There is no one single thing that has enhanced my writing workshop as much as using mentor texts. Mentor texts have allowed me to show my students that the writing that we are doing in class, matches the writing that is done in the world outside of our classroom. Mentor texts have allowed me to show students the many different ways that writers craft their texts. Mentor texts have allowed me to fight the message that many of my students have received by fifth grade that writing should all look one way, use one structure, and use one set of rules. And mentor texts have also allowed me to expose my students to specific strategies that they can use in their own writing in order to better affect their readers.
Essentially, mentor texts helped me to finally figure out how to teach kids to be better writers instead of just asking kids to write more.
But not until this year, have I realized that there are even more uses for mentor texts. This year I have learned that I can use mentor texts to help show students the many purposes for writing. I also learned that I can use mentor texts to help empower students to seek out their own writing mentors in the world around them.
We are in the middle of a study on persuasive writing. In the past, I have always asked students to write personal persuasive letters first (asking for something for their own benefit) and then to write op-ed articles (asking for something for the benefit of the world around them). This year, I took a different approach. This year I began our study by bringing in a wide variety of persuasive writing from the world around me. I brought in flyers that were distributed by Ferguson protesters to explain what it was they were asking for and why. I brought in a letter written by a young girl to Dick’s Sporting Goods asking them to put more women and girls in their catalogues. I brought in a letter written by a 3rd grader to President Obama asking for him to make stricter laws on guns. I brought in an op-ed written by 6th graders that was published in a local paper asking for the school to increase the time of their lunch period. I brought in another op-ed written by 5th graders who live on the south side of Chicago writing to show people that they are more than just the violence that is often reported on the news. I even brought in a letter written to Google by a child in crayon asking them to give her dad a day off.
I had the kids break into groups in order to investigate each of these texts. I asked the kids to think about why each writer, or group of writers, wrote each piece they were looking at. I asked the kids to think about what target audience the writer was trying to reach, what the writer was hoping to accomplish with each piece and how the writer was reaching their audience. They wrote up their responses on a Google Slides presentation.
Before even looking at the CRAFT of these pieces of writing, I wanted the kids to just sit with the idea of the PURPOSE of each of these pieces of writing. I wanted them to take time to think about the world outside of school and all the reasons there are to write a piece of persuasive writing even if no one tells them to do so. I wanted them to see what motivates people to write outside of school. I wanted them to see that people are able to have their voices heard through the use of writing. Only then, did we start to think about our own topics for writing.
When students began to think about the writing that they wanted to do, I asked them to think about their target audience, what they wanted to convince their target audience of AND what is the best way to reach their target audience. This eliminated everyone feeling like they had to write a persuasive letter or everyone feeling like they had to write a blog post or everyone feeling like they had to write an op-ed article. However, I was only able to ask them to think about this question because they had already seen examples of different types of writing that are found in the world. They already had seen examples of how different types of writing will work best to reach different kinds of audience. So if a child wanted to convince his mom to get him a new dog, it made more sense for him to choose to write a letter. But, if a child wanted to convince our country that we need to plant more trees, then it made more sense for her to choose to write a blog post or an op-ed article. Now, the type of writing was selected to match the purpose of the writing and not just because it was the type of writing that they were told to do.
What I noticed was that the topic choices seemed more genuine than they have been in the past. There was more urgency to write and there was more passion behind what they had selected to write about. Bringing in examples of so many different types of persuasive writing found in the world seemed to open up a world of possibilities for my students.
After topics were selected, then I needed to bring in even more pieces of persuasive writing to use as mentor texts to help my students to see HOW to write in a way that will allow their voices to be listened to and really heard. As students moved through the writing process at their own pace, I wanted to help them to build a toolbox full of specific strategies that they could use to support the claims they were making, based on the specific strategies that we saw other writers using in their persuasive writing. I will share that work in another blog post!