A Year with the Experts, by Libby McClain
A Year with the Experts – Using Mentor Texts in the Classroom
By Libby McClain, Smyrna High School
“What do you notice?”
It is with this question that I start my first class discussion using a mentor text. My students have just finished reading a review of The Hate U Give, in which the author compares the novel to its film adaptation. I was met with blank stares, sideways glances, the tops of students’ heads, as highlighters hovered above paper, waiting.
“What do you mean?”
My students were uncertain. I told them we would be trying something new that day. That instead of looking at what the author is writing about, we would be focusing on how they were writing. Instead of answering questions only about content, we would look at writing technique – the “crafty” moves that professional writers make – and then, we would try to learn from them.
A hesitant student raises her hand, “They use pictures?”
It was a start.
After attending the Fall Literacy Conference in October and seeing Rebekah O’Dell speak about mentor texts and their effectiveness in the classroom, I realized that my approach to writing instruction might benefit from a change. I have always tried to provide students with examples of “good” writing, but I wasn’t doing enough to talk about what actually made those examples so successful. I wasn’t providing enough opportunity to experiment with writing.
We all learn from example. We’ve been looking to experts our whole lives – learning to walk, riding a bike, driving a car – so, why should writing be any different? Like another teacher in the room, mentor texts can be used as an additional expert to help guide students as they work to develop and improve their writing. A mentor text is any example of good writing – whether from peers or professionals. They are aspirational and provide students with the inspiration to try something new. Mentor texts can change the writing conversation from “what do I need to do to get a good grade?” to “what can I do to become a better writer?”
So, what did I notice after using mentor texts in my classroom this year?
- I noticed that looking at mentor texts and analyzing a writer’s technique is a skill that needs to be taught. While it is easy to ask, figuring out exactly what an author is doing in his or her writing is not something that is easily detectable to students. Taking part in class discussions and sharing what I saw writers doing often helped get the conversations started.
- Noticing “writing moves” takes a lot of practice. O’Dell suggests giving students the freedom to talk about their findings in “student friendly language.” Our students are definitely not English
majors – we shouldn’t expect them to speak as though they are. Providing this flexibility to students made discussing a writer’s craft relaxing and laid back.
- I noticed that mentor texts can take the fear out of writing because they provide a helpful guide that can constantly be used as a reference throughout the entire writing process. Mentor texts help students see that in “real” writing, authors take writing risks. Real authors write in the first person, they start sentences with conjunctions, they use all sorts of punctuation. They write really long sentences and really short sentences. They put thesis statements wherever they make the most sense. Seeing that there are many different ways to make and analyze arguments empowered students to try something new in their own writing.
- While using mentor texts was empowering and even freeing for some of my student writers, I noticed that this was not the case for everyone, at least not right away. After years of being handed what O’Dell calls the “mad-lib outline,” some of my students still craved the structure of the fill-in-the-blank writing some of us well-intentioned teachers had been providing. Many times, I found myself attempting to alleviate the persistent fear of being wrong. This was a hard thing to overcome. When students always want to be right, it is sometimes difficult to get them to see the value in experimenting. The opportunity to write often – without risk – is the only way to overcome this challenge. Students must be given chances to write without the fear of the grade.
- Finally, using mentor texts to guide instruction and improve student writing is a worthwhile practice, but it is something that needs to be implemented from the beginning of the year. Teachers must take the time to model how to work alongside a mentor text, and they must also be willing to recognize that “good writing” means something different for every student. This shift in thinking is something that takes buy-in and is not readily accepted because it sometimes flies in the face of how we have traditionally assessed student work. The concept that an essay is a living thing that is not complete until it has improved is hard to grasp at times when we are up against grade deadlines and the need for final drafts. But, if you can see the value in revision and embrace writing as an evolving, year-long process, the experience can be truly rewarding.