This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.
I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!
I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text!
That weekend, I went to Trader Joe’s and filled up my cart with a wide range of snacks – none of which appeared in their advertisement. As I checked out, I asked the cashier if I could take a large stack of their Fearless Flyer advertisements. When he raised his eyebrow to question if I’d gone crazy, I offered a half-hearted attempt to explain, “it’s for a writing project.”
“Hey,” he shrugged, “you do what you’ve gotta do. Go for it.”
Back in my classroom, we started by looking at regular advertisements from the Sunday newspaper: Target, Kroger, Office Depot, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. I asked kids to discuss what the purpose of these flyers was. The conversation didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that the purpose was to “sell stuff.” The methods were pretty simple, too: show readers what was available and make it seem like a good deal. Then, I passed out the Fearless Flyer. Students chuckled as they leafed through the pamphlet, pausing at the over-the-top descriptions of such simple items as Fuji Apples. Once they’d had some time to read about several different items, I brought the class back together with the same question: “What’s the purpose, here?” The answer was not so clear-cut this time. The main purpose, they all agreed, was still to sell stuff, but it was obvious that there was more to it than that.
“Why did they write so much about food?” one girl asked.
“They made me want to eat everything in here, and I don’t even like pumpkins,” another exclaimed of the flyer in which pumpkins were a prominent ingredient in nearly every featured item.
As we worked through it, I coached students to analyze the purpose more deeply, and we came to the conclusion that the store not only wants readers to buy their products, but they want them to feel good about doing it. So, next, we set out to figure out how they accomplish that. Armed with pens and highlighters, they started annotating, then discussing in groups. Each group came to a similar conclusion: each featured item follows the same basic formula that includes ingredients, an over-the top description, serving suggestions, history of the item, and price. They were definitely getting it!
I wanted to dig deeper, though, so I passed around a box of pumpkin soup crackers and, as students crunched away, I asked them to describe what they tasted. The kids shrugged and offered a lackluster review: “salty,” “crunchy,” “kinda tastes like Chex Mix.” Then I directed them to the Fearless Flyer page that contained the entry for these crackers. They laughed at how very different these items seemed in print when compared to reality. This prompted us to really examine the question of “how do they do it?” They picked apart how the ads are written with comparisons, sensory details, and the occasional second person narrator. Students made notes on their own flyers, and I collected the class consensus on an anchor chart.
Then, I got out the snacks. As I laid out a veritable buffet of odd snack items, the excitement was palpable. Students took a plateful of food with the direction that they’d need to choose one to write about in their own Fearless Flyer advertisement. As they took bites, they slowed down to jot in their notebooks thoughts on the flavor, texture, and more. They examined the labels for ingredients and where each item was made. If they didn’t know a fact, they had fun making it up.
I should note, lest it seem like I’ve been sponsored by Trader Joe’s, that this would work just as well if you don’t bring in a single snack. I worried a bit about making this up for students who were absent on the day we drafted with a snack buffet, but they simply wrote about other foods they’d eaten recently: a breakfast burrito, pink lemonade, Hot Cheetos, and Mom’s mac and cheese. Some of these drafts yielded even greater results than the ones written about the actual Trader Joes items.
As students drafted, they’d ask me the dreaded “is this good?” question. Each time, I’d redirect them to their flyers and to our class anchor chart. “Ask the expert,” I’d suggest. “Does yours follow the same formula as the ones in print?” They used our chart as a checklist to make sure their own drafts contained everything they need. It was working. They were making the connection between analyzing a text and trying it out themselves.
Now I’m confident that they’re seeing the connection between reading and writing, and we’ve started the work of backing up to see how the articles we read create a toolbox for our own writing skills. And, most importantly, I’ve learned the lesson that I need to start with “bite-sized” texts.
What successful lessons have you found from what you originally thought was a failure? How have you gotten students to make the connection between reading, writing, and mentor texts? Reach out to me in the comments below or on Twitter @megankortlandt.