Breaking Mentor Texts into Loose Parts

“What’s a break it box?” Ethan asked, pulling the overflowing black bin from the bottom shelf of our mobile makerspace. These shelves on wheels serve as a catch-all for recyclables, loose parts, and whatever craft supplies we currently have on hand.

“It’s a box full of stuff you can rip apart and repurpose,” I told him. “People donate the things inside. I think there are some old wireless modems in there right now.”

“And you’re going to let us break them?” He asked me, incredulously.

“Sure,” I encouraged him. “Tear them apart. Loosen up the bits inside. Don’t think about what they are. Consider what they could be. Make something new.”

He laughed. “I can’t believe you’re going to let me rip this stuff apart.”

“How will you know what’s inside unless you break it open?”


Several years ago, we began making copies of the mentor texts we were studying. We started making copies of our own drafts too. Then, we started breaking them apart: Page by paragraph by line by word. We sliced scenes into pieces, lifted phrases onto sticky notes, and placed single words onto index cards or scraps of colored paper.

Words are loose parts.

Agile writers rip into texts with wildly different purposes. One may investigate character development. Others could play with dialogue. It will depend on what they need to learn. Breaking is messy work.

I’m modeling this process heavily right now, as I’ve just launched a new season of writing. Eventually, I want all of the writers that I support to know how to break texts on their own. I want them to be able to name their own purposes. I want them to uncover and share their own processes, too.

Jack and Angel use a tinker tray to prototype elements of their drafts.

The break it box builds this understanding while inspiring a bit of innovation and design. Kids write about the stuff they build. They write about how they build, too. I’m most compelled by those who use these same maker moves as they write, though.

“Loose parts are easier to examine and replicate,” I suggested earlier this week. “Who do you hope to write like? Which craft moves do you hope to replicate? Pick one. Then, find it inside of a mentor text. Make a copy of the text. Then, tear it open. Rip out the parts that you want to study.”

This invites experimentation as well. Loose parts are movable and mixable. Sparks fly when we mess around with sequence, form, and meaning. New ideas emerge. Breaking form helps us understand why it matters, too.

What can be gained from examining, replicating, and experimenting with mentor texts one little bit at a time? How do you loosen up mentor texts for the writers you support? Share your thoughts below, or come find me on Twitter. I’m @angelastockman there.





1 Comment

  1. I’d love to know more about the tinker tray. Manipulatives can really help some of my kids look at their work from a different perspective.

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