Slice of Life Tuesday- Celebrating The Influence Of Mentor Texts
The Wonder of Mentor Texts
My mind is very focused on Mentor texts at the moment, as I plan for a number of upcoming workshop presentations, dealing directly with the reading-writing connection and the skill of learning to read like writers. So Mentor texts feature in today's Slice.
When we practice the art of reading like writers, a world of possibilities opens up. Mentor texts and their particular magic begin to reveal themselves to us. We are no longer alone in our teaching of writing. We are lifted up by the writers we know and trust. They become our unwitting collaborators. How great is that?
A mentor text is any piece of writing that can be used to teach a writer about some aspect of writer’s craft. A small extract may well be sufficient to qualify as a piece of mentor text. Think of those favourite books you have read many times, those books you know like a friend. Think of those books you find yourself easily quoting.
For me, the best mentor texts are those that can be used time and again throughout the year to demonstrate many different characteristics of writing. It is easy to teach aspects of writing using texts where a comfortable familiarity exists.
Some of my most trusted mentor texts are a little weary from use. They have been much loved and appreciated, yet they continue to support me and inspire others -despite their somewhat tattered appearance. I will not abandon them. They are treasures. I talk about them somewhat reverentially. As I write this piece, they sit on the shelves around me, ready to serve.
When we focus our teaching on a trusted author’s writing style, we allow student writers to understand how that particular writer actually created the text. We provide them with privileged information. Information on the craft of writing, we know will serve them well as they develop a sense of themselves as writers.
Whenever I chance upon attention grabbing wonders I feel compelled to harvest them. It’s irresistible! I know when I am reading as a teacher of writing. Words, phrases, whole sentences, paragraphs beckon. The potential of the writer’s craft to leap from the page and slap me in the face is something I embrace. Wake up, pay attention the words scream.
Everything matters, whether it’s a character description, the vivid depiction of a setting or the way the writer challenges me to think about an issue or event – it excites and informs. The point of the quest is to find interesting things that can be shared with other writers. It is the oxygen I need to support my teaching of writing.
‘All texts are demonstrations of some writer’s decisions about word choice, voice, or perspective. All texts are demonstrations of some genre potential… Every single text is a whole chunk of curriculum potential.’Katie Wood Ray
What to Imitate?
If we want student writers to learn lessons from the texts we are sharing, they must be shown what to look for. If students are going to be writing poetry, we should begin by giving them lots of poetry to read. Mem Fox suggests going beyond immersion when she uses the term ’dunking’ to define the recommended action. Ted Kooser, the American poet, suggests that before anyone considers writing a poem, they should read at least one hundred.
‘Most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.'Neil Gaiman
First we imitate and then we learn to find our own style. We grow. We adapt. We find our own particular style.
While students are immersed in becoming familiar with particular texts, we must simultaneously teach them how to read like writers—to notice the techniques, craft moves, and considered choices writers make. Students are used to being asked about what is written, but asking them to recognize how a text is written presents a significant change of focus. They must be shown how this is done. for me this is a most rewarding aspect of my teaching. It presents a chance to reveal secrets; to show what's hidden up the magician's sleeve.
Kelly Gallagher writes, ‘Mentor texts are most powerful when students frequently revisit them throughout the writing process—and when teachers help them take lessons from writing exemplars.’
Close reading and discussion regarding the actions of selected mentor authors is necessary before young writers launch into their first draft efforts.
Over the years I have surrounded myself with texts I consider priceless. They contain so much treasure. So much to share with teachers and students. I pluck a book from the shelf and smile. I am fortunate to be surrounded by my fellow writers. They support my efforts to be the best teacher of writing I can possibly be.
Finally, I am reminded of something I heard Ralph Fletcher say. Ralph suggests we refrain from squeezing all the juice out of a text. Save a little for next time…. Good advice.
'With you as a guide, and literature as the landscape, you can open young writer’s eyes to the full range of possibilities before them.'Ralph Fletcher and Joanne Portalupi, Writing Workshop- The Essential Guide