No Unicorns Here: Demystifying the Hard Work of Reading with Mentor Texts

Why did you become a teacher? It’s the question we all know frontwards and backwards. We have an answer that we’re ready to trot out when someone asks at a party or an interview. And for so many of us, a huge part of that answer is because of our own experiences in school. I’ll be the first to admit that one of the biggest reasons I became an English teacher was because I enjoyed my own English classes so much when I was in high school. Yet, the classroom that I run today bears very little resemblance to the classes I loved so much as a student. Over the past several years, as standards have changed and as research on effective instruction has permeated our discussions, we’ve seen a distinctive shift toward many practices that were once thought of as “elementary” instructional methods. For some, the changes have been subtle, but I know that some of my friends in the secondary world have felt like the shifts have been positively seismic.

One of the shifts that has been most powerful to me has been a move toward a more descriptive approach to reading and writing instruction. In my first few years of teaching, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who introduced me to the concept of “reading like a writer.” When she let me borrow her own dog-eared copy of Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words, the concept was brand new to me. I’d already bought into a descriptive approach to grammar instruction, but writing? Structure? Done while reading?!? I tried it and liked it, but my understanding was thin, and my implementation was spotty at best. We might, for example have a “read like a writer” unit for nonfiction writing, but then for our next writing unit, I’d bust out the prescriptive lessons again. Heck, at one point, I even made laminated “cheat sheets” of essay organization for my students.

Over the past few years, though, as I realized the power in the descriptive approach and the need for deeper analysis in our reading and writing instruction, I made it a personal mission to step up my mentor text game. I focused first on my own instruction, and then as our district’s secondary ELA consultant, on supporting my colleagues in navigating these new waters.

One day, while talking with another teacher in our district, she confided in me that she was really struggling with adopting a descriptive approach with mentor texts. We talked about the need for us as teachers to plan and guide our students while still allowing them to notice what the authors are doing in a text before we tell them. “But how can I plan for every single thing they might notice?” she asked me, exasperated. Continue reading

Blending Genres with Narrative Journalism

Years ago, my PLC adopted the “I-Search” paper as a piece of informative writing that now feels like a relic from another age.  It was a sort of “meta-writing” wherein the students undertook a research project and then wrote a paper not about the research topic, but about the experience as a writing process.

It was a failure, but at least it had noble intentions:  To get students to think about their writing process and roles as authors.  

For us, the failure was a blessing in disguise.  Once it was clear that the assignment was something of a dumpster fire, we were forced to revisit our entire unit.  And from the ashes of the I-Search emerged our favorite writing piece of the year:  The Narrative Journalism Experience.  

What’s Narrative Journalism?

Many people know the genre as “Longform Journalism”–indeed, your best resource for mentor texts would be the outstandingly curated site www.Longform.org, which compiles the best in the genre and even sorts it by subject matter.  Students are more drawn into the genre when I can point them to entire collections of mentor texts thematically sorted around topics like “Imposters” or “Sad Retired Athletes” (the collections get VERY specific!).

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image via http://www.longform.org

While styles vary, the core of this type of writing is the conveyance of non-fictional information through a narrative structure–often, the narrative is about the journalist’s experience in investigating the story.  In fact, that’s the narrative perspective the students end up adopting when we turn them into amateur journalists later in the unit.  More on that below… Continue reading

March (Madness) to Determine Significance

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March Madness March is still two months away, but that didn’t stop my students from facing off March Madness style as we reviewed Lord of the Flies last week.

One of the challenges students often face when writing literary analysis is that writing literary analysis asks students to demonstrate two important but distinctly different things: first, their understanding of the text (comprehension, analysis, synthesis) and second, their ability to communicate that understanding (writing). We all know students who can know a text inside and out yet struggle to get those ideas on paper. Conversely, we also know students who are proficient writers but whose analysis and evidence don’t quite measure up.

To help, one thing I’ve tried to do is to help students sharpen their analytical skills on the front end of the writing process. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the most valuable part of the writing process is the thinking that happens before any formal writing begins and fingers touch a keyboard. Continue reading

The Quest to Reduce Text

In August, I wrote about saving classroom space for anchor charts. Leaving some precious wall space blank will save you money, sanity, and most of all, will make room for instruction that you’ll actually use throughout the year. Although anchor charts are something that many elementary teachers are pretty adept at using, as a secondary teacher, I’ve just begun dipping my toe in these waters over the past few years, and let’s just say that sometimes I feel like I’m just barely staying afloat.

not-too-texty-tweetThat’s why, when Amy Estersohn @HMX_MsE said that she struggles with “making them simple and not too texty,” I thought to myself, “sing it, sister.” It seemed like I was constantly struggling to balance including enough information with being visually appealing and easy to use. So, I made the decision to really focus on this aspect of my anchor chart craft this year. And now that I’m just about at the halfway point of the year, I figured it was time to take stock of how that’s been going.

The Purpose Must Drive the Poster

When you’re first getting your feet wet with anchor charts, it’s easy to make a couple of mistakes. First, you might be tempted to use the anchor chart to document the whole mini-lesson. Pretty soon, the chart is filled with so much text, it’ll never be read again. Second, you can get lost in the world of Pinterest boards, replicating creative and visually appealing charts. Those often look great on your wall but pose the same problem as the posters you bought at the teachers’ store: they don’t get much use. To help me avoid these pitfalls, I have to keep reminding myself that I have to let purpose drive when it’s time to make an anchor chart.

I don’t chart all of my mini-lessons. Not by a long-shot. Most of the notes for my mini-lessons remain in digital form for students to see that day. If we absolutely need to refer back to them later, it’s easy to pull them back up, but most of the mini-lessons are small enough that we don’t need to refer back too often. If the concept is big enough that we might need to check back with it in the future, that’s my first clue that it might be a good candidate for an anchor chart. But before I uncap my markers, I’ve started to use the following questions to help me decide if information should go on an anchor chart poster: Continue reading

The Food Memory Narrative

If you’re anything like me, those few short weeks between fall and winter breaks are nothing short of an anxiety inducing shopping/baking/grading/wrapping/tying-up-loose-ends extravaganza. Each year, the time sandwiched between breaks seems like too little or not quite enough.

But a few years ago, I cooked up a new dish called Food Lit. Food Lit was inspired by the Navajo Kentuckians, one of the best sessions I’ve ever attended at NCTE . To offer you the Happy Meal version of this session, teachers in two regions educated their students on “good food.” Students learned about topics such as food insecurity, obesity rates, and food integrity. Students grew gardens, educated their communities, and even prepared meals with food they harvested. Some even studied food and nature-centric literature like Mark Twain’s “The Bee.”

After attending this session, I began cultivating an inquiry into food in my own classroom and savoring the delicacy of “between breaks” learning.

One assignment that fires up my students’ brains is the food memory narrative task. You can read more about what we’ve been up to in Food Lit here and from years past, here and here.

Food is such an important, driving force in our lives. We share and create some of our most important stories surrounded by food. It comforts us, nourishes us, and heals us. So far, I haven’t met a student who didn’t have one special dish or fond food memory to look back on.

That’s what the food memory narrative is about.

I first ask students to examine these mentor texts:

Savoring Memories of Sunday Dinner from NPR

Memories of Meals Past from The New York Times

Jeruselem: A Love Letter to Food from NPR 

I remind them that they are reading (and listening) to expand their understanding of “good food” but also to read as writers who are sharing their connections to a special dish.

This year, I asked students to share their mentor text noticings in a Google Form. Here’s some of what they came up with:

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What I’ve found is that food is an easy sell with students – it is relatable, its appeal universal, and my students enjoy reflecting on their “memories of meals past.” Here’s an example of how one student made this writing her own:

But the cherry on top? Our Food Lit Family Dinner, the day everyone brings in their favorite, most meaningful dish to share with the class.

Some of the biggest hits this year? Pizelles (or as one student called them: “cookie waffles”), King’s cake (somebody gifted me the baby), “brookies” (a delightful brownie/cookie duo), pepperoni rolls (a unique West Virginia snack and my contribution), tried and true homemade mac and cheese (what’s not to love), and West Indian curry (which you can read about below).

For me, this assignment does at least two things: it encourages a different bite of the narrative apple, and most importantly it continues to build and strengthen classroom culture. And that’s one recipe that can’t go wrong.

What works for you in your classrooms in the weeks between breaks? What activities inspire student writing and build classroom culture? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

 

Three Things I Believe

It seemed like fate. Or divine intervention. Or whatever teachers call it when it seems like the stars are aligning and a unit will start at exactly the right time. It was mid-November – just one week after The Election (yes, extra emphasis is intended), and our school’s second term was just starting, so I would meet a fresh, new class of students. No matter how small-scale it was, any chance for some kind of do-over seemed like a plus. Plus, the focus of my first hour class is nonfiction reading and writing. Usually, I start with informational text and move on to argumentative writing. But, we were fresh off The Election. Just about everyone I knew had a passionate stance one way or the other, so flipping the units seemed like the natural thing to do. Surely these kids will come in as a mix of emotions, so doing some argumentative writing will be cathartic, I thought. This will be perfect, wont it? Like I said, I thought the stars were aligning.

Less than a week into the unit, though, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d screwed up so badly. In my units, I always try to give as much autonomy and choice to my students as possible; I try to let them choose their own topics as often as I can. So, after a brief overview of what it means to argue an issue, I started the brainstorming process with my students. I wanted them to air their worries, their opinions, their passions. That’s where the unit came to a screeching halt. Most brainstorming pages were blank. A few had a lonely issue or two hesitantly suggested.

What was the problem? These are teenagers, I thought. Aren’t teenagers supposed to be some of the most opinionated people on the planet? Where were their opinions? Did they just not know what was going on in the world? In the age of social media and constant, in-your-face news, that just couldn’t be it. At least not entirely. For some, it was almost as if they’d been taught that it was not polite to discuss issues. That needed to change. Continue reading

From Good to Great with Mentor Text Study

Several years ago, I taught The House on Mango Street and I did what a lot of English teachers do while teaching The House on Mango Street — I assigned my students a vignette writing assignment using Sandra Cisnero’s work as the writing model. And I remember that assignment being good. My students worked hard and seemed to enjoy writing about their own lives. They took great care in designing book covers and creating clever little dedications, and they identified topics there were personal and meaningful and they wrote with vigor. So, all good, right?

My teaching sensei has a saying that goes, “It’s worse than bad, it’s good.”

For me, that’s the difference in teaching writing and writing with mentors. Mentor text study helps good writing assignments become great writing assignments.

When my students write with mentors, I notice real, identifiable gains in student writing — the kinds of improvements that don’t just happen because of a good assignment and a good model. Because when students study the mentors and consciously borrow from the “writers’ moves”, they are crafting their writing for stronger voice, elevated style, deliberate structure, purposeful syntax, careful selection of detail, and impactful diction. And what’s most encouraging is seeing students make these intentional choices in their writing like…well, real writers.

This year I decided to revisit The House on Mango Street and break out the trusty vignette assignment. This text is one that easily passes Allison and Rebekah’s engagement and highlighter test. It’s gorgeous prose — one part poem, one part story, and lots of accessible themes and topics for students to latch onto. I wanted to use my classroom experiences and the years in between to make this literature and writing study not just good, but great.

The key that unlocked the door was mentor text study. I realized that, for me, the most important aspect of mentor text study is the study. Taking the time to guide students in their discovery of a writer’s craft moves is not only worth the time spent, but it pays dividends in student writing. To borrow a phrase, this study is what moves the writer.

When I rolled out the vignette writing assignment, I made sure to slow down and spend plenty of class time discussing the craft moves of Sandra Cisneros. We annotated, we discussed, we even played musical chairs (more on that in my next post), and we built our list of “noticings.” Truth be told, the assignment didn’t change much. It was my approach with mentor text study.

Leading these discussions can be challenging, but as I’ve heard Rebekah say — writing with mentors is freeing because you don’t have to have all of the answers. Everything you need to know is in the mentors.

I’ve written about how I approach Reading Like Writers with my students here and here. But the long and short of it is this:

After reading and appreciating the text as a reader…

  1. Have students read and annotate mentor texts.
  2. Have students make a list of what they notice in the mentor texts.
  3. Compile a list for students to refer to during their writing process.

Here are some examples of students reading like writers in The House on Mango Street.

Continue reading

The Syntax of Things: Lesson Ideas for Syntax Study

Mentor Texts:

Big Idea:

Writers use syntax purposefully to create meaning and a desired effect.

What’s ahead in this post:

A 3-day lesson series on analyzing literature for syntax, including passage analysis and short story analysis, and using literature as mentor texts 

To answer E.E. Cummings’ lovely question “since feeling is first / who pays any attention to the syntax of things” — We do! We Teachers pay attention to the syntax of things in writing and in literature, and we ask our students to pay attention, too. I tell my students over and over that being careful and observant readers is what will make us better writers.

Analyzing a text for its syntax is one of the most “lightbulbs” concepts I teach all year. When students embrace the “structure supports meaning” mindset, I notice a new depth and level of sophistication in their reading, writing, and thinking that I hadn’t seen before. 

Here’s how I introduce this concept in my AP Literature class:

On Day 1 of this lesson series…

I ask students to read and examine the first few paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.” Most students are familiar with the story, and so many of them seem to love the dark and gothic writing of Poe. There’s also a great (and creepy) animation to accompany the reading that really amps up the madman mood of the room.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve last encountered this story, here is what students see on the page when they tackle the first paragraph:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

After students read, watch, and annotate, I follow with my go-to close reading questions:

What happens?

What do you notice?

Why is it important?

Keeping with the Read as Readers then Read as Writers rule, we discuss “feeling first” and then “the syntax of things”.

Almost 100% of the time, students talk about structure. They talk about dashes and exclamation points and fragmented thoughts and inverted sentences. We spend time talking about tone and point of view and how the needle of the story is being threaded here in this first paragraph.

We also spend time talking about how deliberately crafted sentences make this possible — how there is a pretty specific reason we do fancy this madman, well…mad. Students put their fingers right on the nervous-anxious atmosphere Poe establishes and how this madness is underscored through the “writer’s moves.”

I love that this is where students’ brains go. Thanks to Mr. Poe, it’s a perfect introduction to the syntax lens of literary analysis and this writerly move for our young writers.  

On Day 2…

I project a series of images on my Smart Board and ask students to create sentences (very deliberately like Poe) that mimic the feeling or atmosphere created in the photograph.

Here’s one of the photos we tackle: 

roller-coaster

Students decided that the feeling of this photograph is release after anticipation and suspense. We talked about the up and down of a roller coaster, the slow climb to the top of the hill, and the quick drop to the end of the ride. We then talk about how sentences can do that. After each photograph, I give students about five minutes to write in their notebooks.

Here is an example of one student’s writing inspired by the roller coaster photo:

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Thanks to Katie U. of 5th period AP Lit for sharing her writing

After we write, I then ask students to turn and talk and share with their classmates. Finally, I’ll ask for a few volunteers to share with the whole class and then to discuss their approach their writing.

I especially like this part of the lesson because all students have a chance to hear how their classmates are interpreting the image and crafting their writing. Students always surprise me with the explanations of their writing. Their interpretations of the photos vary, but the one constant is their awareness of the construction of their writing. It’s an English teacher win.

This writing activity isn’t easy, but the writing is low stakes, and I’ve found that it opens up some creative doors that students may not have realized were there.

Continue reading

Infusing Writing Lessons with Mentor Texts

We spend a lot of time touting the benefits of mentor texts for students for obvious reasons! Mentor texts — professional pieces of writing that are current and relevant to this year’s students — can guide and inspire their writing in ways that we alone can’t. Additionally mentor texts:

  • connect our writers to their passions
  • connect our writers to other writers — in our classrooms and in the real world of writing
  • equip our student writers with writing tools they’ll need throughout their schooling and after
  • provide our students with rich reading experiences
  • invite our students to read closely, many times over
  • offer interesting, authentic ways for our students to meet the standards they will be tested on at the end of the year
  • remind our students they are writers in a very real world brimming with very real writers
  • connect our writers to current events and hot topics

In short, mentor texts do everything for our students.

But perhaps one of the best kept secrets of mentor texts is that they help teachers. They can make our teaching lives easier and richer in myriad ways. One of the main reasons I am so grateful to have discovered the power of mentor texts in my teaching is because they  streamline my writing lessons and provide a natural rhythm my students and I can follow in every class period. 

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The graphic shows that mentor texts help guide the flow of every writing lesson in class and make the format of the class predictable. We know from Katie Wood Ray that predictability in a writing classroom frees our students up to do the most important thing — to write — rather than worry about what’s happening in class and if they’re going to think it’s fun. That same predictability also helps the teacher. No more late nights figuring out what activities to do with students tomorrow. I know what my lesson is going to look like before I even write it, and I have mentor texts to thank for that.

The framework is simple. You begin by introducing the big idea of the lesson in very simple terms. For example, last week I taught a lesson about endings in poetry. At the beginning of the lesson, I said, “Today you will learn how end your poems strongly — to end them with a click.” (The click part comes from poet Maxine Kumin who argues that the end of a poem should mimic the sound of a closing door: “if not the slam..then at least the click of the bolt in the jamb”.)

Then I projected five techniques writers use to bring their poems to a close (see below). Many teachers enjoy creating posters on giant-sized post it notes to display the writing lesson. Google Presentations is my preferred method, as you’ll see below, because I am not confident in my poster-making skills 😉

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This lesson fell at the end of a three-week study of poetry, so my writers were very familiar with rhyme, line breaks, and repetition. The techniques I revealed in this lesson weren’t new to them — but the way in which the techniques could be leveraged to bring their poems to a close were.

Then I said, “Please take out your mentor texts if they’re not already on your desk, so we can take a look at how some of our mentors use these techniques.”

It’s important to mention that, even though my students didn’t pull out their mentor texts until we were a few minutes into the lesson, mentor texts had entirely guided us to that point. The big idea — that writers use repetition, images, and line breaks to end their poems strongly — came from the mentor texts. Because the mentor texts always tell us what to teach. Always. (Click here for Rebekah’s post on where writing lessons come from and how we plan writing studies.)

At this point in a writing lesson — after you’ve introduced the big idea and various techniques for achieving the effect in your writing — there are several ways to directly infuse the lesson with mentor texts:

  • Have students annotate the writing directly in their mentor text packets

This is my go-to method of inviting students to examine the techniques being used by our beloved mentors. Students simply take out their packets, and as you explain each technique in more depth, students  underline, highlight, or use colored pencils to mark the examples in their texts.

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Jillian A’s annotated mentor text

I know we’ve had a great writing study if, at the end, my students’ mentor text packets are worn and dog-eared — maybe even falling apart and in need of a new staple. That’s because we’re digging into these packets on a daily basis, reading each mentor text closely dozens and dozens of time, sucking every last drop of inspiration and guidance out of them.

  • Have students create a visual in their writer’s notebooks

Sometimes having the students directly annotate their packet can feel stale or rote — like you need something to shake up the routine. Invite students to create a visual of the lesson, including excerpts of the mentor texts. To assist them in doing this, consider printing out and cutting up a few excerpts from the mentor texts — excerpts that highlight that lesson’s techniques — so students don’t have to spend any time printing and cutting — they can simply read and think and find a good home for their mini mentor texts in their writer’s notebook.

  • Have students add lesson notes to their touchstone text

At the beginning of a study, as a way to get the beautiful language of their mentors into their heads and hearts, I invite my students to copy a full-length mentor or a favorite excerpt from a mentor text into their notebooks for safekeeping. A third option for infusing your lesson with mentor texts is to ask your students to return to this mentor text (or excerpt) and annotate it with the lesson’s techniques. Anything done in the writer’s notebook tends to feel more personalized and lasts longer because students are far less likely to lose their notebooks than their packets. Below you’ll see a four page spread of the poem Shelter that Dylan D. diligently copied into his notebook and annotated over the course of a few class lessons:

Once students have had an opportunity to think about the new skill or technique introduced and see their mentors using it, it’s time to invite them to consider their own writing and how this technique might amplify what they are currently working on them.

It’s my favorite part of the lesson — asking, “Can you find a strategic place in your writing for this technique?”

As my students boot up their laptops and turn the pages of their notebook, as they gather highlighters and colored pencils to mark their writing, as they discuss amongst themselves what they’re working on and what they think of the lesson and how it might help their writing, I always take a mindful minute to soak it in — to stand there thankful for the mentors that gave me a good lesson and the writers who will grow because of it.

How do you infuse your lessons with mentor texts? What is the flow of your writing lessons? I would love to hear from you on Twitter @allisonmarchett — or feel free to comment below!