The Students Become the Teachers

One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year is watching as the students become the teachers. All year, I have modeled for my students how to read like writers and how to learn from the writers we love. And now, this is something that my students know how to do on their own. So it is time to let them show me.

Our final writing work of the year involves informational writing. Our first project was to create our own, student-written website that resembles the brilliance of the website Wonderopolis.  As we did this work, my students had a chance to select their own mentor texts, analyze those mentor texts and then teach the writing strategies they discovered to their classmates. You can read about that work HERE.

For our next unit, we started to work on creating longer pieces of informational texts.  As we began this work, each student selected his/her/their own mentor text. Here is an explanation of that process.

As the students got farther along in their research on the topics they chose to write about, I knew it was time to start thinking about how they were going to write. One of the biggest challenges that I have found with my 5th grade writers is helping them to do more than write a giant list of organized facts and instead write something that is interesting, clear and even evokes an emotional response from the reader.

The best way that I know how to help my students learn to write this way is for them to look to the incredible informational picture books that we have in our classroom and in our library.  So as students started moving from researching into writing, I asked them to pull back out the mentor texts that they had selected. I asked them to especially pay attention to the mentor texts that they had selected for writing style.

I began by sharing my own mentor text, RAD American Women A-Z. I put a copy of a page from this text under the document camera and also gave a copy to each child. We read through the page together first without stopping. Then I told them I was going to go back and look for any parts of the writing that seemed like MORE than just a listing of facts. I was looking for places where the writer did something that helped make the information clearer to the reader or that helped make the writing more interesting or that helped the reader to feel some kind of emotion. I marked the writing strategies that I found and I asked the students to do the same thing.

Then, I told the kids that they were going to look more closely at their own mentor texts in order to find the writing strategies that their writers used. I shared with them that if they were no longer feeling inspired by the mentor texts they had chosen, then they should go choose new ones. Find something that moves you and then figure out how that writer did what he/she/they did. We discussed that while we cannot steal the words of other writers, we can indeed steal their strategies. That is how we become better writers.

So the kids headed off to analyze their mentor texts and to discover new writing strategies.  They kept track of what they found HERE.

The next day, I pulled out another one of my mentor texts. I reminded them that on the first day of my work, with the mentor text RAD American Women A-Z, I saw my writer use stories to show something important about the topic.  In my second mentor text, Incredible Inventions, I saw a totally different writer, using the same writing strategy to write about a totally different topic. I told my students that this was important because it helped me to see more than one way to use a writing strategy. I told them that as they looked at their own mentor texts today, I wanted them to see if they noticed two different writers using the same writing strategy. I asked them to mark this on their charts.  And off they went again.  This seemed to help them move from simply finding interesting content, to actually finding the strategies that writers were using to make the content more interesting.

On the third day, I told them that it was now time to select a writing strategy that they had seen used in their mentor texts to teach to their classmates. We had done this in our last unit, but I realized that when we did it the last time, I did not provide nearly enough support in helping them find effective ways to teach others about their writing strategies.  So this time, I wanted each student to come up with a lesson plan.

I began by explaining to my students one possibility for a structure for an effective writing lesson. I used this chart to help explain the gradual release of responsibility model to them:

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I also shared this chart with them in order to give them some ideas on how they could show how they might use a new writing strategy and to give them some ideas on how to have the students they would be teaching practice using this new writing strategy as well:

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I then told the kids how teachers create lesson plans so that they know how they are going to teach their students.  I told the kids that to help them to be better teachers, I was going to have each of them fill out a lesson plan as well. THIS IS THE LESSON PLAN EACH CHILD FILLED OUT.  After creating a lesson plan, I asked each child to create something for their students to look at.  Once this was made, I collected the visual aid and the lesson plan.

I did allow students to work together because I know that for some kids, leading a group of other students by themselves feels like too much.  So the kids who worked together turned in one lesson plan and one visual aid.  If the visual aid was a handout, I made copies for the students and if it was something on the computer, I just checked to make sure the teacher knew where to find it.

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It was amazing to see what a difference the lesson planning sheet had made.  The last time I had the students teach each other new writing strategies, it was a bit more of a free for all.  Some of the kids did a great job and other kids just weren’t quite sure what to do.  And that was my fault.  Of course they don’t know how to plan a lesson. I also didn’t give them enough time to plan a lesson in the past. I just sort of threw them into the work.  Having the structure of the lesson planning sheet gave the kids the direction they needed.

It took the kids about two days to plan their lessons. Some students needed more time to go back and find examples of writers using their strategies and other students needed more time to find ways to use these strategies themselves. While they were lesson planning, they were also using some of our writing workshop time to continue their research and drafting.

Today, they were ready to begin teaching. I created a sign up sheet so that we could keep track of who was teaching, what strategy was being taught and which students would be attending which lesson.  Just like the last time we did this, I only allowed five students to sign up for each session because I didn’t want there to be one session that had 12 kids while another one only had 2.  Here is what our sign-up chart looked like:


When I asked for volunteers to teach on the first day, almost every single hand went up.  I ended up having to randomly select popsicle sticks with names because everyone was so eager to go first.  The three teachers were chosen and went off to set up. I told the rest of the kids to think about the three writing strategies being taught that day and to think about their own topics.  I told them that they should sign up for a strategy that would work for their own topic.  This way, they could learn something that would actually help them in their writing.

Here was our chart after everyone signed up:


After signing up, the students went off to their groups with the things that they were told they would need.  When they arrived in their groups, the first thing that they had to do was add the writing strategy to their build-your-own revision checklist.  In our classroom, we often use revision checklists to help the students to be more independent in the revision process.  For most writing units, I create the revision checklists by listing all of the writing strategies that we have learned in a unit and then asking the students to select a certain number of strategies that will work for their own writing in order to revise.  But for this unit, the students would all be learning different writing strategies, so I created a build-your-own revision checklist. THE REVISION CHECKLIST TEMPLATE CAN BE SEEN HERE. 

After the new strategies were listed on everyone’s revision checklists, the teachers in each group began teaching.  It was incredible to listen to and incredible to watch. The language that we had used all year to talk about writing and to talk about the texts we were reading was now coming out of the mouths of these students who were assuming the role of teacher.  I watched as kids redirected the students in their groups. I listened as kids asked the students in their groups probing questions. I heard students encourage each other and make writing suggestions to each other. It was clear that these kids felt ownership over the writing process and over this writing work.

Next week, the rest of the students will have a chance to teach their lessons.  As students finish up their first drafts of their informational writing, they will move into the revision process with at least three new writing strategies to apply to their own writing, on top of the writing strategies that they have discovered on their own from their own mentor texts.

I think about how much quicker it would have been to choose four or five writing strategies  myself and to teach them to all of the students at once on my own. Some kids might have even learned the strategies better if I had taught them.

But then I think about how much the kids would NOT have learned. They would not have learned that they can learn new writing strategies on their own. They would not have learned that some of the best writing teachers they will ever find are the books that they read. They would not have learned that they have the power to learn from and teach each other. They would not have learned what it feels like to know something well enough to teach it to someone else. They would not have learned that learning from each other is one of the best ways to solidify a community. They would not have learned that they do not need me to be writers.

And all of that is so much more important to me, and for them, than the efficiency that might have come from controlling all of the learning myself.


Sources of Information versus Sources of Inspiration

We are well on our way into our informational writing project. I explained with our first work with informational writing, I wanted to make sure to find ways to give more power over to my students as we began one of our final writing projects of the school year.  When we were working on our wonder writing, I saw the power of asking students to choose and analyze and learn from their own mentor texts. For so long, I have seen the power of mentor texts to turn children into better writers. But, only recently, have I begun to realize that if I really want to teach my students to become lifelong writers, then I need to teach them how to learn from the writers they are surrounded by in their lives.

This means that instead of choosing all of the mentor texts for my students, I needed to do more work in teaching my students how to select their own mentor texts, how to analyze these mentor texts and how to apply what they are learning from these mentor texts to their own writing. So this has become a major focus of mine for this unit.

We began our unit by attempting to expand my students’ ideas of what informational writing is.  Unfortunately, by the time kids make it to fifth grade, they have been exposed to a lot of bad informational writing. They have seen textbooks and inauthentic informational writing whose purpose is purely to cover content and not to connect with readers. When we began our unit, I asked the kids to tell me what they thought of informational writing. Almost half the kids used the word, “boring.” Many of the kids said it was writing that was done in school or that it was writing that a teacher made you do.

I asked my students if they ever noticed that half of any book store that you walk into is reserved for nonfiction writing. They responded that those kinds of books were not informational writing.

Ah! So that was our problem.

So I brought it four different books that were written in four extremely different ways and we did some work to look at the topics of these books, the formats of these books and the reasons why these formats made sense for these topics. And then every day in writing workshop, for the first week of our unit, I gave the kids half an hour to simply explore the nonfiction books that we had in our classroom and to notice the things that interested them.

It was AMAZING to watch the kids dive into these books. To excitedly share the information that they were learning. To whisper in small groups about the cool ways these books were set-up. To be energized by informational writing.To laugh at the informational writing they were reading. Every day, I checked in with my writers to see how their understanding of informational writing was starting to change. And every day I was pleased to see the growth that we were making. On our final day, I asked the students to choose three books that they were extremely interested in and write about the topic, format and the reasons why this format made sense for this topic.


Once we had spent time exploring, it was time to think about our own topics. To help us determine what makes a good topic for informational writing, we looked back at the author’s notes, source notes and introductions from the four books that we examined all together for topic and format.  We pulled out the different reasons that these authors gave for why they chose to write about the topics that they wrote about.  Then we read the beautiful book, Ideas Are All Around. 


I then put the students into writing groups to discuss their topic ideas and to receive feedback. Like in our fiction writing unit, I wanted my students to have a constant group of peers that will serve as a source of feedback and support throughout our entire writing unit.  By the end of this writing unit, these writers will know each other’s writing well and will be a wonderful source of support for each other.  In their writing groups this week, the students discussed their potential topics and made a decision on what they wanted to write about after listening to feedback from their writing groups.

Once this decision was made, I wanted to make sure that I gave my students time to just grow their understanding of their topic. Too often, I rush into having my students plan out their writing and decide on subtopics, before I have given them enough time to just learn about their topics. In this way, their plans often limit their writing because they did not have time to learn the big picture first before worrying about the smaller parts.  So each day this week (the second week of our unit), I knew that I wanted to devote time to just letting them explore their topics. No note taking. No planning. Just time to learn about their topics.

In addition, I wanted each child to begin selecting their own mentor texts.  As I said earlier, I did not want to be the only person in charge of choosing the mentor texts that would help us learn to be better informational writers.

In the past, I have selected two or three authors for us to study. I have found the writing strategies that we would learn to use. I would select the passages that showed those strategies. When I did that, I was the only one learning how to be inspired by the writing of others. And then I was simply pushing my own inspiration onto my students.

This year, I wanted my students to find their own sources of inspiration. I wanted my students to learn how to learn from the writers around them and not just from me.

But to do this, I really had to step back and teach my kids how to locate and learn from their own mentor texts.

So I began by sharing my thought process with the kids on how I went about selecting mentor texts for my own informational writing project. I plan to write a book alongside my students all about chocolate. My students had already heard my thought process in selecting this topic, so now I shared with them how I selected my mentor texts. After that, we built the following chart to help us think about the many different reasons why a text might become a mentor text for a writer:


And then I gave the kids time to just go and explore again, but this time with the specific purpose of finding mentor texts.  Again, it was great to watch the kids look at the books that we have had in our room all year long that often go ignored. It was also great to listen to the conversations that they were having about these books as they looked at them through the lens of writers searching for inspiration.


As children found texts that inspired them in some way, I asked them to simply grab a post-it note, write their name on it and list the reason(s) they wanted to use this book as a mentor text. Then we began to pile these resources together. Some favorite books became mentor texts to multiple children and some books were dug out of the bins that I never would have expected.

And I guess that is just it. When I do all of the selecting of mentor texts, I am the one who is controlling the image that develops of what informational writing can look like. But when I allow each child to select mentor texts that work for their own writing, then they are able to select the best resources for themselves as writers and for the kind of writing that they want to do.

Not only that, but this also gives me hope that my students’ learning will continue without me. When we can teach our students how to learn about writing from every text that they read, then the learning can go on whether we are there or not. And ultimately, that is what I want for my students.

By the end of the second day of searching, we had three bins filled with mentor texts. And we also had a chart where we summarized the differences between our sources of information and our sources of inspiration.  We will now begin to return to these sources as we put together knowledge of our topics with knowledge of how to be a better writer. I am excited to see where these mentor texts take us!

Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

We have recently begun our study of persuasive writing. We are taking time to learn what we need to know about how writers can use persuasive writing to demand change in the world, before we use these skills to take action at the end of our inquiry circle studies.

To begin our work together, we worked on selecting audiences, the forms of writing that would best reach these audiences and the claims that we would make to these audiences that would explain the changes that we hope to make in the world.  Like last year, we began our work by looking at many different types of persuasive writing that exist outside of the school walls.   Too often, our students’ definition and image of what persuasive writing is begins and ends with a persuasive essay. In fact, outside of a school setting, the world is filled with much more interesting, purposeful, and passionate types of persuasive writing.  So to help us begin to expand our definitions, we look at advertisements, protest flyers, speeches, op-eds, letters to the editors and blog posts.  As my students begin to see the power of persuasive writing, they are better able to select the kinds of topics that are really worth writing about.

Yes, I still have students who write to their parents to ask for a puppy, but I also have students who plan to submit letters to the editor of our local newspaper in order to ask our local schools to stop separating P.E. classes by gender.  I also have students who want to write letters to congressman asking for reform in gun laws.  I also have students who plan to write to the heads of television networks asking for more diversity in their television line-ups.

I attribute this range in topics to our mentor texts.  As teachers, we have so much control over how our students view a particular type of writing. If we only share with them persuasive writing that is written for school, then they will only think that persuasive writing is done for school and for teachers.  If we only share with them persuasive writing about getting a new pet or about getting your own room, then they will only think that persuasive writing is used to ask for things for yourself.  If we only share with them essays, then their definition will only include essays.  If we only put before them the mentor texts that match the very narrow definition of persuasive writing that is expected on a standardized test, then they will only write as if they are writing for a standardized test.

And I cannot imagine that is really what we want for our students.

So I make sure, right from the start, to bring in mentor texts that expand my students’ definition of persuasive writing, not limit it.  And from there, I trust my students to make the writing choices that will help to make their writing feel meaningful and purposeful. I tell my students that I will NEVER tell them what to write about in writing workshop, no matter how much they might beg me to do so. Because the second that I take the choice away from them, I have set the tone, from the very beginning of a piece of writing, that this piece of writing is for me and not for them.

So once my students know what they want to ask for, they think of who has the power to make the change or changes in the world they are looking for. Then they think about how best to reach that person or group of people. Perhaps it is an op-ed, perhaps it is a blog post, perhaps it is a recorded speech that we upload to YouTube and then Tweet out the link to. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that we submit to the local newspaper or perhaps it is a letter that we send to a company or a television network or a congress person.  This choice cannot be made by me because this choice must reflect the purpose of their writing. The students must, again, be in control of this choice or else they will not be making an authentic choice based on the purpose of their writing. Instead they will be making a choice based on what specific type of writing has been assigned for us to practice in fifth grade.

This does not mean that I just throw out our assigned curriculum. I will still teach my students what they need to know about op-eds (which happen to be the type of persuasive writing assigned to 5th grade in my district). However, I will teach about op-eds so that my students know about one possible choice that they can make when writing to ask for change in this world.  Everything else that is really important: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, finding multiple ways to support multiple claims, these things can be taught and applied to any type of persuasive writing. It must be up to my students to choose which type will work best for them.

And once they have all of this figured out, then we talk about how every writer has to have reasons for asking for what they are asking for. We go back to our mentor texts and pull out some claims that were made and some reasons that were given by our writers to show why those claims should be believed. I share with my students my own claim and the reasons that I have thought of so far as to why my claim is valid. I share with them how I think about what change I am asking for and how I am going to prove that this change is worth making. And I share with them how I create a quick list of reasons and how then revise my list until I am left with only the strongest ones and the ones that will not repeat the same ideas over and over again. And then I ask them to do the same kind of list making and revising in their writers’ notebooks.

While my students are busy working on their lists, I tell them that I am going to hand out their graphic organizer. And this year, in both of my classes, there was an audible groan.  It was actually quite loud. There was a collective hatred for the graphic organizer. I could feel it start to fill up the room. Until, one student saw what I was handing them and then word began to spread. “Hey! This is just a blank piece of paper.” And it was. I handed every child a blank, white piece of paper. There were no pre-drawn boxes, no circles, no lines to fill in. There was nothing on the piece of paper that I was handing out and yet I continued to tell them, “This is your graphic organizer.” And I felt them all relax.

Because I do not believe that my students really loathe the idea of planning out their writing. I do not believe that my students even really mind taking time to think about what they are going to include before they begin the actual writing. I think that many of them feel some relief once they know that they have their plan already made. I think that what they have come to hate are the boxes that we make them shove their writing into. Because, once again, this takes so much power away from our writers. When we tell them that their writing has to look one certain way. When we tell them that if their ideas don’t fit into the pictures that we have drawn, then they are not going to get to write about them. When we tell them our way of writing is the only way of writing. Then of course they are going to resent that.

And it just simply isn’t how writers outside of schools write. As we rely more heavily on mentor texts from the world outside of school, then we see that there are many ways to write. There is no one formula that writers in this world follow. Are there essential elements? Yes. Are there common structures? Yes. Is there always some system of organization? Yes. But writers make those choices based on what they have to say and we have to let our students make those same choices.  We have to fight the formula, by instead focusing on how writers in the world choose to structure their writing and then allowing our students to make the choices that best fit their own writing.

This is how we empower our students as writers. We allow them to make the choices that make the most sense for them and for their writing.

I shared with my students the way that works best for me to organize my writing. I told them that I start with my claim in a circle in the center of my paper. And then I make a simple web with lines and circles going out from the center. And I draw enough circles to contain the reasons that I have listed in my notebook to support my claim. And then I ask my students to create an initial plan for their own writing. I tell them that as we learn new ways to support our reasons, we will come back and add to our plans in a way that makes sense for us.

And then they get right to work creating their own plans. Making their own choices.

So they have their main claim, they have their audience, they have their type of writing and they have some reasons why they believe in their claim. And they even have the beginnings of a plan. And then it becomes SO tempting to hold them back from actually writing. I want them to know everything they need to know about good persuasive writing before they begin. I want them to know what they need to know about how best to begin their writing, how to support their claims in interesting ways, how to use statistics and stories and quotes and examples to prove that what they are saying is true.  I want to stop them before they write in a way that I don’t want them to write.

But if I do that. If I give in to that. Then I have lost some of the greatest enthusiasm that we will have throughout the course of our entire writing unit. Because once these worlds of possibilities begin to open up for them, they just want to jump in and start writing. So while I want to hold them back, I instead let them go.

We look at a few ways that writers begin their persuasive writing. We notice that even though they have been taught that they must state their claim in the first paragraph, the writing that we look at shows us that the claim CAN be the first sentence, it CAN be in the first paragraph, or it CAN come a bit further in to the piece of writing. I help them to identify strategies that our mentor text writers use instead of the words that they use to begin. When my students know strategies to begin instead of specific words to use to begin, then they are better able to chose a strategy that works for their topic and then truly make it their own. We create an anchor chart of the wide variety of ways that writers begin their writing.

Then I ask my students who feels ready to begin writing their own pieces of persuasive writing. Most students at this point raise their hands. And I trust them. I let them go. Those who are not yet ready, I pull together with me in a small group to find out what extra support they need. And soon, they, too, are ready to begin writing.

And I know. I know that some of this initial writing will be bad. Really bad. I know that some students will go off and write for ten minutes and say that they are done. I know that some students will quickly fall back into the formulaic writing that they have learned in the past.

And that has to be okay.

I can look at that and I can tell myself, “Look at how much better their writing is going to get!” And when students run up to me and tell me they are done, I work hard not to crush the excitement I see on their faces. I work hard not to jump in and point out all of the places that I see right away where they can expand their ideas.

Instead, I look at what they have written and I share in their excitement. I say to them, “That is so great! What are you going to work on next?” And, again, I have to trust them. Because there WILL be time to go back and revise these initial pieces of writing and make them so much better. There WILL be more time to learn new strategies. There WILL be time when I can confer with them and find places where we can support what they have said in a different and more powerful way. But we haven’t learned those things yet.

And that is okay.

There will be time for all of that. I trust that they will use what we learn together when they need to. They, the writers, must make the choices of when to use the strategies that we have learned. I will, of course, be there throughout the entire process to help guide them in ways to use what we are learning, but they will have to be the ones who make the decisions if any of these lessons are really going to stick, really going to matter.

And by the end of our study of persuasive writing, I know that each of them will have grown as writers. I know that by the end of our study, each writer will look back on his or her first piece of writing from this unit and they will compare it to their last piece of writing from this unit and they will see for themselves just how far they have come.

And they will know that the choices that we made, the ones that got them to where they end up, those choices were all theirs. They will own those choices. They will believe that they can make those choices again, even if I am not right there next to them. And THAT is empowering writers.


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!

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!

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 1)

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!