Moving Writers Finds Just-Right Mentor Texts

In this series, I am breaking down essential writing teacher habits and routines to help simplify your teaching life and create more space so you can do what you do best: actually teach! Today we’ll explore how to find “just-right” mentor texts, a topic requested by several readers. Please let me know what other topics you would like to see uncovered in this series by clicking here, or filling in the form at the end of this post!

Moving Writers Finds Just-Right Mentor Texts

If you’ve been with us for a while, you know that mentor texts are life-changing, happy-dance-making tools for writing teachers. Mentor texts help us teachers do so many things, such as:

  • show us what powerful writing looks like in different genres, especially those we are unfamiliar with but need to or want to teach
  • help us teach specific techniques, from using an absolute phrases that add detail to writing effective dialogue
  • inspire us to try new things as writing teachers (and writers ourselves!)
  • show us what kind of writing exists in the real world and therefore what we should be teaching!
  • connect our classrooms to a larger community of writers.

In my opinion, mentor texts’ best asset is helping us figure out what to teach. From pacing guides, to what the teacher across the hall is doing, to standards of learning, knowing what to teach can be a confusing and overwhelming process. Turning to a mentor text–a piece of writing recently published by a professional writer–can help us in this department, simplifying our choices and reminding us what’s really important when it comes to teaching writing: showing our students what’s possible for their writing lives, by showing them what’s been possible for other writers–and then giving them the tools to explore these choices and their effects.

But some teachers worry that the process of finding mentor texts will become an enormous time-suck. The world is saturated with incredible pieces of writing just begging to be used in the classroom…and all our students have different needs…so how do you know which ones to choose? Where do you look? And how much time should you be spending on this task?

Step 1: Determine your purpose.

Mentor texts can help us do a lot of things as teachers, so you first must name what you are trying to do. Here are some statements that might describe your needs:

  • I need to teach a specific writing technique
  • I need whole writing samples to show students the kind of writing they will be doing
  • I need to inspire and excite students
  • I need to show students there are multiple ways to write something
  • I need to connect my students to other writers

Determine your purpose, and keep it close (I like to write it down on a sticky note as a tangible reminder) as you begin your hunt. This simple guide below will help you narrow your search as you wade through a sea of writing:

If you need… Then…
To teach a specific writing technique Find three different mentor texts that use this technique. Find short, simple but powerful examples.
Whole writing samples Find 3-5 pieces that illustrate this kind of writing. Look for new publications that will engage the kids in front of you today.
Inspire and excite students Pull mini mentor texts from the books your students are reading or today’s hottest news stories.
Show there are multiple ways to write something Find three different mentor texts that use this technique, or three mentor texts written in the same genre or about the same topic that are structured very differently.
Connect your students to other writers Use mentor texts from prolific writers with an online presence.

In my experience, it’s easier to search for whole pieces of writing than individual techniques, but there are a few ways to find isolated craft moves in the mentor text world. If, for example, you are looking for examples of absolute phrases, you could:

  1. Google “absolute phrases” and “lesson plan” and see if anything comes up. Some teachers post their lesson plans online, and they pair techniques with authentic mentor sentences. If you get lucky, this is a quick, easy way to find what you need, but it usually doesn’t produce copious (or any) results. You will likely find myriad sentences written by teachers themselves, but not sentences that have come from professional pieces of writing, which is what we’re aiming for.
  2. Use your reader knowledge to think of writers who embed rich description into their writing: perhaps you know of a writer who even uses absolute phrases liberally. One of my go-to “absolute phrase writers” is Lucy Grealy; I sift through her gorgeous memoir Autobiography of a Face whenever I want to inspire writers as well as teach specific techniques.
  3. Search poems for the technique. Poetry is arguably the most densely crafted genre of writing. Even if you are not teaching poetry writing itself, you can find almost all the techniques you’d ever need to teach (except for paragraphing and citation!) inside poems.
  4. Search by technique in our Mentor Text Dropbox. This section of our dropbox isn’t built out like our genre folders, but you may find something you need there, and we would love your help adding to this section of our site. Just email us with your mentor text and tell us where we should put it!Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 5.50.07 AM

Step 2: Determine your audience.

Sometimes we pull mentor texts to teach the entire class. Other times we are looking for a specific mentor text to help that one student who is stuck. Who are you trying to help?

  • The whole class
  • A small group of writers
  • A writing partnership
  • An individual student
  • Your department, co-teacher, or administrator

Knowing your audience will help narrow your search and lead you to appropriate mentor texts faster. A few things to keep in mind:

If you need a mentor text for… Then look for…
The whole class Pieces that address the highest common interests or the hottest current events. These pieces should be accessible to the students who need the most support in your classroom. This is a good opportunity to offer choice, too, where students of higher abilities, more solid writing experiences, or different interests may be able to choose more challenging or relevant pieces that teach the same ideas about writing.
A small group of writers Pieces that meet this group of writers where they are. The readability and topics of these pieces will vary according to the group.
A writing partnership A few pieces that explore the same concepts or techniques. Then, allow the pair to choose.
An individual student A piece that targets the precise skill you are looking to teach. The shorter and more focused the better.
Your department, co-teacher, or administrator Pieces that demonstrate the skill you are trying to teach at a variety of reading levels. The question we get asked most often is, “But this piece won’t work for my [insert group of students here]. What else ya got?” Be prepared with multiple pieces (mini or whole) that would be appropriate for students of varying abilities and writing experiences.

Step 3: Begin your search in trusted sources that match your purpose.

The image below shows our favorite mentor texts haunts, sources that offer all types of writing from informational pieces to lyrical poetry. As you become more practiced in the art of finding mentor texts, you’ll develop your own list of go-to spots.

Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 10.37.39 AM

Another place we recommend hunting is Twitter. Teachers are using the hashtags #mentortext and #writingwithmentors to share mentor texts they are using in class today or planning to use in the future. A simple search with one of these hashtags may yield exactly what you need! And don’t be shy to ask for help on Twitter: try tweeting out a specific mentor text request and see what happens!

Finally we always encourage teachers to search for mentor texts in their own reading lives, or their friends’ and family’s reading lives. Need a sports mentor text for a student but have no idea where to begin? Make a list of the sports enthusiasts in your life, and let them know the kind of writing you’re looking for. Asking people who already read in the genre will reduce your own research time and likely produce strong results: these people know what excellent sports writing sounds and looks like, and just where to find it.

Step 4: Consider Engagement.

One of the challenges (and delights!) of finding a just-right mentor text is choosing texts that will engage your audience, whether that is an entire class or an individual student during a conference. Mentor texts that teach and inspire must first engage. Engaging texts will be:

  • Fresh. Hot-off-the-presses. Pulled from your Twitter feed the day before.
  • Relevant. To this group of students in front of you right now. This may mean tossing a lot of the sports texts you used last year because this year’s class is composed mainly of artists and horse back riders. This single investment of your time will reap many benefits, including the respect and captivation of your writers.
  • Readable. Do not choose texts that are too challenging for your readers. If they struggle with basic reading comprehension, they will struggle to engage with the texts as writers. Often this means choosing shorter pieces or pieces with an audio component for a read-along option (we ❤ NPR!). It may make sense to present your students with excerpts of pieces as well.
  • Gorgeously and powerfully written. Our students deserve to see the best of what’s our there. I have often discarded a mentor text that hit the first three bullets on this list because the writing did not excite or inspire even me. We use the “highlighter test” so see if a text meets this requirement: Do I want to get my highlighter out and mark amazing lines? Do I want to copy powerful phrases into my notebook? If the answer is no, keep looking.

Step 5: Be Realistic.

Be realistic. I’m talking to all you Type 1’s out there, and those of you looking for the perfect mentor text. Notice that the title of this post is not “Moving Writers Finds the Perfect Mentor Text” because there is no such thing. Our goal is to provide our students with fresh, interesting, readable texts that will move them as writers, and there are many texts out there that can accomplish this goal. Consider, also, the bigger picture of what you are providing for your students. It’s not one mentor text, but all the mentor texts combined with the lessons and the conferences and the modeling that will truly move your writers. Mentor texts are a large piece of the puzzle but not the only piece. The “perfect” mentor text will not accomplish much at all in the absence of these other instructional pieces.

In your search for just-right mentor texts, don’t forget to share your victories will fellow teachers. This might be a teacher across the hall or one across the world that you connect with on Twitter. We love receiving emails and tweets (#mentortext) with your favorite mentor texts that we can add to the Dropbox: this incredible resource continues to grow with your help and expertise.

What are your tips for finding just-about-right mentor texts? Please share your tips and hacks with us on our Facebook page, or respond to this post below!

What other habits and routines would you like explored in this new series? What would help simplify your teaching life? Please take one minute to complete the form below!

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