Students Using Their Own Pieces of Writing As Mentor Texts to Teach Others About How to Support Claims

In our last writing unit, which happened to be a study of fiction writing, I had each of my students select a mentor text from our fiction picture book bins. They read and analyzed their self-selected mentor text in order to discover what strategies the writer of that book used in order to make the fiction writing more powerful. They then planned and taught lessons to small groups of students from our class in an EdCamp style writing-workshop. I wrote about that process in THIS BLOG POST.

The kids LOVED this work and as we were nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit, one of my students asked me if we could do the same thing with persuasive writing. Now, as those of you who have taught persuasive writing to kids know, there is a serious problem with the amount of authentic persuasive writing that is accessible to kids. Finding those pieces of writing and making sure kids understand them enough to be able to analyze what the writer is doing is a huge challenge. Unlike with fiction writing, I cannot just send kids off to discover their own persuasive writing mentor texts. I have no bins overflowing with persuasive writing that I could have the kids look through.

But I still wanted to give the kids a chance to analyze a text and use that mentor text to teach their classmates strategies that writers use to make their writing better.

And then it hit me. They could use their OWN writing as a mentor text. For several weeks, we had been looking together at persuasive mentor texts that I had provided the students.  As we worked through these texts together, we looked at ways that writers supported their claims in multiple ways. We looked at the many different ways that writers provide evidence to prove that what they are saying is true. Here are the charts that we created that tracked the strategies that we discovered:

I knew that my students had started to use many of these strategies, but I also knew that they each used them in a slightly different way. I knew that some kids had used strategies that we had NOT studied all together as a class. I knew that some kids were combining these strategies to support single claims in a more powerful way. And I also knew that each child used these strategies in a more nuanced way. This is what they could teach each other. The many ways they have used these strategies and others in order to support their claims in writing.

I wanted my students to look at their own writing as a teaching tool for others AND, even more importantly, I wanted them to start to look at each other’s writing as an opportunity to learn how to become better writers.

So I thought about what they would need to do in order to use their own writing to teach each other.  In our last writing unit, I had the kids create longer lessons where they figured out a way to have students practice applying the writing strategy that they were teaching. These lessons took quite some time, so I had the rest of the class sign-up to learn in a small group for a student who was teaching a strategy that they thought they might be able to use in their own fiction writing. All of that is explained HERE.

These lessons felt different. I thought that these strategies might be a bit harder for the kids to teach and I thought that they would also take a bit less time. I was not going to necessarily have the kids practice these strategies because it is hard to pretend to support a claim when it is not something you really are writing about. For all of these reasons, I decided to have these lessons be taught whole class. Each day a few students would volunteer to teach the whole class and we would keep track of all the writing lessons we were learning. These would become additional strategies that my students could use as they were revising their persuasive writing pieces.

So, I created THIS DOCUMENT to help guide my students through the process that they would need to do in order to prepare to teach their lesson. I also completed MY OWN EXAMPLE taken from a piece of writing that I did with my students in attempting to get a class set of Chromebooks from our PTO.

After sharing my own example with the students, I also shared this anchor chart in order to help them to start thinking about the many ways we can learn from each other’s writing and what kinds of things our own writing can teach to others.

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And then I had them set off to create their own lesson plans using their own persuasive writing as a mentor text. They worked on these lesson plans for two days and then on third day they were ready to begin teaching.

Before we had our first lesson, I wanted to make sure that I spent time talking with my students about the way that they would be listening to their classmates. Often, when we have students share their writing with the class, it is as a celebration or as a means of giving the writer suggestions. This was a very different purpose. What I have learned is that I often forget to teach my students HOW they are supposed to listen. What purpose is there for them to listen today?

For this work, the purpose in listening and in giving feedback was NOT to help the writer who was sharing. Our goal was not to celebrate what a writer did well (That is, of course, a piece of this, but not the main goal). Our goal was also not to offer suggestions for the writer. Today, and in the following few days, our goal in listening and in offering feedback was to help US, the audience, as writers to think about what we saw a writer doing and share how we might use that same writing strategy in our own writing.

I used this anchor chart to help explain that and provide some language that might be helpful in offering this type of feedback:

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Before our first student lesson, we went through this chart and then began our teaching. I was nervous. It was VERY possible that this would be a flop. I had conferred with many writers while they were creating their lesson plans and I knew that some writing lessons would be clearer than others. I knew that some students really struggled to analyzing what they were doing as a writer and others really struggled to help explain their strategy so that others could understand. But I still believed it was worth the risk.

And as we began. I knew that this was a risk worth taking.

Not only were the kids just BEAMING as they taught their lessons, but listening to the rest of the class offer feedback about what they saw other writers doing and how they thought they might be able to use these strategies in their own writing, that was just amazing. What I realized is that even when a student struggled to explain his or her or their writing strategy to the class, the class was able to pick things out that they saw the writer doing and often times, this added a whole new writing strategy into the lesson. Often the writers themselves did not see a strategy that they used, but the other kids listening certainly did and they were eager to point those out.

Here are some pictures of my brilliant students teaching their lessons and also some of the anchor charts that we created to document the lessons that were taught:

In the end, not every lesson was perfect. But I will tell you that every single student learned something through this process. Whether it was an audience member or as the person sharing his or her or their writing. So much was learned. And, more importantly, so much ownership was gained over this very difficult writing process. The kids saw their own writing differently and they also saw the writing of others differently. They felt empowered as teachers and as learners.

And there was one more side effect. One that I did not realize would occur. This process, it did wonders for our writing community. Because in order to do this work, the kids needed to make themselves vulnerable in so many ways. In the writing they shared and in the feedback they gave, there was so much vulnerability. And what I know about a community is that once you are willing to be vulnerable in front of each other, the bonds between everyone in the community become incredibly strengthened.

I could not be more proud of my students and the work that they have done here. And I am fairly certain that they were also pretty darn proud of themselves.

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