The Magic of Mentors

You are not alone out there…
As teachers of writing we are surrounded by lots of authors we trust, respect and who are readily available to assist in the important task of developing young writers. By allowing these authors to become mentors you afford students the opportunity to acquire the craft of writing through exposure to a variety of writing styles. Share the information you have gained from reading relationships developed with authors you admire. Share willingly, the lessons you have learnt from your trusted mentors. Encourage students to investigate specific aspects of the work of these mentors. Encourage them to imitate the style of these authors. In time we should guide our students towards identifying favourite authors of their own.

The more we focus on the work of these mentors, the more we come to realize the critical importance of reading to the development of writing. If we choose texts carefully we enable the writing of others to influence us in the development of our writing knowledge.
Young writers are unconsciously skilled in the use of literary models. They frequently make use of these models in their writing. The challenge for teachers is to make them consciously aware of the important things that writers do. This requires us to engage in the deliberate act of drawing their attention to craft strategies, to text structures and features, to story elements, literary devices and related terminology when they write. We need to examine their writing carefully to assess the ways in which their writing begins to incorporate these vital signs of development. This careful examination of student writing, informs the direction our instruction needs to take.

The immersion stage of any writing unit needs to be viewed as an absolute non negotiable. Students must hear and read for themselves a range of books written in a particular genre before they can be reasonably expected to participate in the act of writing in that genre. They need to be encouraged to examine closely, aspects of the text under review and to note their respective discoveries. This immersion and examination is the foundation that holds up the writing to follow. At the same time students are becoming familiar with a genre, their teacher needs to become a partner in learning, sharing his or her own observations and discoveries. Celebrating new learning creates an energy that propels the writing to follow to even greater heights. This is the wow factor in play.

The deliberate use of authors as mentors will enhance the writing curriculum. Students who are consciously skilled in the craft of writing will be more likely to transfer these strategies to their own writing. Exposure to effective models of literature, coupled with explicit teaching and ample support and practice provides writing outcomes that greatly enriches the writing experience.
As we all know, knowing about something and being able to apply it effectively is both energizing and fulfilling. It is amazing how attitudes of seemingly reluctant writers change when they experience a measure of success, and all because a caring teacher structured the learning in a mannner that enabled a successful writing experience to take place.

Upon my arrival to work in New York, a friend and colleague, Michael Collins alerted me to the author, Jerry Spinelli. To that point in time, I had no knowledge of Spinelli’s writing. Michael spoke glowingly of Spinelli’s novel, Maniac Mage e (Newberry Medal Winner 1991) and suggested I might find it great reading. Trusting Michael’s judgment I immediately purchased a copy of said title and commenced to read it. I was immediately drawn to the story, and its central character, Jeffrey Lionel Maniac Magee. I was also drawn to Jerry Spinelli’s writing. He instantly became an author I wanted to get to know better. I sought out other titles, such as Wringer, Star Girl, and Milkweed. Over time, I grew to trust this writer. I began to notice elements in Spinellii’s writing that I could use in my own writing and share with other teachers and their students. Spinelli became a partner in my role as a teacher of writing. As a mentor, Jerry Spinelli shared aspects of his writing craft with me. I noticed his effective use of repetition, the use of short punchy sentences that added variety to his writing. I noticed how effectively he used the strategy of ‘show, don’t tell’ in his writing as evidenced by the following extract from Maniac Magee:
…Amanda cried. She tore a magazine in half. She punched the sofa. She kicked the easy chair. She kicked Bow Bow, BowWow went yelping into the kitchen. “See!” she yelled at the front door, “See what you made me do, Jeffrey Magee! Jeffrey Maniac Crazy Man Bozo Magee!”

Jerry Spinelli has become a trusted friend, a mentor and a fellow teacher of writing. His writing provides innumerable curriculum opportunities for me to explore and bring to the attention of students and teachers alike. We can learn so much from each other if we take the time to read as writers –to envisage the possibilities for developing the craft of writing within our students.

Spinelli's books are never far away when I am planning to teach students about writing. I have added Jerry Spinelli to my list of trusted authors and mentors. When it comes to the task of teaching writing, I am surrounded by writing friends. I am not alone out there…


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