Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading

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A Tour of Mentor Texts for Middle Grade and High School Boys

On weekly visits to the library with my two-year-old son I often find myself browsing the periodicals in the children’s section. From there I can spy my busy toddler as he moves from the play kitchen to the dinosaur section to the puppet show.

Recently I found myself drawn to magazines geared for boys and threw a few in my bag to take home ans peruse: Boys’ Life, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Ranger Rick.

When my brother was a kid, he used to hoard issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids. I remember a distant aunt sending us annual subscriptions to Ranger Rick. But I hadn’t seen these ancient periodicals in years. In fact, I was kind of surprised they were still in existence!

Turns out they supply some pretty decent mentor texts for our students, texts that may specifically be of interested to the boys and young men in our workshop. Below I take you on a tour of the three magazines I toted home and a few of their regular features to get you started.

Unfortunately a lot of the content I describe below is not accessible online…so get yourself to the nearest public library and fill your bag with the gorgeous slippery pages of these beloved childhood magazines!

Ranger Rick

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What it is: A children’s nature magazine published by the US Wildlife Federation. 

Target readers: Ages 7 and up

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Ask Rick 

A question-and-answer column featuring questions from real readers about science and nature. The answers present information in a kid-friendly, easy-to-understand tone and format.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-driven study: Q&A Columns 
  • Summative writing assessment: At the beginning of a new unit, students might list wonderings they have in a KWL chart. At the end of the unit, students can study “Ask Rick” mentor texts and craft responses to their initial wonderings using the knowledge they gained during the study. Bonus: nwf.org/rangerrick offers an interactive Ask Rick feature on their website.
  1. The Buzz 

two-page spread featuring highly-visual blurbs about current science and nature events.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for a genre-study: Science-y current events writing 
  • Mentor sentence study. Here are a few sentences culled from the September 2017 column–note the interesting use of colons and em-dashes!

Here’s a creepy way to think about it: Pound for pound, [spiders] could eat every person on the planet. (Page 13)

Now here’s the happy truth: Spiders don’t eat people (Page 13).

But next summer, [the wild bison] will be released to roam free–just like their ancestors once did! (Page 13)

  1. Ranger Rick Feature Article

The main feature in each Ranger Rick issue combines a multi-paragraph introduction with a strong hook and a two-to-three page visual spread presenting the rest of the content. For instance, in the September 2017 issue, the feature article looked at the “super (small) heroes” of the ocean: plankton (14). The two-page infographic spread showcased craft-ful facts printed on colorful shapes against a black background with images of different kinds of plankton floating around the word bubbles.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre Study: Infographics
  • Mentor texts for Technique Study: Strong titles and captions
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Powerful leads. Here’s the lead from the September issue:

They’re not faster than a speeding bullet. And they could never leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yet all the living things you see here are superheroes, just the same (15).

  1. Ranger Rick Adventures

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A cartoon strip that explores a hot-button environmental issue using the beloved characters Boomer Badger, Ranger Rick, and Scarlet Fox. The three-page cartoon closes with a helpful sidebar: Ranger Rick’s Field Notes (shown here as “More Facts”).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Informational Cartoons
  • Mentor Texts for Purpose-Driven Study: Writing Our Way Through Problems to Solutions
  • For teaching a minilesson on using sidebars, pull-out quotes, and other text features

Boys’ Life

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What it is:  Magazine of the Boy Scouts of America.

Target readers: Ages 6-18

3 Features for Teaching Writing

  1. Heads Up: Fast Facts

A vibrant one-page infographic presenting facts on a simple concept like “The Human Body” or “Golf.”

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre-Driven Study: Infographics
  • Mentor Texts for Technique-Driven Study: Presenting Numbers and Facts in an Engaging Way
  • Summative writing assessment: Students present information learned in a conceptual unit in a highly visual and engaging way.

2. BL Workshop

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Image from David J. Brooks’  (Illustrator) Pinterest page

A two-page how-to spread, featuring a range of DIY crafts and projects. Recent examples include “How to Make a Shoebox Solar Viewer” (August 2017, Page 44-45)) and “How to Make a Twig Number Sign” (September 2017, Page 56-57).

How to use it:

  • Mentor Texts for Genre Study: How-To Pieces
  • Mentor Texts for Technique Study: Presenting information in a list

3. Gear Guy Update

A semi-regular column that offers short, blurb-y reviews of gear readers’ might want to take on their next backpacking trip, paddle boarding adventure, fishing excursion, and so forth. This column has an online version, but doesn’t have the same impact as the visually engaging two-spread spread in the actual magazine.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Short Critical Reviews of Products
  • Mentor texts for Technique-Driven study: Persuasive, concise language

Sports Illustrated for Kids

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What it is:  A monthly kid-version of the sports magazine for adults.

Target readers: 8-15

3 Features for Teaching Writing

1. Prime Time

A medium-length profile of an athlete with section headers and images.

How to use it:

  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven study: Profiles
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on using section headers to break up a longer piece of writing into meaningful chunks

2. Freeze Frame

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A hot-off-the-press news-worthy image, accompanied by a caption and super-short paragraph explaining the photo.

How to use it:

  • Notebook Time invitation: Project a relevant, engaging sporty image, and invite students to caption it with bold, concise language.
  • For teaching a mini-lesson on strong caption writing
  • For writing about images

 

3. From the pages of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated for Kids used to print a multi-page insert with bonus material for older readers. In 2010, they scrapped this insert and replaced it with a carefully selected full-length feature article from Sports Illustrated.

How to use it:

  • For differentiating reading and writing in your classroom — inside this magazine, there’s something for everyone, including your more experienced readers and writers
  • Mentor texts for Genre-Driven studies: Feature Articles & Profiles

With the ubiquity of digital texts, we may rarely finding ourselves looking for mentor texts inside books and magazines. But these gems are surely worth a trip to the library. Do you study magazine writing with your students? If so, which magazines have you found particularly helpful and inspiring? Which regular columns do you turn to for writing instruction? Tweet me @allisonmarchett.

 

No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

Continue reading

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

A Lesson on Beautiful Sentences

There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?

My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.

After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.

So, here’s what we did…

First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?

I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After our routine writing, turn and talk, and share out, I asked students to post their best responses on the board. Here’s what they said makes sentences beautiful…

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Next, I asked them to go digging.

I gave students 5-6 minutes to thumb through the text for examples of “beautiful language,” and then write down a few examples. We then went around the room, student to student reading aloud our beautiful sentences.

Here are some some very recognizable, albeit beautiful examples, that emerged in class:

  • “All time is all time.”
  • “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
  • “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
  • “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”
  • “The queer earth was a mosaic of sleepers who nestled like spoons.”
  • “He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”
  • “The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti.”

After that, we read like readers and then read like writers.

Some guiding questions that helped:

  • What do you notice?
  • What feeling, idea, or event is the sentence conveying?
  • How does the writer do it?
  • Is there anything significant about connotation?
  • Are literary or rhetorical devices present?
  • Is there repetition?
  • What is special, exciting, powerful, or summoning about this sentence?

Then, we built our list of mentor text “noticings.”

From students of Room 729…

 

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Finally, we did some writing of our own.

I write about this often, but this is the beauty of literature as mentor texts. You read the literature, you practice close reading, you read like a writer, and you try your hand at crafting your own beautiful sentences by making concious choices. I tell my students over and again that this is how we become more mature, sophisticated, and intentional writers.

For this portion of this activity, I gave students a series of abstract words and asked them to conjure up a sentence or two that somehow conveyed the feeling or idea of the word. As always, I asked my students to let the mentors be their guide and to use their list of “noticings” to inspire their work.

With this scaffolding and rule of thumb in mind, we wrote about WARMTH, about HOPE, about DESPAIR, about SATISFACTION, and about INEVITABILITY.

Here are a few beautiful sentences written by a few of my very lovely students (who I am grateful to for allowing me to share here):

For Warmth by Jillian C: Warmth is something that cannot always be found under blankets, or in front of heaters, or between the arms of another. Sometimes it cannot be sold or borrowed or stolen. So ignite.

For Hope by Madison B: The potential was proven when all at once, humanity became whole.

For Despair by Sydney B: At night she navigated the den that was her mind; the wolves would arrive soon. It’s a pack mentality.

Reflections on the lesson:

– I happen to be teaching Slaughterhouse Five now, but this activity can be done with any text anywhere. There’s something fun and interesting about that for me. I suspect there’s beautiful language in unsuspecting places, and if we can get students to notice that and pay attention, that’s a win for the good guys.

– Although “beautiful” is a subjective term (in the eye of the beholder and all that), this lesson forces students’ hands in categorizing and articulating beauty in language, a frequent sentiment in AP Literature.

– This lesson hit the head and the heart. One of my favorite, favorite lines from Slaughterhouse Five that I find particularly moving, especially now, says…

“What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once…they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Ain’t that the stuff?

How do you celebrate and call attention to beautiful language in your classroom? I’d love to find out. 

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

Punctuation Study: A 5-Day Writing Study to Set the Tone for the Year

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This year, I am teaching two new grades in a new classroom in a new school with new colleagues and a new schedule. And with all that comes the delightful insecurity that comes with every new school year to some degree — the feeling that I’ve never taught anyone anything before, the fear that I won’t know what to say, the general conviction that I have no idea what I’m doing.

And sometimes that isn’t a bad thing.

Teacher insecurity can breed productive reflection and experimentation and letting go. Often, not knowing what’s going to happen next leads us to something new.

This month, after a few weeks of getting-to-know-you-and-getting-to-know-mentor-texts, not knowing what was going to happen next lead me to a new writing study that I’ve long wanted to try but never before attempted: a whole study just about punctuation.

Here’s what I taught, what students did, how I assessed it, what students thought, and why this worked so well:

Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons

 

Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Information Writing That’s NOT “The Research Paper”

AMW Karla (1)

Dear Larken,

On a recent trip back from Texas, we sat behind a couple of teenagers who were having the most incredibly mature, well-rounded, rich conversation about everything from politics to travel to education. As the plane prepared to land, and their conversation came to a close, the 15-year-old boy said to his new plane mate: All education needs to do is teach kids to love learning.

Our hearts leapt out of our chests and sunk at the same time. This statement was so hopeful and profound and somehow freeing, yet it also implied a failure on our part as educators…

How do we teach kids to love learning?

In three words: keep it real.

Make it authentic.

Less like school.

More like life. Continue reading

4 Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text: Incidental Comics

The school year is winding down—and I find myself thinking more and more of warm poolside days—yet everywhere I turn, rich mentor texts seem to come my way. I’ll find something and think, “Oh, that would have been perfect to use with ____” or “That would have worked great with ____!” Although it may be too late to use these ideas this year, I click my bookmark button and tuck them away for next year.

One mentor text I can’t wait to use is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics. Although I’m usually suspicious of most social media “suggestions,” I have to thank Facebook’s algorithm for introducing me to Snider’s work. I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across Grant Snider’s work before. As someone who loves the way words and pictures can work together, whether it’s through infographics or graphic novels, the moment I started browsing Snider’s work, I fell in love. And once my teacher-brain took over, I couldn’t stop imagining the possibilities for reading and writing for next year. Continue reading

F.A.Q. (Or How to Take Ownership of Writing)

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photo via imdb.com

At my school district in Michigan, we’re in the home stretch. Just a few more days of instruction, and then we’ll be on our final exam schedule. So, for this post, I planned to write about creative lessons that will keep your class engaged and fresh throughout these dog days.

 

From my past tense, though, you can probably tell by now that I’ve failed miserably in that endeavor. I’m at that point in the school year where I feel like I’m just barely making it through the school day. Creativity? What kind of crazy pie-in-the-sky teacher did I think I was? I’m trying my hardest just to maintain the basics: confer, revise, read, reflect.

Come to think of it, it’s the basics that have me so exhausted this year. I think it’s because I took on a new challenge this year at our district’s alternative high school. Instead of two semesters during each of which we teach half of a consecutive, year-long course, we teach four terms of non-consecutive classes. So, in the past, at this point in the year, I’d be in my final weeks with kids I’d known since September or, at worst, January. Now, I get a new class full of fresh faces every 10 weeks. I’ve known my current students since the end of April. The end of April! That’s when, as a teacher, I used to return from spring break and state testing, put my feet up (figuratively, of course), and settle in to cruise through into summer. This was the point of the year when I realized I was really reaping the benefits of a well-established classroom culture. Now, it feels like we’re still working on getting to know each other, yet I have to be ready to assess them and send them on to their next step.

Part of the reason why this is so exhausting to me is because I refuse to treat my classes like credit recovery. Instead of powering through content and assignments, I work to establish trust and relationships, notebooks, reading goals, intrinsic motivation, and growth mindset. I love a good ice breaker as much as anybody, but man, this is tiring!

Which leads me to my point: As I gear up for next year, I want to do more (okay, hopefully not more, but let’s say better) in getting kids to own the classroom values. Continue reading