Mentor Text Wednesday: A Lifetime of Secrets

Today’s guest post comes from Anne Wolter, a 6th grade English teacher at Western Heights Middle School in Washington County, Maryland.  Anne has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction, and has been teaching for four years.  She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young children.  You can connect with her on Twitter @wolteann.

Mentor Text:  A Lifetime of Secrets (personal, reflective, arts integration)screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-10-00-am

  • Writing Techniques:
  • Elements of memoir writing
  • Incorporating art with writing

Background:

Before I was a teacher, my best friend gave me a book.  I have always been a reader, and have kept a journal since becoming an adult, and I guess the book reminded her of me.  The book is A Lifetime of Secrets by Frank Warren and contains hundreds of pages of people’s deepest, darkest secrets, anonymously sent in on postcards or other artistic backgrounds.  Since receiving this book, I’ve read it, and read it, and read it again.  It’s amazing and sad and beautiful and inspiring.  People still send in secrets to the website and Facebook page. There is something so empowering and exhilarating about leaving your secrets for others to find – knowing that strangers know you better than those who are supposed to know you best, even if the strangers don’t know your name and could never pick you out of a crowd.

I’ve always tried to find ways to incorporate PostSecret into my teaching.  Sometimes I’d pick one and share it as a warm up.  I’ve used it for characterization lessons.  But I’ve never felt it was getting its due.

Enter Mentor Texts.

I was teaching a memoir unit to my sixth graders and started with 6 Word Memoirs to get their feet wet with memoirs.  After that, I wanted to give my students some choices of another type of short memoir text before moving into longer memoirs.  After reading Writing With Mentors, I decided to use NYC in 17 Syllables, excerpts from Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Rosenthal, and while searching for my third choice, I saw my book A Lifetime of Secrets on my shelf.  PostSecret would be my students’ third option.

How We Used the Mentor Text:

I first had a discussion with my students about what a mentor text is and how they can use it to guide and inspire their own writing.  I told them I would give them three choices and gave them a quick blurb about each choice.  With PostSecret, I explained that the secrets are anonymous (and some are inappropriate!), so I carefully selected and took pictures with my iPad of 15 secrets from the book that were appropriate, and posted them to Google Drive, giving my students the QR code to access the folder.  I also explained that if they were to choose PostSecret, theirs were NOT anonymous and they should know their boundaries of what is okay to share.  

We looked at the secrets and talked about what they noticed. Students noticed that:

  • they were all written in the first person, were personal, and reflective
  • none of the secrets were more than one or two short sentences
  • the picture that was the background of the secret was always related to the secret – the art was relevant

Once we had this discussion, students were ready to get to work.

The students embraced this mentor text and ran with it.  Some used Skitch to take an image from Google that represented their secrets, and then wrote their secrets on the image.  Others drew pictures that represented their secret.  In both cases, the students work reflected the mentor text.  Now I have finally found an inspiring way to use PostSecret in my classroom for years to come!

screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-11-10-21-am

Student work

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