The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about how I began this year’s persuasive writing unit by using mentor texts to get kids to think about WHY people in this world write persausive pieces of writing.  Once we had finished doing this work, the students began to choose a purpose for their own writing.  Once they knew what they wanted to convince someone to do or believe, then they thought about who their target audience would be, and finally, they thought about the type of writing that could best reach that target audience.  So while some students decided to write e-mails, others decided to write blog posts, others decided to write letters to mail, and others decided to write op-ed articles or letters to the editor to submit to local or national newspapers.

Because we were all writing different types of writing, in slightly different genres, I knew that my mini-lessons had to be more than just, “How to write a persuasive letter” or “How to write an op-ed.” So, instead, a large chunk of my mini-lessons focused on, “How do author’s support their claims?” Instead of looking at a genre specific study, we spent most of our time studying the many specific strategies that authors used in order to support the claims they were making.  Each time we read a new mentor text, we looked at one specific way that an author was able to back-up the points that he or she was making. After looking at how our authors did this, I was then able to model how I might use the same strategy in my own piece of persuasive writing (I happen to be working on crafting an email to our superintendent asking for 1:1 computing). And then, finally, I asked the kids to look at the plans that THEY had made so far and see if there was anywhere they might be able to try this new strategy out.

The plans that the kids worked on before writing were webs that they created in their writer’s notebooks. I have mostly given up on using graphic organizer templates since I find that they often stifle my students’ writing instead of enhancing it.  When I hand out ONE graphic organizer to every child, it seems to send the message that all of their writing should look the same and follow the same structure.  This just doesn’t seem to work for us. When we look at our mentor texts, we analyze their structure and we always notice that writers write in many different ways and use many different structures.  So instead of handing out a pre-made graphic organizer, I help my students to create their own graphic organizers that fit their needs and their writing topics.

Along the way, we talked a lot about how I would NEVER expect a writer (including any of my students) to use every single strategy that we uncover in one piece of writing.  Instead, they have the task at looking at their topics, thinking about their audiences and then looking for the strategies of support that would best work for them.  This is what would stop a writer who was writing about gun violence from using a strategy like humor or sarcasm. The strategy MUST match the topic.  So when I ask my students to look at their writing plans and think about if they could use a strategy or not, I really do mean that.  I do not want them using a strategy because they feel that they have to.  My expectation is that each writer is able to use a variety of strategies to support their claims based on which strategies work best for them.  This provides each writer in my room with a lot of freedom and independence. Each time I point out a new strategy in a mentor text, this becomes another tool in my students’ writing toolboxes.  They are in charge of selecting the right tool for the job each time they write.

As we analyzed a variety of mentor texts, the students had already begun work on planning and drafting their first pieces of persuasive writing. This meant that we were learning new strategies as the kids were already writing.  I used to wait until I had taught ALL of the strategies I wanted them to know before I allowed the kids to start writing their drafts. What this led to was a whole lot of time without the kids actually writing.  This year, I really shifted my thinking on this and realized that I needed to let the kids start writing and then trust that they would add in the use of the new strategies as we learned them.  And if a child finished his first piece of persuasive writing and didn’t use any of our new strategies to support his claims, then I had to trust that he would use the new strategies on his second piece of persuasive writing. And it was my job to help make sure that he would do that through conferences and small group work.  Putting this trust in my students has given them more time to write and has given more meaning to our mini-lessons since they are learning new things AS they are needing to use them.

Each time we read a new mentor text, we added it to our anchor chart along with the strategy that we saw the writer using to support his/her claim and evidence from the text that shows the writer using that specific strategy.  Here are the finished charts:

Chart 1Chart 2

These charts then hang on our writing board so that they become visual reminders of all the ways that the kids can support the claims they are making as they are writing.

So here are the mentor texts that I have used this year and the strategies that I focused on with each text.  Some of the texts are pretty old, but they are also too good to give up!

There is Only One Way to Stop a Bully — I used this op-ed to show how writers use examples to show how bad a problem is and also to show how much better the situation can become. We came back to this article when we were talkin about how writers use statistics to support their claims.

Save Our Streams (This comes from a Time For Kids writing kit and I don’t have a link for it) — I used this letter to the editor to show how writers use details to paint a vivid picture in the mind of the reader to show how bad a problem is and then to show how much better it could be.

Fifth Graders Defend Their South Shore Neighborhood — I used this op-ed to show how writers use specific examples to support the statements they are making.

Technology: How much is too much? — I used this op-ed to show how writers use their own personal life examples to support the claims they are making.

Too Much Homework, Too Little Play — I used this op-ed to show how writers use “if/then” statements in which they claim that IF you do what I want you to do, THEN these positive outcomes will occur or IF we continue to do things this way, THEN these negative outcomes will occur.  I also come back and use this op-ed to show how writers use quotes to support their claims.

The Value of Teachers — This is a pretty tough article to understand, but I use pieces of it with my students to show how writers use statistics to support what they are saying.

Using these mentor texts allows me to show my students specific strategies that they can use in order to make their writing better and in order to better support their claims.  In the past, I used to just tell my students that they had to back-up their claims, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. I used to tell them that they needed more support or better support, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. Now, they have a variety of ways that they can make their writing better and their arguments stronger.  And the best part is, all of these strategies then become a part of our revision checklist.  As I have explained before, I use checklists in order to support my students in the revision phase of the writing process.  Here is what our current revision checklist looks like for this unit.  When students are finished drafting, they are expected to complete TWO items from this revision checklist in order to make their writing better. I have also become more flexible with when my students use this checklist. In trying to honor each individual writer’s writing process, I now understand that many writers revise AS they write and so I no longer require that my students use their revision checklists only AFTER they are done drafting. They are now able to use them along their writing process to help those who like to revise as they go and not wait until the end.

After spending so much time with our mentor texts, my students truly start to internalize the process of finding strategies that authors use and then using those strategies in their own writing. And because they start to understand this process so well, they are then ready to find their own mentor texts and discover their own strategies to teach to the class.  But that process will have to wait for another blog post because this one has gone on long enough and I am certain no one wants to read any more right now!

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6 thoughts on “The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 2)

  1. I don’t know if I sent you this or not, but it has some good printable exemplars for opinion writing.

    Lauren Wilburn Long National Board Certified Teacher Four Seasons Elementary/Crofton Elementary Reading Teacher ________________________________

  2. Pingback: The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 3) | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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