3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.

***

He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.

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Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 

 

How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

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

-Karla

 

Voice Lessons: Helping Students Find Their Writerly Voices

Mentor Texts

You might like these mentors for teaching…

Voice and style

Personal narrative

Detail, imagery, and description

Literary analysis

Writing dialog

What I like about the mentors…

  • All four of these mentor texts have one thing in common — strong and unique voices that reach through the page.
  • Each mentor is vastly different from the other, but all rely on fresh and vivid details and descriptions.
  • They are all thought provoking on some level.

So, how do you find your voice if you didn’t know you were supposed to be looking for it?

The problem isn’t that students don’t have a voice, it’s that they don’t realize they’re not communicating their unique and individual personalities on paper. My students tend to fall into the trap of the academic writing style or what I like to call “sounding smart and using big words” because I think they think that’s what I want. 

Helping students find their own writerly voice is worthwhile and rewarding. A strong and unique voice and style moves points on rubrics–separating the good essays from the great, the interesting from the intriguing, and the satisfactory from the sophisticated. But helping students develop voice isn’t all about the rubric and the score, it’s about empowering young adults to explore, create, and craft original and thoughtful writing that they can be proud of and to use their voices to express themselves and their ideas for the many years ahead of them. 

For me, voice is a strong indicator of a strong and creative thinker. I wonder if by simply allowing students to tap into their own unique voices, no matter the assignment, we get higher quality writing as a result. I’ve blogged before about some approaches I like to use to elevate student writing using repetition and narrative, and both of these activities encourage students to be intentional in their craft and approach. And Kelly has also written about teaching voice on the Moving Writers blog, which you can check out here.

But my motto for finding your writerly voice boils down to the 3 Ps: personality, passion, and persistence.

How to write a

  1. Write with personality.

I remember my mentor telling me that great student essays are conversational but not a conversation. I love this descriptor for students. Giving students permission to write in the voice in which they speak, describe, and tell stories is half the battle. Too often students are afraid to break out of formulaic structures, afraid of the perceived right way and the wrong way to write, and they are afraid of plain old failure.

Here’s one lesson to spark students’ curiosity about writing with personality:

  • Tell students they’re looking for the ways the writer conveys his or her unique voice.
  • Have them identify a short, interesting, and engaging passage from the mentor text of your choice.
  • Ask students what would sound similar or different if they were the ones narrating the passage. (For example, if my students were studying Holden Caulfield, they would probably say they’d never in a million years talk so much or use the word “phony.”)
  • Have students then write the passage in their own original voices, taking care to match the writer’s craft moves.

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Teaching High Schoolers How to Read Like Writers with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains

Fact: high schoolers love storytime. They love sitting cross-legged on a patch of carpet as the teacher reads a story from a chair, fanning open the pages of the book.

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When I told them we were having storytime, my ninth graders appeared confused at first, exchanging dubious glances around the room.

“Like in elementary school when the teacher read aloud?” someone asked.

They gathered around me on the carpet in front of the white board, fidgety at first. I held up the cover of the book. “When I Was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Does anyone want to make a prediction? What do you think this story will be about?” I summoned the calm reading voice of my mother, an amazing first-grade teacher and storybook reader, and we began.

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New Year’s (Writing Workshop) Resolutions (or, Why Didn’t I Do This in August???)

Midterms are over, and we have reached the point of the year where, inevitably, I second guess every decision I have made so far and long for a do-over. And while this year hasn’t been without its victories, I still wonder, What ever happened to that uber-planned-perfectly-balanced class I dreamed of while I sat by the pool in July?

Adding fuel to my restless fire has been my epic fall of phenomenal professional development. In November, I attended (and presented at!) my very first NCTE annual convention. A week later, I attended a whole-day workshop with Penny Kittle, my professional idol and one of the biggest reasons I stayed in the teaching profession. (I cried when I met her. Yep, I’m that person.)

Oh, I have been on a very high teaching high.

Coming off of these incredible experiences, I have synthesized all of my learning into a three-pronged attack plan for improving the thinking and writing in my classroom.  I am writing it down (and telling you) so that I will actually do it!

1) Cozying up to words, words, words

My students need to hear more words than they read or write. Why haven’t I thought of that before? If they are hearing beautiful language — the way words work together, the way words make music, the way words sound out loud — their reading will improve. Their writing will improve.

Penny Kittle and Tom Romano begin class every day with a poem. I’m beginning with a poem two days per week (on “reading workshop” days.) Students will just listen and breathe and soak up words. They will become exposed to poetry in a risk-free setting. They will be exposed to all of the things a poem can do. They might even try a collection of poetry for their independent reading. And, I hope, like Penny Kittle’s students, poetic language will start to slip into their own writing.

But wait, there’s more!

I am also planning to try something a bit experimental for a high school English classroom. I am going to read a novel aloud to my students. Teachers in lower grades do this all the time. There is loads of data that supports this practice as a way of improving student vocabulary, engagement, and passion for reading.  And yet, educators debate whether or not it’s appropriate for high school students.

Good teaching is good teaching, and if it’s beneficial for young readers then it must be beneficial for older readers, too.

Image So, I will be working Charlotte’s Web into our routine.  (Why Charlotte’s Web? Because it was all over NCTE. It felt like every session I attended mentioned my childhood favorite. Must be time to pull it off the shelf!) It should be well over everyone’s reading level.

We will use ol’ E.B. White to hear beautiful language, to reinforce the importance of re-reading at different points in ones life, to practice new skills of close reading, connect to a common text about which to write, and to just have fun with words.

2) Using media as an entry point to push thinking and writing forward

A few notable sessions I attended at NCTE used media as an entry point to close reading and critical thinking. And in a way that is more than showing-the-movie-of-the-book-as-a-day-off-when-we-are-done-reading.  Liz Lutz gave a great presentation on using Pixar films to teach critical reading. Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Maggie Roberts encouraged teachers to use popular music, commercials, and other mass media to reinforce close reading skills.

I tried it as soon as I got home, using Pixar short films to help my students review the “distant reading” strategies Kylene Beers and Bob Probst outline in Notice and Note. (Haven’t read it? Go buy this one!) They loved it, and I desperately wished that I had used the films to teach the skills in the first place.

In the new year, I will use media to lead students into deeper thinking, deeper conversation, and deeper writing — especially as we move into analytical genre studies. In fact, our “light analysis” unit in February will now be working on the analysis of a Pixar short film — a friendly way of entering the realm of serious academic writing.

3) Giving the QuickWrite a facelift

On the midterm, I asked students to share the best and worst parts of writing workshop. Overwhelmingly, students listed the QuickWrite as the part they would get rid of. This isn’t new. My students last year said the same thing.

They hate the QuickWrite because they don’t see it as useful (even when they mine it for ideas in a bigger draft). Maybe this comes from years of free-form journaling in some lower grades? Maybe I’m just not doing a good job crafting interesting prompts.

While at Penny Kittle’s workshop, I was struck by her use of the term “notebook time” to describe the beginning of class rather than “quickwrite”. This is where our first ten minutes of class is headed in 2014. A QuickWrite might be one of many things that can happen during the broader and more productive Notebook Time. I will still use QuickWrites periodically to generate ideas for the writer’s notebook, but we will also:

  • Do sentence study & imitation

  • Respond to the daily poem

  • Practice meaningful revision

  • Make meaning of short bits of media

  • Play with and make interpretations about raw data (something Penny Kittle said is a weakness noted by college professors to whom she has spoken)

I hope students will like this better — that it will feel more purposeful to them and more playful at the same time. Our writing will become more like Play-Doh, and students will see the value of working with their writing even when it doesn’t become a draft.

What are your mid-year workshop revisions? What are you substituting, taking out, adding, or re-arranging (to borrow from Kelly Gallagher)?  Leave us a comment, or, better yet, join us on Twitter to chat about our writing resolutions & goals on Thursday, January 2 at 7:30pm EST. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.

– Rebekah