I’ve been obsessively watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, the true-ish story of Beth Harmon, American chess champion. Like everyone binging the Netflix show, I now fancy myself a minor chess expert.
To work her way to higher and higher levels of chess mastery, Harmon studies past champions’ games. And then she plays past champions’ games so she can see the moves, feel the moves in real life. And once she has studied them and practiced them, then she is ready to innovate — using them herself in novel ways.
She’s using mentor texts.
In chess, Harmon might open with a move called “The Sicilian”. She didn’t invent the move — masters before her created it — but she uses it as a part of her overall style and strategy. It elevates her game. In a piece of writing, we might open with a move called a “Scene Drop Intro”. We are harnessing a move we’ve seen master writers make and using it ourselves to elevate our writing.
This is what we’re teaching students to do: study the moves of masters, practice those moves, and then do more — mix and match those moves in order to innovate.
This fall, I’ve been thinking about how we can take students’ facility with mentor texts to make them increasingly independent writers — to make them more like Beth Harmon playing chess. After studying and practicing, Harmon didn’t play real matches with chess books open in front of her so she could mimic other players’ games. She internalized the moves so she could use them later, at the right moment. That’s what I want for my students. I want to train writing champions.
I’ve developed a few strategies to help students do this with the writing moves we notice in professional writing:
The common thread here is that each of these strategies takes moves from mentor texts and lifts them out and away from that single text — physically putting them elsewhere so that students can begin to think of these moves more universally. They aren’t just techniques we try this one time in this one piece of writing; the moves are independent, flexible tools for any piece of writing.
I think another angle we can take, though, is to strengthen students’ reading-like-a-writer muscles by blending their reading and writing lives more seamlessly, causing them to read like a writer all the time.
A Mentor Text Reading Response
My students write the kind of reading responses developed by the brilliant Marilyn Pryle and detailed in just-about-my-favorite professional book, Reading With Presence. Since this is a blog about writing instruction, I haven’t written a lot about my complete obsession with this work here, but members of the Inside the Blended Workshop community can attest that I talk about these reading responses constantly. In many ways, they are the backbone of my reading instruction.
Briefly, here’s why I love them:
- They provide a lovely routine for my class — we can return to it again and again. And as students return and practice, they gain confidence.
- It’s a buildable, expansive routine! In Reading With Presence, Pryle shares over 30 different kinds of reading responses. Students learn them slowly over time, and as they learn new kinds of responses they are getting new choices for responding to texts. The element of choice is empowering and engaging.
- Reading responses teach students how to think about literature. Each reading response is almost a strategy for critical reading. As students practice the different kinds of reading responses, what they are actually doing is practicing critical, analytical thinking + writing in very small, digestible bites (Pryle’s reading responses are a minimum of 5 sentences). Down the road, students can use these different ways of responding to write longer pieces of literary analysis about any text.
- It’s customizable. After sticking to Pryle’s responses for a couple years, I began to create my own reading response categories to help student practice the exact skills required by my course. Then, students even began suggesting new reading responses we could write! Yes, Pryle gives us a starting place, but she’s also teaching us a process. And I love that!
- These are ready-made for reading conferences. Often, I’ll tell students that I want to talk about one of their reading responses in reading conferences. They will have some choice and a chance to prepare, and you get a quick glimpse into their thinking about their reading.
Alright. That was the gushing section.
Here’s the application section. Why does this matter? How does it relate to mentor text work and writing instruction?
I’ve tossed a new kind of reading response into our mix to help students consistently read with an eye toward writing moves: a Mentor Move Reading Response.
Here’s the prompt:
See what I did there? Those are just the steps of reading like a writer. But I’ve taken it out of the context of just writing. I’ve taken it out of being locked down to mentor text study, and I’ve moved it to their literature study — in whole class novels, in literature circles, in independent reading. Now, any time a student in my class gets ready to respond to a text, this option will jump up, making everything they read a mentor text.
Whenever I introduce a new kind of reading response, we practice it together with a read aloud or other whole class text so that students can feel confident choosing this reading response option on their own in the future. Here’s the digital notebook page I gave them. (You can read more about my digital notebooks here.) You can make a copy of this and share with your students for their digital notebooks or print:
How You Might Use This
Your students might not have a routine of writing reading responses in your class, and that’s okay. (Though I highly recommend it; it has been such a gift to me.) You don’t necessarily need to use Pryle’s system to use the Mentor Move reading response. Here are some ways you might incorporate this in your class’s reading work:
- Before a chunk of in-class independent reading time, give students the organizer above + ask them to be on the lookout for a mentor move as they are reading right now.
- Ask students to write a Mentor Move response about whole class reading. Give them a period of time so that they can be on the lookout for a move they connect to: i.e. By the end of class tomorrow I’d like you to have found a mentor move in The House on Mango Street on which you can write a Mentor Move response.
- Ask literature circles or small reading groups to do this together as they move through a small chunk of reading. Maybe they could return to their most recently-read section, find a mentor move, and write a response together.
How This Helps
Ultimately, we want students to see mentor texts everywhere. And we want students to understand that gathering concrete techniques for their writing is a continuous process. So connecting their writing and reading lives through a few, consistent routines can yield big results.
How do you blend students’ reading and writing lives? How are you helping students see mentor texts all around them and transfer the moves they see into multiple pieces of writing? Leave a comment below! Or connect with us on Facebook! Or Tweet in my direction @RebekahODell1!
We’d love for you to check out our community of writing teachers at Inside the Blended Classroom. Each month, members of our community receive entire reading and writing units, deep dives into reading and writing workshop instructional strategies, live meet ups, a private Facebook group and more!