Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.
It was as though students had forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!
Here’s what was happening:
- We read mentor texts as readers and then writers
- We made noticings about each mentor text and then compiled them into giant whole-class lists that went in their notebooks.
- We moved through a series of mini-lessons, inspired by the noticings and by student needs.
- Students used the mini-lessons to guide their writing, leaving that big chart of noticings in the dust.
You see, my students didn’t realize (and I didn’t communicate!) that the noticings and the mini-lessons are two different but equally-important pieces of the same puzzle. We need both in order to complete a piece of writing.
This phenomenon frustrated me last year, but it wasn’t until moving in to Middle School Land this year that I realized I had to find a solution … or else. I had to find a way to make the noticings in that chart every bit as concrete and action-ready as the mini-lessons I taught.
This didn’t require a shift in pedagogy; rather, it demanded a shift of application. Instead of expecting students to magically transfer learning from the chart to their writing, I needed a very practical, boots-on-the-ground go-between.
In our recent studies of narrative scenes (7th grade) and opinion writing (8th grade), students began by moving through our familiar workshop rhythms. We read a bunch of mentor texts. We discussed them as readers in Harkness seminars. Then, we made noticings — as a whole class, in small groups, with partners, and on our own. We compiled these noticings in big, big charts in our notebooks.
But then students did some sorting. Creating a t-chart in their notebooks, they looked at the items in their big charts and asked themselves:
Is this technique used in the majority of mentor texts in our cluster? Is this technique only used in one or two mentor texts in our cluster?
If the technique was present in a majority (for us it was 3 out of 4 mentor texts), then it went in the ” Writers in this genre have to” column. If it was in only one or two, it went in the “Writers in this genre might” column. After discussing as a class, I made glue-in anchor charts. Since we are working in genre studies, students began to notice that techniques in the Have To column usually had to to with content and form. Techniques in the Might column were more likely to be about structure and style.
Suddenly, we had marching orders.
Mini-lessons come from the Have To column. I choose the skills on which my students will need the most support.
Students’ best drafts must include skills they learned in mini-lessons +the skills in the “Have To” column + 3 skills from the “Might” column they choose to try out!
Here are some other ways we’e put this chart to use:
- If students finish revising for that day’s mini-lesson technique, they return to their Have To/ Might chart to continue making other revisions.
- Students use the Have To/ Might chart to ask for writing conferences.
- The Have To/ Might chart is a wonderful self-monitoring and self-assessment tool. When a student raises her hand to say, “Um, I think I’m done”, I say, “Go back to your Have To/ Might chart. See what needs to be done there.”
- It is my rubric! These are the skills that we have noticed and discussed, that have been taught and conferred upon. The Have To/ Might chart turns into a beautiful assessment tool: did you do the things in the Have To column? How effectively did you do them? Did you try three techniques from the Might side? How did that work out?
Suddenly, that beautiful lesson from the beginning of the writing study isn’t relegated to memory. Making it a concrete to-do list helps students keep track of their own progress and internalize the requirements of genres in a new way.
How do you make mentor texts noticings concrete, actionable tasks? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1.