My best writing advice for teacher-writers (and my best advice for how to stay in the classroom for the long term) is to write about those problems, issues, and shortcomings that niggle you in the back of your head. Angela Stockman calls them the “pebbles in your teacher shoes.” Instead of a series of beautified best lessons, writing, instead, looks more like a series of lab reports as the teacher puzzles out solutions through a series of (harmless) classroom experiments.
Last year on Moving Writers, I experimented with different ways to communicate the nuances of writing workshop to parents, students, colleagues, and administrators. And you know what? I figured out some routines that really worked for me — in particular, the parent video for each reading and writing unit. I have never felt so much connection between home and school, and I have never had so few conferences and phone calls. (You can find the whole series here on the blog, but here’s the first post about parent videos.)
Here’s what’s niggling me this year:
There is no doubt that mentor texts make me a better writing teacher, make my units more grounded and authentic, and make my students measurably better writers in a short amount of time.
And mentor texts are everywhere. In academia. In newspapers, magazines, and websites. In novels. On YouTube. In podcasts. In memos, reports, grant applications. They are real.
But as writing teachers, we always have our eyes on a single prize: to make better writers, not just better pieces of writing. And recently, I’ve been wondering what happens when one of my students can’t get their hands on a mentor text but needs to write something. Or needs to writing something quickly and doesn’t have the time to research and find a mentor text.
- After a year in my class, how can I help my students be measurably better writers without a mentor text in sight?
- How can I help students internalize what they are learning from a mentor text so that it becomes part of their writing identify?
- How can I be intentional in helping students transfer what they learn from mentor texts in one genre to another genre?
- What tools can I give students that will empower them to adopt some writing moves as their own and let go of other writing tools that don’t serve them as well?
- How does a writer decide when they need a mentor text and when they don’t? And how can I help my students make that decision for themselves?
This is what I’m going to explore on my beat this year, and I have the perfect set of guinea pigs! I am lucky to loop with my seventh graders as they move into eighth grade. They have had a year (Well, a year-ish. You know. 2020.) of mentor text work under their belts; they are proficient at noticing writer’s moves and then applying those moves to their own pieces in that same genre. My mission: to take it all to the next level by continuing to work with mentor text but building up their own writerly identity to increase their independence and confidence as writers.
Here’s the first step I am taking toward this goal: amplifying sentence study.
Sentence Study 1.0 and Sentence Study 2.0
Here is our basic sentence study routine:
- Read the sentence.
- Examine the passage and notice how it was put together.
- Give each noticing a name and hypothesize about its purpose.
- Grab a few of those observations and try them in your own original sentence.
My eighth graders know this routine by heart. But I want to begin divorcing the writerly moves from that one, isolated passage and, instead, help students see these moves as techniques any writer might use in a variety of genres and for a variety of purposes.
It might help to take a closer look. Here’s a passage from Pax that my students and I studied:
(I annotated for them in my notebook under a document camera.)
Instead of just leaving these noticings here with Pax, I am making a running (digital) anchor chart of the writing moves we see in our sentence study work throughout the year. So, after this first attempt, here was our list:
When we do sentence study this week, we will add to this master list, and students will be able to choose ANY writing moves from this chart to use in their own sentence that day. To scaffold this, I might give them a goal number at first. But after a few weeks, and after we share, they’ll get it.
Here’s what this accomplishes:
- Our routine stays the same; the way we use the routine (and our independence within the routine) evolves.
- Students are looking at this list of writing moves a few times a week (at least) all year long! (Once the list gets crazy long, I might start organizing it into categories like Punctuation Moves, Adding-Detail Moves, etc.)
- Students see these moves as equally important and equally useful in lots of different writing contexts.
- Students get even more choice as writers — the long list gives writers so much to choose from.
- The class will more easily see when a writing move becomes ubiquitous and used by MANY writers in many different kinds of texts. (I like to note these by making an asterisk every time we see that particular writing move!)
When to Amplify Sentence Study
You, of course, are the expert on your own students. You know what they need better than anyone. But here are some ways you might think about moving students toward Sentence Study 2.0:
- If your students have a lot of previous experience with sentence study 1.0 from a previous course.
- Your students have practiced sentence study 1.0 for awhile and are ready for more (maybe 2nd semester?)
- You teach older students (juniors? seniors? college students?) who have better executive functioning and are cognitively able to juggle more.
- You have a small group of students in the class who are ready for more.
The bottom line: start where your students are ready! This microprogression will help you and students see how sentence study can build over time as students’ confidence and skills progress:
Consider pausing sometimes (not every time) to have student reflect on these choices! This metacognition helps them make writerly choices again in the future, and sharing these reflections can help other students think more clearly about their own writing.
Amplifying sentence study is just one way we can help students start to become less dependent on a single mentor text or group of mentor texts, and begin to help them understand that the moves we are studying are bigger, more universal than just one piece of writing.
How do you help students move past a single mentor text and a single writing product? How do you build independence in the mentor text process? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter @RebekahOdell1!
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