Writing Mentor Magic

You are never 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. When we allow these authors to become mentors, the sharing we do affords students the opportunity to acquire the craft of writing through exposure to rich literary models

We must willingly and mindfully, the lessons learned from our 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 the role of reading plays in the development of writing. We begin to read in a distinctly different way. We begin to read like writers. If we choose texts carefully, we enable the writing of others to influence us. Our writing knowledge deepens. As Ralph Fletcher maintains, ‘In order to teach writing, you must know something about it.’

Young writers are unconsciously skilled in the use of literary models. They frequently make use of these models in their writing quite unknowingly. They mimic.  The challenge for teachers is to make the inexperienced writer consciously aware of the important things that writers do.

This requires a teacher to engage in the deliberate act of drawing the young writer’s attention to craft strategies, to text structures and features, to story elements, literary devices and related craft moves when they write. As teachers we need to examine a student’s writing carefully to assess the ways in which that writing begins to reveal vital signs of development. Such careful examination of student writing, informs the direction 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. As teachers we cannot simply set and forget. The young writers needs to be encouraged to examine closely, aspects of the text under review and to note their respective discoveries. This immersion and close examination is the foundation that holds up the writing to follow. The student is being called upon to play the role of a text detective and forensically examine the writing extract.

At the same time students are becoming familiar with a genre, teachers needs to become their partners in learning.  The teacher consciously shares his or her own observations and discoveries. Celebrating new learning, and documenting discoveries on anchor charts creates an energy that propels the writing to even greater heights. This is the wow factor in play.

The deliberate use of authors as mentors enhances 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, 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 fulfilling to watch the attitudes of less confident writers change when they experience success, -and all because a caring teacher structured the learning in a manner that enabled a successful writing experience to take place.

Upon my arrival to work in New York in 2001, 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 Magee (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, Milkweed, Knots In My Yo-Yo String. Over time, I grew to trust this writer. I began to notice elements in Spinellii’s writing I could use in my own writing and share with other teachers and their students. Spinelli became an unwitting partner in my role as a teacher of writing. As a mentor, Jerry Spinelli has shared aspects of his writing craft with me. I noticed his effective use of repetition, the power of his dialogue to reveal character traits, the use of short punchy sentences that added variety to the 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 Wow. Bow Wow 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 quickly became a trusted friend, a mentor and a fellow teacher of writing. His writing provided innumerable curriculum opportunities for me to explore and bring to the attention of students and teachers alike.

We can learn so much if we take the time to read as writers –to envisage the possibilities for developing the craft of writing within our students.

Every time I enter a classroom I bring all the reading I have ever done with me. All those fabulous authors whose books I have gathered around me over the years. I keep them within easy reach when I am planning to teach writing. I am surrounded by writing friends. I am never alone out there…


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