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



Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this slice and for sharing your thoughts on mentor texts. I recently read Fox for the first time and was wowed by it. I'm looking forward to checking out some of your other favorites. I also loved the paragraph you wrote that begins "Whenever I chance upon attention grabbing wonders..." Your passion shines in this piece.

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    1. My pleasure Molly. I am so glad you liked Fox. Margaret Wild is a favourite of mine. 'Tanglewood' is another Margaret Wild text offering much potential to teaching aspects of craft. I'm glad my passion shone through here. It is important that we display such joy around our literate lives.

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  2. I only know one of your favorites (The Big Red Kangaroo). Perfect slice for me as we begin a fantasy/narrative unit focusing on fairy tales. We have been reading lots of fairy tales to "dunk" them in the genre and then have a few mentor texts that will support the third graders as they write. I look forward to slowly starting this unit and must admit this has been the best few dats really taking the time to let the kids explore the genre on their own before we start with formal lessons.

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    1. It seems to me upon reading your response, you have prepared well for some powerful learning with your students. Love the sound of it.

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  3. Mentor texts are critically important in the writing classroom. I don't remember who said it or exact quote, but in essence it said the writing you get out of your students is only as good as the reading you put into your class. You are sharing some powerful works with teachers and students.

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    1. Love the quoted words Elsie. They are most pertinent. They relate to 'Be careful what you read, for that is what you'll write.'

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  4. Excellent post, Alan. I am bookmarking for future reference. Great quotes. I especially love, "Whenever I chance upon attention grabbing wonders I feel compelled to harvest them." Last week, my grandson asked to borrow a book from my library. I held it a moment, thumbed through its pages. It's been a while since I used that book. I was amazed at the notes I'd written in the margins -- on the outer edges, reading like a reader; on the bound edges, reading like a writer with an eye grammar moves. Your workshops sound wonderful.

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    1. Thank you Alice. Your exchange with your Grandson elicited some great connections to your reading-writing life. I enjoyed reading that. Reconnecting with old friends is a bit the same.

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  5. I feel like I have been using mentor text in a very shallow way for a long time. This year I have really been diving deeper into books and noticing specific craft moves. It's changed my teaching for sure!

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  6. The skill of reading like a writer develops over time and requires constant practice, like most things. You are heading in the right direction Lisa. Keep going!

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