The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 3)

One last post on how I have used mentor texts in my persuasive study in writing workshop this year.

In this post and this post I wrote about how I was able to use mentor texts to guide my students through a study of persuasive writing.  And somewhere along our journey, I realized that I had missed an incredible opportunity.  I had never asked the students to find their OWN writing mentors.  I realized that, for me, it is more important that my students learn to recognize the brilliance in the writing that surrounds them and then find a way to apply those writing strategies to their own writing than it is for them to learn the specific writing strategies that I find for them.  I want them to be lifelong learners and writers (we all say that is what we want) but I wasn’t teaching them strategies to learn how to become better writers even when an adult isn’t around guiding that learning.

So I decided I needed to transfer some of the power back over to my students.

And it was simple really. I prepared file folders with five different pieces of persuasive writing for each student.  These five pieces of persuasive writing were potential mentor texts for my students to discover.  While I LOVE the idea of releasing students into the world to find their OWN mentor texts that I have not selected for them, I didn’t think we were quite there yet and I know that persuasive writing mentor texts that are accesible for kids can be tricky to locate. So we started with some guided choice.  I gave them the five different pieces of persuasive writing and told them that they were going to have some time to find ONE piece of writing that spoke to them in some way.

Here are the pieces of writing that I included in each student’s folder:

1) An op-ed on making school start times later for middle and high school students

2) An op-ed on having healthy school lunch options

3) A speech given by a second grade student to her school board speaking up against too much testing

4) A letter written by a 14 year old girl to the LEGO company speaking up against a pink line of LEGOS for girls

5) A humorous and sarcastic op-ed about a ridiculous sounding, more convenient way to make a PB&J sandwich 

The first thing that I did is to give the kids time to just read the articles.  I offered to read the articles out loud to those who wanted to hear them read, knowing that some of the articles were too difficult for some of my readers. Some kids took me up on the offer, other kids chose quiet spots around the room to settle in and just read. There was a lovely feel in the classroom as the kids set out to read through the lens of writing craft.  Before sending them off, I told them that when I am trying to find mentor texts, I have to listen for parts of a piece of writing that make me feel something, that move me. I told them that today, they were going to try to listen to the parts of a text that moved them as readers and as writers. I wanted them to listen for ways of writing that made them think, “Hey! I could try that.”

After giving the kids time to read, we came back together and I told the kids that they were going to be in charge today of finding the strategies that authors used to support their claims and to make their writing more convincing.

I then had the kids form groups and I asked them each to choose a piece of writing to look at more closely.  I had them create the same chart in their writers’ notebooks that we had been using to look at the strategies that I had found in mentor texts in the previous weeks. They made the, now familiar, three column chart that included: text title, strategy the author used to support his/her claim, and example from the text where the author used this strategy. I told the kids that they would begin by rereading the article one more time, looking for the specific places where they saw the author using a strategy that we had not yet discovered in order to make his/her writing more persausive. I explained that they should then find a way to describe that strategy so that other writers could use it no matter what they were writing about. Finally, I wanted them to find the specific words that the author used that showed him/her using this strategy.  They were to record all of this on their charts in their notebooks.

And then I sent the kids off to work.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to go because the kids had never done this kind of work before. It is always a little scary releasing more power to the kids because you are never sure of what is going to happen.  But what I have learned is that the worst that can happen is that the kids don’t really know what they are supposed to do and then we would simply pull back together, do more modeling and try again. Most often, no one ends up crying, no one ends up hurt and we all learn a good lesson in the end.

But today. Today it was magical. The kids got it. They knew what they were looking for and they discovered incredible writing strategies.  They saw authors using humor and sarcasm, sharing memories, recognizing and refuting the other side of an argument, using one small object to stand for a larger problem, listing experts to build authority and credibility, and many other strategies that I would have never thought of.

That was where our work ended on day one. But I was so excited by what I had seen, that I knew we could go further. So the next day, we came back together and I asked my students if they would be interested in teaching the rest of the class about the new writing strategies that they discovered. In full disclosure, some students were NOT interested at all.  I want to be honest. While I was incredibly excited by the kids’ work, some of the kids themselves still didn’t see that these were REAL writing strategies. And that’s a battle that I still need to fight. After years of being convinced that teachers are the only ones who know how to teach writers new strategies, some students STILL don’t believe that they would be able to find the kinds of writing strategies that other kids might be able to use in their own writing. And I decided that this was not a fight I was going to win on this particular day. I knew that by watching other students take control and teach the class about what they discvoered, these still reluctant students would eventually come around. So the kids who were not interested, went off to work on their own writing.

But those who DID want to share what they had discovered (which was all but TWO of my students) went off to create charts that they could present to the class that would explain one of the writing strategies that they discovered. And over the next few days, it was my students who taught our mini-lessons. My students shared the pieces of writing that spoke to them, they shared the writing strategies that they discovered and some of them even went so far as to share how they planned to use these same strategies in their own pieces of persausive writing.

It was an incredible thing to watch.  The kids were such good teachers. They had so much to share with each other. There was so much learning going on. And the best part of the whole thing is that I was another learner in the room. I listened as my students shared with me writing strategies that I had never thought of before.

It was just one more reminder that amazing things can happen when we let go of the control and give our students a chance to lead. Asking my students to find their own mentor texts and teach each other from those texts is something that I want to continue to explore. If anyone has done work with this and is willing to share your knowledge with me, I would love to hear what you have tried and how it’s worked.  I have used mentor texts for several years now but have never really thought about giving the power of mentor texts over to my students. But now that I have seen what can come from that transfer of power, I can’t wait to try it again!

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