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.

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Happy New Year from Moving Writers!

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2015 was a momentous year for us at Moving Writers: we published a book with Heinemann, and collected over 52,000 views on our blog!

This is all thanks to you, dear readers, for your support, your questions, and your continued interest and enthusiasm in our work. As a thank you, we are reposting our top five posts of 2015!

#1 So I quit grading… | October 2015

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In this post, Rebekah shares the story of her brave experimentation with doing away with grades altogether in her upper-level IB English class. She shares what she does in lieu of a traditional grading system, some student feedback, and the results so far. She promises another post in 2016 once she has gone gradeless for a full school year!

#2 Thinking about Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis | April 2015

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This post explores the problem of needing to teach literary analysis in a world in which literary analysis doesn’t really exist (outside academia). The solution: authentic mentor texts! In this post, we share our approach to culling mentor texts for teaching literary analysis. We cover mini mentor texts and whole mentor texts pulled from sources like The New Yorker and A.V. Club that highlight the skills our students need to write literary analysis in smart pop culture reviews.

#3 Mentor Texts for the First Week of School | July 2015

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This summer we compiled posts that explored the use of mentor texts during the first few days of school. In this post you’ll find simple one-day activities for kicking off the year as well as a more in-depth project called The American Teenager Project that will move you into the first writing workshop study while teaching all of the procedures and habits your students will need for a successful year of writing.

#4 Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress | October 2015

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Submission Form

In this post we share a way of tracking student progress and collecting work during a unit of study using both digital and paper media.  This post contains lots of goodies — a code for tracking student progress, conference summary sheets, writing study cover sheets, and more templates to make your life easier and your workshop smoother!

#5 A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study | May 2015

In this post we share a literature-based analysis study built on the poems of Seamus Heaney. This project offers a rich and exciting way of incorporating analysis into your classroom: analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing. The best part? No boring literary analysis essays in sight!

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Two years ago, when Rebekah and I decided to form our own two-person PLC, we had no idea it would lead us HERE. But every day we shared resources, brainstormed together, and wrote about our work.

If we could give you, our readers, anything it would be the gift of a PLC. Kick off 2016 by forming your own microPLC. Share this post with a colleague or two and commit to trying new idea in January. Then write about it!

As always, please let us know if there are topics or questions you would like us to explore at Moving Writers in the new year — leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett). We have been working on some exciting changes and additions to the blog for 2016 and are anxious to share them with you. Stay tuned for some amazing guest posts, a blog series, and more!

Love,

Allison & Rebekah

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMLike what you’ve read here? Check out our new book, just published by Heinemann, Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentors Texts. (Available here and here and here — wherever your holiday gift card takes you.)