Teaching from 10 Mentor Texts

A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar from Matt Glover and Carl Anderson on Writing Workshop. At the end of the webinar, Carl held a live conference with an amazing middle grade student. She wanted some help with her poem about her family’s annual trip to the beach, this summer during the pandemic.

“How can I help you?” Carl said. “Is there something you want to learn today?”

She wanted to know if her main point — that the experience was really different because of social distancing — was coming across.

So Carl asked her to point out where she thought she had communicated this idea in her poem already, and after she found one or two examples, he reminded her, “In poetry, and in all writing really, when you have an idea, you want to make sure there are details in your writing to help you get that idea across.” Then, he swiftly and expertly pulled up Langston Hughes’ beautiful poem, “April Rain Song,” and pointed out how one poet uses details to support his main idea. 

The swiftness with which he dipped into the perfect mentor text to teach into her needs as a writer was both expert and genuine, simple and magic. How did he do it?

When conferring with students I tend to rely more on my own writing to demonstrate a teaching point — because it’s my own writing, I know it well enough to be able to pull it out of thin air, or continue the crafting process right there in front of my students. And while I know my own writing, as well as student writing, is a powerful tool for conferring, I long to get better at this mentor text magician’s work. Is it magic, or is there something achievable happening there?

Later, Carl revealed his process: he tends to confer from the same handful of 10-15 mentor texts, all saved as PDFs on his computer. He knows these mentor texts inside and out, and they are varied enough that he can use them to teach across all genres and crafting situations. Not surprisingly, he shared that many of them are poems (I believe it was Nancie Atwell who says that you can teach anything you need to teach — except paragraphing and citation — from poems. Oh how I love this).

When the webinar ended, I took this revelation as a challenge to go in search of my own handful of mentor texts from which I could teaching anything I might ever need to teach in a conference. And so, this fall writing beat was born. Here’s what I hope to do:

Each month, I’ll feature a post with

  • 1-2 mentor texts, fully annotated to reveal all craft moves
  • A list or chart that shows generalizable teaching points that can be taught from this piece, when used in combination with a few other pieces
  • Something about the process of building a conferring anchor text set, including my selection process, how I plan to organize them so they are at-my-fingertips ready, and what a conference in which you’re pulling from the same handful of mentor texts — some in different genres than what the student is writing in — looks like.

My Criteria For the Conferring Anchor Text Set

I’m going to be asking A LOT of these mentor texts: A set of texts that professes to address all conferring needs must be very special.

The set must be

  • Comprised only of writing I adore and am excited to teach from
    • If I’m going to be conferring solely from these mentor texts, I must love them!
  • Representative of  a range of topics and interests to have broad appeal
    • A great mentor text is not only instructive but relevant to this year’s students and what’s happening in the world right now.  I’ll need to aim for a wide range of topics in order to engage every last person I might confer with, as a writer and human living today. 
  • Accessible to students in grades 3+
    • While this blog began as a space for secondary writing teachers, we are beginning the work of expanding it to include our beloved elementary teachers as well. I’m going to challenge myself to collect mentor texts that will be accessible to students in grades 3 and “up.” The “up” includes teachers I work with: since I’m not in the classroom right now, most of the conferring work I do is with teachers!
  • Rich with genre-crossing craft 
    • I’ll be searching for mentor texts that I can use to teach craft in every genre of writing that students might explore.
  • Able to teach the conventions of many different genres
    • In conferences, we teach the writer, not the piece of writing, but writers need genre knowledge to choose what genre will best present their message. So, these mentor texts, as a whole, need to teach into genre as well.

Conferring Anchor Text #1

My first conferring anchor text is “First Love” by Carl Linder. I love this poem so, so much and have used it countless times in mini-lessons, conferences, and PD sessions with teachers. It’s an ode to basketball, so it speaks to my sports-loving students. But it’s also an ode to love and the ways in which we grow within loving relationships and allow ourselves to “fall through” the net of that love.

“First Love” by Carl Linder

Based on my annotations, and my thinking about how the craft of this poem can be in conversation with other mentor texts, here are the generalizable lessons about what writers do that I could teach in a conference:

  • How writers create music with words and their sounds (internal rhyme, external, alliteration, assonance, etc.)
  • How writers repeat words and echoes of those words to reinforce their claim/main idea
  • How writers end strongly
  • How writers break lines to emphasize certain words/ideas
  • How writers play with word order to create interest and emphasis
  • How writers use em-dashes for effect
  • How writers punctuate lists
  • How writers explore cliche topics like “love” in interesting, fresh, beautiful ways

I could also teach the conventions of:

  • Free-verse Poetry
  • Ode Writing

I know this mentor text alone could address dozens of students’ needs in conferences, but just imagine how powerful it will be as part of a special collection of 10. When combined with examples of craft in a few other pieces of writing, it will be a true powertext.

Next month, I’ll share one or two more mentor texts in my anchor collection, as well as a spreadsheet in which I’ve begun to categorize and identify which mentor texts can help teach which writing lessons in any given conference. I’ll also talk more about the process of gleaning generalizable lessons about what writers do from crafted moments in a single piece of writing.

What mentor texts have been positively indispensable to your teaching and conferring? What texts would make your ten? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter @AllisonMarchett! 

We’d also love for you to join our community at Inside the Blended Workshop

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  1. I love this idea. I don’t see any more anchor text posts since this one in September. Is there somewhere else I can find the other ones you have done?

  2. I use Fast Break by Edward Hirsch for very similar reasons. Now I have a text pair! I also use a lot of Gary Paulsen for all kinds of writing with my 6th graders. I’ve also used poetry as mentor texts for lots of different kinds of writing, but was always a little shy of saying so to other teachers. I feel more brave now!

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