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

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

Reader Mail: How do you balance writing and reading instruction?

“Would you rather teach only writing or only reading?”

The question my husband asked me during a marathon session of Would You Rather (we were driving from Virginia to Maine).

“Writing. Hands down.”

From the time I was a little girl, I’ve kept diaries, written letters to friends near and far, submitted poems to contests. In high school my mom made spiral-bound books of my writing, distributing copies to grandparents. In college, I majored in English with a concentration in poetry writing. I went to used bookstores and church books sales on the weekends, filling my backpack with the words of writers I’d read over and over again so I could become more like them. Today I teach writing to high schoolers and have written a book about writing instruction for secondary teachers.

Most of my English teacher friends decided to become English teachers because of a love affair with reading. I followed my passion for writing all the way to the classroom.

Although my love for writing and teaching writing is steadfast, answering that question – would I like to teach only writing or only reading – brings with it some discomfort and guilt. Shouldn’t I want to teach both equally? Shouldn’t I BE teaching both equally?

It’s not that I don’t like to teach reading. For one thing, I know that “writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing” (Annie Proulx). I also know that reading in and of itself is important (and I looooove to read…it’s what lead me to writing).

When I trace my predilection for teaching writing back to its roots, here’s what I find:

I see my students 3-4 times a week for 46 minutes. There are not enough days in the year, hours in the day, minutes in the hour to explore the incredible worlds of writing and reading fully – to teach both writing and reading well. So I would choose writing. I have the motivation and the resources and the education to teach reading and writing well. But I don’t have the time. And time is everything.

Enter reader mail from Dan Harris in Peabody, Massachusetts who shares the same frustration as I do:

How do you handle reading (i.e. independent, whole-class novel, etc.) in your classroom? Do you do a reading workshop during your writing workshop? I’m finding myself loving the writing workshop that I believe I am neglecting a bit the reading aspect. My students are doing a lot of self-selected independent reading. How are you able to find a balance?

So what are we to do? We have to teach writing. We have to teach reading. We have a very limited amount of time.

This question has two answers:

  • When we teach writing, we are also teaching reading.

I want to circle back to the Annie Proulx quote: Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of writing.

Teachers who use mentor texts to guide and inspire student writers know this to be true.

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Students reading mentor texts out loud in partners

In a classroom that puts mentor texts at the center, students read all the time. In the immersion phase, students are introduced to professional, current, relevant pieces of writing in the genre in which they are about to write. They read these pieces like writers, noticing what they look and sound like, and how they are put together. During this phrase, writers may also glean ideas for their own writing.

As writers move from the immersion phase to planning and writing, they read the mentor texts again, this time with a more focused purpose. In this phrase, students read to learn how:

  • to add detail to their writing
  • to structure their writing
  • to put voice into their writing
  • to write powerful leads and endings.

Then, as students continue to write and revise and write and revise as they work towards publication, they return to the mentor texts yet again, reading to learn how to:

  • punctuate their writing
  • use presentation elements (headings, images, etc.) to strengthen their writing.

In every phase of the writing process, students are reading. Closely. Repeatedly. For different purposes. They are never not reading.

The second way to think about the writing-reading balance:

  • We don’t have to teach literature and writing simultaneously. We can teach one thing, and then the other.

When teachers ask about how we balance reading and writing instruction, they’re usually referring to a different kind of reading – not the reading our students do in service of their writing – but reading for reading’s sake. Reading as literature study. Teaching novels.

And for me, this is where the guilt sets in. Because while I know I’m doing a lot of reading instruction with my students in writing workshop, it’s this kind of reading instruction that sometimes gets sacrificed in my classroom because of time constraints.

Over the years, in an attempt to strike the perfect reading-writing instruction balance, I have tried many different approaches. Here are approaches I’ve tried and the pros and cons of each.

  • Teach one semester of writing and one semester of reading

In this approach, students write in multiple genres (and read copious pieces in those genres) in the fall. In the spring, students study novels/whole books, and possibly write about them, too.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue — instead of “What in the whole universe should I teach tomorrow?” the question is smaller for a whole semester: “What writing lesson should I teach tomorrow? What reading lesson should I teach tomorrow?”

–       You can devote all your time and energy to teaching one thing and one thing only each semester

–       Students find a rhythm quickly when the flow of the class is predictable and consistent (all writing all the time, or all reading all the time)

–       The other subject can be used to support/extend the primary subject (if you teach writing with mentor texts, students are getting reading instruction as well; students can write about their reading in the reading semester)

–       In a writing study, students aren’t reading literature (and vice versa)

–       In a reading study, students are producing full pieces of writing

–       In my experience, students have produced fewer published pieces of writing (5-6 instead of 7-8 when writing happens throughout the year)

–       If you start with a semester of reading, students wont’ have the writing skills to write smartly about what they’re reading

–       If you start with a semester of writing, a whole semester will pass before students are really digging into literature…

  • Devote a few days a week to each subject

In this approach, students write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; they study literature on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Pros

Cons

–       No more decision fatigue!

–       Students know what to expect when they come to class – it’s a writing day or a reading day

–       Adds variety to the week – you’re not doing the same thing every day

–       You get to teach writing and reading evenly throughout the year

–       If a student is out sick two days in a row, he will not miss more than 1 day of instruction in either subject

–       If you don’t finish a writing lesson, you have to wait two days to complete it

–       If you’re teaching writing MWF, and Monday is a holiday, five days will pass before you can teach writing again

–       Switching back and forth between subjects can be exhausting

–       One subject gets more time and energy (whichever one you teach MWF)

–       Students don’t get consistent daily practice in genre writing or literature study

  • Alternate full writing and reading cycles

When you alternate writing cycles, you teach one writing study over 3-4 weeks, followed by a reading study of 2-3 weeks. Then you teach another writing study. Then you teach another reading study. And you move through the year in this way, alternating writing and reading cycles.

Pros

Cons

·      No more decision fatigue!

·      You can focus on one subject, and put all your energy into it, for 2-4 weeks at a time

·      Students quickly develop a writing or reading rhythm

·      You devote equal-ish time to both subjects by year’s end

·      During a writing cycle, students aren’t reading any literature (unless they are choosing to read outside of class, which some do)

·      During a reading cycle, students aren’t doing any longer pieces of writing

No matter the approach you choose, you’ll want to find small ways to tap into both subjects – and it’s not hard to do since the two are so closely linked:

In a reading day/semester/cycle:

In a writing day/semester/cycle:

·      Begin class with Notebook Time – daily opportunities for students to play with ideas

·      Invite students to work in their notebook for homework

·      Close the reading cycle by asking students to write about what they have read

·      Have students produce short reflective responses about their reading

 

·      Begin class with 10 minutes of independent reading (s

·      Keep homework simple: assign 10-15 minutes of reading each night

·      Focus on the skills of close reading during mentor text immersion

 

In a perfect world, students would take two year-long English classes: one literature course (in which they write about what they are reading) and one writing course (in which they read copiously in the genres in which they are writing). But until this dream situation becomes a reality, we need to be creative and flexible in our approach.

While none of the above scenarios is perfect, they all strive for balance in teaching the language arts, and they honor the ways in which reading and writing feed one another – and how they feed us.

~ Allison

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Using Art to Teach Repetition in Writing and Reading

Students are great barometers of lesson effectiveness. At the end of each writing workshop genre study, I ask students to reflect on the lessons that had an impact on their thinking and writing. When asked which mini-lesson she found to be the least helpful in our memoir genre study, a student wrote:

The mini-lesson I found least helpful was Narrative Transitions. It didn’t really help to show me how to actually do it. We saw and talked about narrative transitions in a more helpful and understanding way in mentor texts and other mini lessons than the actual Narrative Transitions mini-lesson.

The Narrative Transitions mini-lesson was a direct instruction writing lesson. The “mentor texts” and “other” lessons she refers to were reading mini-lessons. Savannah’s reflection is a powerful testament to the inseparable link between reading and writing instruction. It serves as a reminder that reading instruction can have a more significant impact on student writing than direct writing instruction itself.

Below I outline a “reading lesson” that uses art to sharpen students’ writing skills.

The Inspiration

The other night, I stumbled upon a compelling passage in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. In this scene, Ari, the main character, presses his father to talk about his brother Bernardo, who has been in jail for several years. In a fit of discomfort, Ari’s dad pulls the car over, and Ari observes:

He nodded. He got out of the car. He stood out in the heat. I knew he was trying to organize himself. Like a messy room that needed to be cleaned up. I left him alone for a while. But then, I decided I wanted to be with him. I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.

        “Dad, sometimes I hated you and mom for pretending he was dead.”

        “I know. I’m sorry, Ari. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” (283)

As I read this passage, my eyes backpedaled over the line “I decided I wanted to be with him,” honing in on the word “decided.” It jumped off the page as I noticed another occurrence of it in the next line. Then, I suddenly became aware of the numerous iterations of the word “alone.” And the repetitive syntax of the first few lines: “He nodded. He got out. He stood out.” I paused, happy to slow down and savor the craft.

And in my slowing down, I began to rehearse a lesson on repetition for workshop later that week:

Good writers use repetition to emphasize important ideas. Good readers notice repetition and link these words to larger themes in a text.

The Planning Stage

I spent a few days pondering how to teach repetition. How to reframe it. How to show my students that repetition is more than restating. That purposeful repetition is one of the writer’s best tools for conveying her purpose and the reader’s best tool for discovering it. (As a side note, in Notice and Note, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst teach intentional repetition as “Again and Again,” signpost #5.)

And that’s when I stumbled upon  an EDSIDTEment lesson on repetition in visual art. I strive to “think big” and present lessons in terms of broader, universal ideas, so I was thrilled to stumble upon this lesson, which took repetition to a whole new level:

Visual repetition in some ways acts like an echo. There is frequently one feature (often this is the object that is in the foreground of the painting) that appears as the “original,” with additional recurrences seeming to repeat—to echo—the first. You may ask students to think about what happens when they hear an echo. They hear the first sound, they then turn their attention to the echoed “response,” and soon begin searching with their ears for additional recurrences. Visual repetition can have the same affect [sic]: the recurrences of the visual “echoes” draw a viewer’s attention to that point in the image, and soon they are searching with their eyes for additional references. In this way repetition is often used as a tool by artists for guiding the viewer’s eye around the canvas. (“Repetition in the Visual Arts”)

I decided to use the idea of “guiding the [reader’s] eye around the canvas” as a framework for presenting my lesson.

The Lesson

Following the EDSITEment lesson fairly closely at first, I began by sharing the point of the lesson:

Today we’re going to look at how artists use repetition to echo important ideas. We’re going to start with visual art, and as we look at these paintings together, I’d like to you to think about the following questions: Where do your eyes go first? Where do you see additional recurrences of that color or shape?” Please jot down your observations in your writer’s notebook. I will give you some time to think on your own first and some time to share in your group before we share out.

We looked at Monet’s Palazzo del Mula Venice. (Click here for my PowerPoint with the artwork and line drawings from the EDSITEment lesson plan.)

Students recorded observations in their notebooks; then they shared with their table partners. Volunteers came up to the board and pointed out what they saw:

  • The blue posts flanking each door

  • The windows in this same blue

  • The gold and yellow tones on the building, reflected in the water

  • The boats in the foreground–it took some discussion before a student recognized these as gondolas

  • The horizontal lines segmenting the buildings into stories

Next we studied the line drawings, which, like the outline of a paper, revealed underlying patterns in the artwork, highlighting repeating shapes and colors in the design.

We repeated this activity with three other pieces of art. Students were getting out of their chairs to get a better view. Some with backgrounds in art were leading the discussion. The classroom was abuzz.

Then it was time to make the art-writing connection. First, I shared the repetition-as-echo analogy, explaining how repetition works like an echo in that it draws the reader’s eye and ear across the page, in search of other occurrences of the pattern.

Then I gave them a pretty standard definition of repetition–a device in which words, sounds, and ideas are used more than once to enhance rhythm and to create emphasis–which they copied into their writer’s notebooks.

Next, I projected the excerpt from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and I did a think-aloud to show students how my eyes, brain, and ears had moved across the page as Sánez drew my attention to something important and then emphasized his point through repetition. My script went something like this:

When I’m reading a really good book, I get lost in the story like you do. But sometimes my eyes catch something, and I want to slow down…like when I read this passage the other night. Suddenly I noticed the word “decided,” and then I saw that it was repeated in the next sentence. I became curious.  I know that writers don’t repeat the same word in such close proximity unless they are trying to get us to pay attention to something important. Suddenly I knew this car scene with his dad was going to be more than just a car ride, and I became eager to slow my reading down and look for other clues.

Aristotle

My talk-aloud continued as I pointed out additional instances of repetition, being sure to connect the concrete technique to the abstract ideas of the text:

  • syntactical repetition in first few sentences: “He nodded” “He got out” “He stood” — underlines the narrator’s close reading of his father, moments before his “aha”

  • “sorry” appears four times, underscoring the dad’s guilt

  • “alone” appears three times, representing the disconnect between father and son

Next, I showed them the “line drawing” of this passage (which I made simply by “whiting out” all non-repetitive text and leaving the repetition in black font), so they could get the full effect of the intentional repetition. A communal “ohhhh” echoed throughout the room as I revealed the underlying structure of the passage.

Not only did it “look cool” on the screen, but it made my close reading of the text visible for students, and opened up lots of possibilities for them as writers.

“Ok, so now we’re going to…”

They finished my sentence with their actions, plunging eager hands into backpacks. Soon everyone had a book on their desk, ready to locate meaningful repetition in their own books.

A few days later, I used this lesson as a springboard for talking about logical transitions. Reading an editorial together, students noticed how writers use key words and repetition to create logical transitions between paragraphs. And so they set to work on their own pieces, using repetition to bolster their arguments and move their readers from point to point.

The Reading Writing Connection

This year I teach Writer’s Workshop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Reader’s Workshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But my student’s thoughtful evaluation, and the success of this lesson, reminded me that good instruction doesn’t fit neatly into “writing lesson” and “reading lesson” boxes. Thinking like writers informs our reading. Reading like artists informs our writing. And making the connection between reading and writing more obvious makes a difference.

How have you used reading instruction to bolster student writing? Please leave a comment to share an idea!

~ Allison