about repetition. I took notes on their findings and promised the students I would compile them into a mini handout they could glue into their notebooks the next day.

When the class was over, I took a few minutes to reflect on why the lesson had gone well (so much better than I had expected!). My theory is that because I had directed their attention to a specific craft move, and provided questions to frame their inquiry, they were able to tune out the other craft features in the poems and focus their attention on one technique. This scaffolding, coupled with the copious practice they have had in noticing craft in the past month, lead to an important aha moment for them and for me: When given the opportunity, and scaffolding to lean on, students can read like writers as early as September.

(As a side note, wouldn’t this kind of notebook work be helpful as an assingnment prior to teaching a craft lesson?)

As I write this, I wonder if my students are aware of what they were able to do… Since they can read like writers in September, is it possible that they might even see themselves as writers, too?

How do you teach reading like a writer, and how do you help students develop this skill over time? I would love to hear from you @allisonmarchett!

– Allison




Making Writing with Mentor Texts

Teaching is no longer the lonely profession it often seemed to be when I entered the classroom. Thanks to social learning tools like Facebook and Twitter, professionals are able to create and sustain lasting learning networks with kindred spirits all over globe. Whenever I design a new instructional approach, lesson, or unit, I reach out to other teachers in my tribe for feedback. I invite them to use my work in their own classrooms, too. They tell me how it’s helping the writers they support. More importantly, they help me make it better. This has been my experience with Peter Anderson, a seventh grade teacher from Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Virginia.

Peter recently read Rebekah and Allison’s book, Writing with Mentors beside the draft of something new I’ve been playing with on the heels of Make Writing, and he reached out to me on Twitter to process his thinking. Over the last several weeks, we’ve enjoyed an easy email exchange which has helped him synthesize varied approaches while refining my own work a great deal.

Continue reading

The FrankenEssay

I’ve spent the last few years of my career as an English teacher working on reclaiming the word essay. Students, for many reasons, react badly to that word. It’s not just because our assigning of it means they have to do some work, there’s something there.

My theory is that a lot of teachers have done disservice to the term. They’ve made it an onerous, overdrawn writing exercise that is more about hitting a checklist of arbitrary academic outcomes that the teacher assigning insists are all The Right And Important Things. It becomes about meeting a length requirement.  It’s not a fun thing, and it’s not a space our writers can express themselves.

However, I do understand where that need to Teach The Essay comes from. If they’re post-secondary bound, we feel compelled to drill that into them.

I’d like to share an approach I had success with last year, and plan to use with more classes this year. I call it the FrankenEssay. Continue reading

Breaking Rules Like a Pro

Last week I participated in a Twitter chat hosted by @TalksWTeachers and this blog’s creators: @AllisonMarchett and @RebekahODell1. It was a fast-paced flurry of awesome ideas and thought-provoking questions, but one question in particular kept me thinking the next day.  Allison posed the following question:

What do you struggle to teach and how might mentor texts enable that?

I struggle with all kinds of things, but the one that popped into my head first was my struggle to wrestle kids away from formulaic writing. I thought about formulaic writing a lot this summer. In June I was a reader for the AP Language exam and read hundreds of formulaic essays. The brave essays that abandoned tired, overused formats were almost always more engaging to read. Later in the summer I read this lovely take-down of the 5 paragraph “monster” by Kathleen Duddan Rowlands in NCTE’s English Journal. So, when asked the question about struggles, my immediate response was this:


Okay. If #mentortexts show them that the pros do it, which ones will I use? Time to tackle this struggle. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Metaphorical Op-Ed

Today’s guest post comes from Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches eleventh grade International Baccalaureate English and Theory of Knowledge in Hanover County, Virginia. She has taught ninth through twelfth grades over her eighteen-year teaching career. Connect with her on Twitter @KellyAPace. 

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Mentor Text: There’s a Brock Turner in All of o(UR) Lives

I don’t know why I could not get the story out of my head, but it would not go away. Perhaps it was because I was a University of Richmond alumni. Perhaps it was the combination of rage and embarrassment I felt towards my University–a school that I typically respect and praise. Yes, when CC Carrerras published her article in The Huffington Post comparing her rapist to Stanford University’s Brock Turner, I was angry and embarrassed by my alma mater’s reaction. Yet, I was equally inspired how Carrerras could use the written word to discuss a situation so personal, so devastating, and so emotional. Her raw words ultimately became the first mentor text for an assignment I am calling a “Metaphorical Op-Ed.”

I prefaced sharing this piece with my students by stating that what they were going to do today was going to be difficult. They would not be allowed to react to the article’s content; they simply had to look at how it was written. We discussed what it means to read like a writer, listing examples of writer’s craft they could look for when reading:

  • sentence structure
  • diction
  • style
  • persuasive techniques
  • tone
  • paragraph structure
  • figurative language

I read the article CC Carrerras published on September 6, 2016 in The Huffington Post “There’s a Brock Turner in All of o(UR) Lives” aloud to my students, asking them to annotate the text. I tried to read with passion, with conviction, even though they couldn’t react in an emotional way to the article. The article was written ten days prior to my lesson; it was current and passionate and students wanted to talk about the content.  Yet, they refrained.

Here’s what happened instead. They started talking about the structure of the text. “She has a one sentence paragraph,” someone said in disbelief. “Can you really do that?” When I tried to point out that it makes her argument stand out, they saw possibilities and what techniques they wanted to try for themselves. They noticed the use of statistics, how she calls the reader to action at the end of the text, how some of her use of parentheses make the writing awkward, and most importantly, they discussed the impact of the metaphor of Brock Turner. I asked them to count and underline the number of times Carrerras uses the metaphor in her text. Eleven. The name “Brock Turner” was mentioned eleven times. “Just about every paragraph,” one student noticed.

After practicing reading like writers, I told them we were going to imitate Carrerras. The class before this one, we had spent time looking at Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as a metaphor for the Red Scare going on in the 1950’s. We also considered the characters of Miller’s play, choosing an adjective to describe each as well as labeling each as a noun. For example, John Proctor became the self-sacrificing martyr. Abigail Williams became the two-faced liar. The day I asked students to read like writers I brought up these labels and the way the Salem Witch trials could be a metaphor for what happened in 1953. I told them they needed to choose something they could be critical about right now in their lives. It could be as simple as the change in our school’s cafeteria food to teenagers should not be ridiculed for being obsessed with technology to the upcoming election. What I wanted them to do is be as persuasive as Carrerras was in her article. And just like Carrerras uses Brock Turner as a metaphor, I wanted them to either use The Crucible itself or a character from the play as a metaphor. I gave them an example I knew they could relate to: If I find Hillary Clinton to be dishonest, I might say she is a modern day Abigail Williams because of her dishonesty.

Students brainstormed and came up with ideas such as these:


   A persuasive essay was born through the use of this mentor text with my promise to students to continue with the following mini lessons:

  • Using metaphors in writing
  • Incorporating persuasive language
  • Finding credible evidence
  • What is parallel structure?
  • Writing the counterclaim

Carrerras’ use of the metaphor of Brock Turner changed the way my students look at writing. I’m still angry and confused by my alma mater’s reaction to Carrerras’ situation, but when I read her piece over and over again like a writer, I see students open to the possibility of turning a regular persuasive essay into so much more. “I’ll always think of this article when I see that name, ‘Brock Turner,’” one student said. Perhaps when they finish their metaphorical op-ed pieces, I too, will  never look at the characters of The Crucible the same way again.


Writing Floats on Talk: Pitching Our Ideas

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-27-41-pmMy word-of-the-year, the thought on which I want to focus my energies and instructional experimentation, is “talk”. James Britton famously wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” I want my students’ writing to float … and then to fly.

So, yes, I want them to write five times as much as I can possibly read and grade.  And I want them to talk about their writing ten times more than that.

You and I know this truth.  Allison and I talk about our writing for at least five hours for every one hour that we actually commit words to paper.  We know how our ideas grow and evolve when we share them aloud. We know that something changes as we hear our writing read aloud to someone else. We know that talking is a critical part of the writing process.

I’ve been searching for ways for my students to talk more about writing this year. With my seniors, we started by formally pitching their ideas for writing.

After a few days of mentor text immersion, my students had a general, fuzzy idea what they wanted to write about.  When they arrived in class, I gave them these instructions:

Students immediately perked up, asking so many follow up questions about the world of publishing that I could hardly settle them to write. Why? This was real. They saw the relevance because real writers have to pitch their work, and in our class we act like real writers.

After spending 5-ish minutes jotting down a pitch in their notebooks, students had to pitch their ideas to their editorial board (their tablemates).  The rules were:

  • Each person shares his or her pitch.

  • The Editorial Board should listen attentively and then flood the pitch with questions — gently poke holes in it, ask follow-up questions, point out potential problems. Good editors don’t let you run with a weak idea.

  • This conversation should continue until either A) the Editorial Board reaches unanimous approval or B) the writer realizes that substantial reworking needs to happen before their idea is ready for the Editorial Board. Either answer is a WIN.

Students were initially excited-but-trepidatious about pitching their ideas to their peers, and I had to provoke some editorial boards into serious questioning lest they default into, “Cool. Good idea”-rubber-stamping. After talking it out — a process that took between 15-20 minutes total — students had this to say:

“This was helpful because there were some areas where I needed to patch up a bit, and I didn’t even realize it but my tablemates helped me figure it out. Go team.”

“I made my ideas more concrete by talking about it. Other people gave me ideas and asked questions that I’m going to need to answer and build off of.”

“I came up with a better idea with help from my tablemates.”

“Hearing my friend’s pitches made me inspired for other essays I could write in the future!”

“We should do this more often.”

Through this process of real-life pitching, students gained confidence in ideas they already loved, refined existing concepts, and tossed out duds.  Students walked into their writing with buy-in from others.  As we reflected together, students realized that spending time talking out their ideas on the front end led to revelations they previously had only after completing a piece of writing (usually moments before it was due).

Do your students pitch their ideas to the class? How do you make it work? In what other ways do you use talk to make writing float? Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter (@RebekahODell1), or comment on Facebook.