Using Mentor Texts to Write History

At this point in time, I’d be surprised if a teacher told me they haven’t gotten “the call” yet.  And by “the call,” I mean when an administrator reaches out to teachers to inform them what the school and/or state would be doing in response to COVID19.  I live in Illinois, so “the call” came for me after school on Friday, March 13.  Our governor announced school buildings would be closed from March 17-30.  Since then, I’ve gotten “the call” again, informing me the earliest I will see my students again in person is April 13.

As overwhelming as this situation is, there’s one thing I can say with certainty: teachers are the perfect group of people to have the way they do their job completely flipped (literally) overnight.  I mean, “rolling with the punches” is practically part of our job descriptions.  The week before school let out, I changed a kid’s 3rd quarter grade after he decided to do a re-write, extended a deadline when I realized my freshmen needed more time gathering information, helped set up a peer review team for a student who is struggling, and made unofficial accommodations for a student who doesn’t speak.  And that was just in a week!  So the fact that a viral pandemic is putting us out of our classrooms is really just another day in the life.

So before I made any plans, I reminded myself that this situation should be no different than any other obstacle.  I shouldn’t lower my standards or expectations just because I won’t see my students every day; instead, I need to figure out the best way for them to meet those expectations in our new circumstances.  Incorporating a lot of writing using mentor texts has become a keystone of my practice, so I knew I wanted to continue this from home. 

When I started the planning process, I was seeing so many reminders on social media about how important it is for students to write about this moment in history.  I was in 6th grade during 9/11, and I so wish I had something in writing about what I was feeling on that day and the days that followed.  And then I realized that we have something in 2020 that was a bit more limited back in 2001: an endless supply of mentor texts about this moment in history.  So I started collecting and saving, and a few hours later, I had a mentor text and some questions to consider when writing about the mentor text for each day my students were (originally) supposed to be gone.

Today, I’m going to share 4 of my favorites with you.  I’m hoping these will be helpful to you by giving you ideas for getting your students writing during this difficult time.  I’m also hoping this might inspire other ideas, and we can all come together and share.  One of the positives I’ve taken away from this whole experience is seeing how awesome teachers are at supporting one another in times of need.

Mentor # 1: Cruise Ship Quarantine

I stumbled upon this image and thought it was really powerful.  Vacation is the last place we expect to encounter an international tragedy, yet this became a reality for so many.  Students could consider one or more of the following questions in writing:

  • What do you notice?
  • What is happening in this photo?
  • What is NOT happening in this photo?
  • What are the thoughts of the people in this photo?
  • What does the future look like for the people in this photo?
  • What is the story of the people in this photo?

This image was part of a collection of photos gathered around the world that showcased how humanity is being impacted by this epidemic.  I also had my students take several of their own photos and include captions about how COVID19 has impacted their own lives.

Mentor # 2: Panicked Purchases

For me, the moment this severity of the situation we’re in right now really set in when I went to the grocery store to pick up some eggs and saw empty shelf after empty shelf.  It’s a special kind of vulnerability you feel when you’re standing in front of an empty display of food, especially when you never realized how you once naively thought it would always be in abundance.  Panic buying and hoarding are very hot topics right now, and I was curious to see what my students of various backgrounds and incomes had to say.  I gave them these questions to consider in writing:

  • What’s causing “panic buying”?
  • Who/what type of people are participating in “panic buying”?
  • What is the result of “panic buying”?  What are the lasting effects?
  • What is the story behind this image?

Mentor # 3: Coronacancellations

This political cartoon speaks to all of the cancellations that are the result of this viral outbreak.  I teach seniors for most of the day, and cancellations are a very big deal to them right now.  Sporting events, awards nights, proms, graduations—they’re all up in the air.  I did a Zoom videochat with some of my honors students last night, and they were so thrilled to see one another once again.  Here are the questions I had them consider when thinking about the issue of cancellations:

  • How have “Coronacancellations” affected you?
  • How might “Coronacancellations” affect you in the future?  Do you have any worries or concerns?
  • How can you find creative ways to still do the things you want to do?  (Example: If a race you want to run in was cancelled, you could time yourself on the treadmill instead.)

On a side note, I loved the vibe I got from my students last night regarding possible cancellations.  They really had such great, optimistic attitudes, despite the situation they’re stuck in during one of the most important moments of their educational careers.  It just reminded me that if we’re willing to listen, we’ll find so much hope in our students.

Mentor # 4: Infamous Infographic

If you’ve been on the internet in the last two weeks, you’ve probably seen this infographic.  I know it’s what made a lot of adults go from “Why are people so worried about this?!” to “Ohh… yeah, that’s a problem.”  This just goes to show how powerful information can be when it’s presented in the form of data.  I wanted to see how my students reacted to this infographic, so I had them consider these questions:

  • What is the data telling us?
  • What is the data not telling us?
  • What story is this data telling?
  • How does this data relate to what is happening in the world?

***

I wish I could say more and reflect on how these prompts went over with my students, but I’m not able to do that yet.  Like many others, a lot of my students don’t have reliable internet access at home, so they will be turning in their responses to these prompts when we return to school on the 13th (*fingers crossed*).

However, I can say this with confidence: while the times are uncertain, my faith in my students and in teachers is not.  If anyone can pull this off, we can together.  I hope I have shared something useful with you today that can help your students record their version of this moment in history.  I urge you to pay it forward!  If you stumble across something that begs to be written about, please share!

–Paige

What COVID19-related mentor texts have you found that have served as inspiration for your students’ writing?  Please tweet some #mentortexts my way on Twitter @TimmermanPaige!

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