Giving the Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 2): Teaching Students To Find Their Own Mentor Texts

I just finished writing the first part of this little series. It describes the beginning of our work in our fiction writing unit and how I discovered the power of handing the writing process back over to our students.  If you are interested, you can find it HERE.

Once I saw how powerful it was to have students analyze pieces of fiction writing in order to find their own ways of using details, I wanted to help give them a process through which they would be able to find their own fiction mentor texts, analyze those texts, discover new writing strategies and then apply those strategies to their own writing. I knew that in the end I wanted them to teach the strategies they discovered to their classmates.

So before asking them to go through this process on their own, I had to stop and really think about the process that I go through when I am selecting mentor texts. How could I make this thinking visible for my students so that they could become more independent writers. I wanted them to know a process that they could continue to use without me, so that they could continue to grow as writers no matter where they were.

So I thought about what I do when I am trying to do a new kind of writing. For example, when a coworker asked me to write a letter of recommendation, the first thing that I did was to look for examples of other people’s letters of recommendation. I then read those examples as a writer and tried to name what the writers were doing. Then I tried to apply those strategies to my own letter.

This is what I needed to teach my students to do.

So I created this chart:

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Now that I had solidified the process for myself, it was time to walk my students through it.

So I began, as I always do, by explaining the work we would be doing, explaining the brilliance that I saw in their work that they had just finished, and then acknowledging that what we were about to do would be tough work, but work that would push them so far as writers.

And then we jumped in. I first shared with them an incredibly powerful book that I know we will come back to many times. I told them that I chose this book book because when I first read it, I was blown away by the writing. There were parts that I had to stop and reread because the writer had done such powerful work. I told them that those were all signs that this could be a mentor text for me.

I then shared the book with them. The book was Bird by Zetta Elliott (which, if you have not yet read, you must, because it is simply amazing). The book is really heavy and intense and also beautifully written. So I told them that I had to read the book once to appreciate the power of the story and then a second time to think more carefully about what the writer did.

And then I sent them to go and explore all of the fiction picture books that we have in our classroom library (which is a lot!). I wanted them to focus on picture book because I wanted them to have a short piece of text that they would not be overwhelmed by. I told them to read like writers today. To listen for that little voice that says, “Wow! This writing is amazing!” I told them that when they heard that writer voice within them, they would know that the book they were reading could be a mentor text for them. I asked them to mark the cover of those books with a sticky note with their name on it. That is all they needed to worry about on day 1.

So they set off. All around the room the kids tucked themselves into comfortable spaces and searched for their own mentor texts. It was quite a beautiful sight!img_4111

And by the end of our work time, every single child had found a mentor text (or two!).

So the next day, I returned to the book Bird. And this time I showed them that the book had been filled with post-it notes. I told them that I took the book home with me the night before and went through the book again. This time, I stuck a post-it note next to each chunk of writing that really called out to me. I asked myself, “Where do I see this writer doing something that makes the writing better and that I can do in my own writing?” Those were the places I marked. Once I had marked several places, I then went back to each post-it note and tried to put into words WHAT the writer was doing. I tried to name the writing strategy that I saw. I shared several examples of my post-it notes with my students. Here are some of the examples:

I told my students that today, they would be going back to the mentor texts they had selected the day before. Today they would go through their mentor texts again, this time armed with a pad of post-it notes. They would go through the process that I had gone through and they would discover their own writing strategies in their own mentor texts.

Again, this was difficult work. I knew that. I supported my students by conferring during their work time and by sharing the successes that I noticed with the entire class. At the end of the day, I looked through the work that my students had done and while a few students had found AMAZING strategies, there were also a lot of students who missed the idea. Which makes sense.  This is hard. Here were a few strategies they discovered:

This was one of those moments that I was tempted to just give up. Maybe share one of the few good examples and then go back to taking control. But I knew there was too much good here to quit. So instead, I thought about what was missing from the strategies my students found. I realized that they had marked AMAZING pieces of writing. The trouble they had was putting into words what the writer was doing. Which, again, makes sense because they had never been asked to do this work before. And this work is hard. So I decided that the next day, I would help them to revise their strategies.

The next day I shared with them what I had noticed and said that I had a few questions that I thought we could ask ourselves about each of our strategies to figure out which strategies we needed more work on.

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I shared with them the questions, had them go back to their strategies and asked for some brave volunteers to share some strategies that they maybe needed to revise. A few kids were willing and we revised the wording of a few strategies all together.

I then gave the kids time to work on revising their strategies and asked them to share some strategies that they thought would work for writers. Here are the incredible strategies they came up with in both of my classes:

So now we had our strategies. The next step was to try and apply these strategies to our own writing. So again, I went back to the text Bird and I went through each strategy that I had labeled. I shared my thinking as I worked to select one strategy that I knew I could immediately apply to my own fiction writing. I chose a strategy, pulled up my writing in front of the class, and had them watch as I changed my own writing in some way because of the writing strategy that I had seen in my mentor text. I then shared THIS FORM with my students and showed them how I used it in order to keep track of the work I was doing. We would be keeping track of this work because we would eventually be using it to teach a writing lesson to our classmates.

And then I sent the kids off to work. They were to first select a writing strategy from their own mentor text and then go into their own fiction writing and find at least one place where they would be able to use this writing strategy. I asked them to mark each place in their writing with a comment in GoogleDocs so they would be able to find these places again easily.  Again, I conferred with students as they worked and was amazed, yet again, by how quickly my students were owning these strategies. There was just such a difference between when I taught a new strategy and when these kids discovered a new strategy on their own.

The next day, I shared with my kids that they would each be teaching their writing strategies to a small group of classmates. The idea was that they would be teaching new strategies to their classmates that their classmates would be able to use as they revised their fiction stories.

In order to teach these lessons effectively, I asked each child to create some type of visual to use as they taught their lessons. This could be an anchor chart, a smaller poster, a hand out or a Google Slides Presentation. I did not care what they made, I just wanted it to help them show a small group of students what their strategy was and how other writers could use it. I shared an example that I had made. It had my strategy listed, the lines in my mentor text that used that strategy, the lines in my OWN writing that used that strategy and some suggestions on how and when other writers could use that strategy. I also suggested (but did not require) that kids think of some way for their small group of students to practice using the strategy.

And then the kids set off to create their own visuals. They were fantastic. All of them. Truly. I was really impressed with the work they had done.

And then finally, it was time to teach. Last year, I had used an Ed-Camp model to have my students teach each other new writing strategies (though it was not done in such a deliberate way as this year). I knew how successful it was and so I wanted to use this method again. Basically, each day, three new volunteers offer to teach a session. They tell us what strategy they will be teaching and what their group members will need to bring to the lesson. As they go off and set-up, the rest of the class signs-up for the lesson they think will be most helpful to them as writers. In order to ensure that each session will have an even number of students sign-up, I create only enough spots to evenly distribute the class amongst the three groups. Once one session is filled up, students need to pick another session. Here are two examples of our sign-up sheets:

And then for the next five days, my students took over teaching new writing strategies. Some lessons were short and others were long. When the groups were done, they just moved right into their writing time. Each time they went to another session, they added the writing strategy to their REVISION CHECKLIST. You can find a copy of our revision checklist HERE. The first page was filled in by each individual student and the second page is a list of all the writing strategy lessons I taught to the kids.  This way, they were able to keep track of all the strategies that they were learning and would be able to choose to apply these strategies to their own writing when they were ready to revise. They never were required to apply a strategy, it just became one more option in a list of possible writing strategies they could use to make their writing better. (I will explain more about the revision checklist in the next post).

The lessons that the students taught were amazing. The kids were all incredibly engaged. The teaching was brilliant and I was simply blown away by these kids.

Here is just one example of a lesson that a student taught and then the short piece of writing that she had her group do together in order to practice the writing strategy that she was teaching:

 

And again I was impressed at how quickly kids began not only apply their OWN strategies to their writing, but also at how quickly kids began to apply EACH OTHER’S strategies to their writing. It was so powerful to watch as kids ran their computers over to their classmates just to show them how they were using what they had taught them.  It was really powerful to witness.

Sometimes, we become so focused on what we need to teach our students, the skills, the strategies, all the minutia, that we forget that one day they are going to know how to learn without us. And I think that our greatest hope in helping them to do that is to teach them the process that allow them to be independent learners. We cannot simply say that we want them to be life-long learners, we have to actually help them to do that. We have to teach them the processes that will allow them to do carry on their learning whether we are standing there next to them or not.

Watching my students teach these lessons, I felt so confident that this learning was not going to end when they walk out of my door at the end of the school year. This was learning that they could carry with them and use to help them continue to grow as writers as long as they had books near by to serve as mentors.

In the next post, I will talk about how we used these writing strategies and the idea of becoming more independent in our writing as we revised and self-assessed our pieces of fiction writing.

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6 thoughts on “Giving the Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 2): Teaching Students To Find Their Own Mentor Texts

  1. Hi, Jess. Thank you for this thorough article about using mentor texts. I LOVE the anchor chart with guiding questions, the philosophy of reading like a writer, and the use of post its to identify parts of the text students want to try out.

    Can I add in another approach that might help with analyzing the mentor texts? I learned it from the Teaching English in the Mainstream course. It’s called the Split Screen approach. On one side of the “screen” (aka, a sheet of paper), students are finding parts of the text that supports your guiding question #1. Then, on the other side, students are writing down the phrasing and language that helped make this sentence effective.

    This approach has significantly helped my ELs learn things such as the structure of a paragraph and how to use transitions. I write about it here http://www.empoweringells.com/2016/10/29/mentor-texts/ .

    Again, THANK YOU for your post. Will be tweeting it out!

  2. Pingback: Giving The Writing Process Back to Our Students (Part 3): Revision | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  3. Pingback: Students Using Their Own Writing As Mentor Texts to Teach Others About How to Support Claims | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  4. Thank you for taking the time to write this, it’s incredible awesome. Students are engage, they are taking ownership of their learning and I really like the idea of an EdCamp model in the classroom. This is really meaningful and powerful. I will be sharing this with other teachers, thank you!!!

  5. Wow! This is an amazing series of lessons. I love the way you hand the reigns over to your students and let them take charge of their own learning. Great way to incorporate an Edcamp model into your classroom and to truly inspire your students. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

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