Life Happens: Mentor Texts vs. The Curse of Knowledge

There’s a John Lennon song that addresses an issue that teachers know all too well: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making [lesson] plans.”

Even the most responsive and differentiated approaches can fall victim to the different kinds of chaos that life throws our way (Technology, I’m talking to you). On top of that, for a host of reasons, even our most school-loving students have off days. I have my fair share of off days, as well.

To be honest though, sometimes, something else is afoot. Once in awhile, my lesson, or unit, plans assume that students bring certain skills and abilities that have not yet been unlocked. Maybe I didn’t pre-assess well enough, maybe I misidentified students’ needs, maybe I made the wrong adjustments.

My first semester beat is all about exploring the moves a teacher can make when life happens to our well-made plans. Here, I’ll be detailing successful adjustments, as well, as moves that didn’t work out so well. Most importantly, I’ll be describing some of the key lessons I learn about as common (and not-so-common) issues pop in the Reading and Writing Workshop.

Life Happens Logo

Sometimes compliance can be mistaken for learning. How many times have I thought I’d taught the best lesson ever, only to see in future assignments and assessments that nothing I’d taught seemed to stick. Of course, there are a million variables at play–maybe the learning stuck but didn’t transfer to the new activity. Perhaps students just needed a bit more practice…or maybe they were suffering in silence during my lesson, and I mistook this silent-suffering for engagement.

In these moments, it’s so important to avoid panicking. Or at least, wait until the panic is out of my system before making a decision. Just because students aren’t applying what they learned (or more accurately, the information I presented), doesn’t mean they can’t do it. Sometimes, I just need to stop, observe, and diagnose what’s really going on.

In my last post, which you can find here, I discussed helping students who struggle to get started during writing workshop. In that specific case, I had a few different types of non-starters. I ended up needing to teach one small group of students how to come to class ready to rock.

I also had a group of students who needed something else…but what? It was super confusing because this other group of students had seemed engaged during the last few mini lessons, but when it came time to write, they were producing results that ranged from minimal to middling.

I had been using a teacher-created mentor text to show students how to revise in what we’d called “Stop and Describe Moments” where the writer stops the action to describe what they are thinking, feeling, or noticing. We’d pulled this little strategy from a mentor text. In the final chapter of Ralph Fletcher’s memoir Marshfield Dreams, every once in awhile we’d noticed that he pauses the action to either show the reader his feelings or to describe an element of the setting. 

The students who struggled this go round seemed to be paying attention during the mentor text mini lessons. Some made eye contact, others nodded, a few even participated–so where was the breakdown occurring? As T.S. Eliot might say, “…somewhere between the idea and the reality…falls the shadow.”

Step 1: Observe and Diagnose What’s Really Going On

I looked over this other group of students’ shoulders during the next writing workshop. It almost seemed like they weren’t trying. Most of the kids I observed were writing little more than two or three lines–and I just knew these kids were capable of more. But what the heck was going on? Forget using the “Stop and Describe Strategy”. Why were they writing such paltry pieces?

The very first student I talked to made the problem crystal clear. I asked him how it was going. It wasn’t going well. I asked why–was the strategy confusing? Nope. I got out my teacher-made mentor text, and asked him if my example hadn’t been clear enough? Nope. Well, what was it?

He pointed at my mentor text and said, “I can’t write like that. You wrote like 6 pages, and the story you shared was a published author. I’m never going to be able to write like that.”

I have to admit, at first I was kind of offended–of course he could write like that! We’d shown him how! We’d painstakingly reverse-engineered how! 

But then, some of that stuff I learned in all those years ago in college came back to me. Names like “Vygotsky” and phrases like “Zone of Proximal Development” popped into my head. It wasn’t that the student couldn’t run–it was just that the finish line seemed too far away.

Instead of trying to convince him, I took a deep breath and thanked him for his honesty. I told him that his comments were helping me to be a better teacher to him. I said, I’d think about what he said, and I’d come back tomorrow with some ideas that might help. I gave him something to work on until then, and moved on to the next student. To be honest, I had no idea how to help him. This happens to me all the time, by the way. I’ve learned that, usually, it’s better to make a smooth exit and sleep on the issue instead of fumbling toward a solution that frustrates all parties involved.

The rest of our diagnostic conferences went on to confirm what I’d learned in that first writing conference: the mentor text and my teacher-created mentor text were great for half the class and utterly intimidating for the others. 

Step 2: Mirror Writing

Last year, at NCTE’s annual convention, I attended a session in which Stacey Shubitz described something called “Mirror Writing”. Basically, it goes like this: you take a piece of writing, perhaps from a student who is struggling, and you write your own piece in a way that mirrors theirs. You use the same style, sentence structure, voice, vocabulary–but it’s your own piece of writing, your own thinking on the page. When we “mirror write” we gain insight into what it’s like to be a student writer. It moves us out of the “curse of knowledge” zone, in which we’re so used to knowing how to do something, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a learner, and it moves us into the empathy zone. Once we know what it feels like to be this writer, it’s easier to figure out what this writer needs next.

But the “Mirror Writing” experience doesn’t have to stop there. We can use this piece as a teacher-created mentor text…which is exactly what I did.

Weeks earlier, students had done a sort of pre-assessment writing piece. I wanted to see what their writing looked like before I’d accidentally freaked them out with our mentor texts. So, I foraged through these pre-assessment pieces for these students’ writings, and I chose one that what was most similar to what most of the students in this group were producing. Then, I “mirror wrote” a personal narrative about the time I saw a turtle on the bike path. I tried to write in a way that was maybe just a half-step up from the piece I was mimicking. In other words, I used similar style, voice, and vocabulary, but I also used proper grammar and punctuation, and I included a small stop and describe moment in the middle of the piece.

mirror writing

Step 3: Small Group Mini Lesson

The next day, as promised, I pulled the students I’d conferred with to take another stab at teaching our “Stop and Describe Strategy”.

First, I read my piece aloud to the small group. They were unimpressed–perfect! I said, “It seems like you guys aren’t super-impressed with my writing today. That’s okay. I’ll let you tell me about what I need to do better in a minute. First, let’s talk about what I did well, that you could also try.”

They pointed out the inner monologue that I include in the middle. I said, yes! This is one of those “Stop and Describe Moments” where the character pauses the action to tell us what he’s thinking. Look at the piece you’ve been working on, and point to a place or two where you could revise in a “Stop and Describe Moment”.

Then, I let students make suggestions for how I might make my piece better. Of course, they said things like, “Add more detail,” and when they did, I asked them where.

Then, we debriefed by discussing where they can do the same kind of work in their own pieces. We talked about how we’d looked over my piece to figure out where the reader needs to know more information, and this was how we decided where and how to use “Stop and Describe Moments” to add more detail.

Then, I sent the group of young writers off to revise.

In the end, each of these students who’d been struggling was able to revise in sizable description, resulting in palpable growth, and maybe more importantly, they ended up with pieces of writing they were proud of.

As I look back, it’s a good reminder that all this growth started with a failed lesson (or two…or three). The steps we took from there were simple: I took time to really understand what was happening, I used a the “Mirror Writing” strategy to really understand my students’ Zones of Proximal Development, and I taught accordingly.

Sometimes, even when we teach the perfect lesson, life happens. When you work out, if you don’t feel the burn, you probably aren’t working out hard enough. The same goes for school. If every lesson feels easy, there’s a good chance kids aren’t growing as much as we think. Instead of hitting the panic button next time a lesson goes badly, try to remember: it’s not a failure. It’s an opportunity to figure things out…and maybe even grow.

What are some of the creative ways YOU use teacher-made mentor texts? Have you tried Mirror Writing? Connect with me on Twitter @MrWteach or at facebook.com/movingwriters

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