Authentic Writers vs Academic Writers? by Melissa Pinkerton
Authentic Writers versus Academic Writers?
Melissa Pinkerton, Seaford High School
2018 Delaware Writing Project
So… I thought I was signing up for an opportunity to learn how to become a better teacher of writing. I’m horrible at teaching writing, so when the district asked if I wanted to participate in the Delaware Writing Project, I enthusiastically said yes. Little did I know that I was getting myself into quite a different situation. But, you know what, my goal was still achieved, and in ways I never expected. I think I did become a much better teacher of writing.
I learned writing could be taught in an innovative way by using mentor texts that exhibited authentic writing . . . a creative and unique perspective that blew me away. Immediately, I thought, this was going from the impractical approach of formulaic, scripted writing formats to a smorgasbord of writing possibilities that had few boundaries. I was apprehensive, but very intrigued to delve into the vision of the project.
My colleague and I decided to do a personal analysis essay for an upcoming Romeo and Juliet unit. Wow! What an exciting analysis, right? Take Romeo and Juliet and apply it to your own personal experience!
As we planned the first unit, it was immediately obvious that finding mentor texts that were both quality and engaging was going to be a tough task. And . . . we did find some appealing and incredibly authentic mentor texts. Most were excellent personal experience analyses from a wide range of genres; how video games changed my life, how Harry Potter got me through high school, how Inside Out teaches psychological lessons to all ages, and even, how Drake expresses pearls of wisdom that can advise us all in those difficult times! After finding these gems and crafting entire lessons around the patterns found within these truly authentic mentors, we had a really engaging plan. What we did not have, however, were quality mentor texts that were worth using as inspiration . . . that was soul wrenching.
After some major reflecting and review, it was necessary to look for more professional mentor texts. We overhauled the entire unit and deviated a bit from the intentional vision to an approach where we married a bit of the “old” with a bit of the “new.” We decided to use a medium analysis instead that coincided with the RL.9.7 standard very nicely. Though less abstract, we thought it would be easier for students to conceptualize the task of comparing the movie version of Romeo and Juliet to an original text and providing critical feedback on the interpretation. In adjusting our vision, we were able to find mentors that were from reputable sources and that represented the sample of writing we expected to see from the students. In essence, the mentors went from being a complete inspiration to more of an “authentic exemplar.”
Through the nervous wreck and near soul-shattering emotional breakdown of redesigning an entire unit based on using mentors, I learned a valuable lesson for future use . . . ALWAYS choose mentors that are from reputable, highly professional and vetted sources. Because the mentors are the guide for the ENTIRE planning process, poor mentors spell out disastrous consequences for the future of your unit. Even the most engaging units are ineffective if the students are producing poor writing because the resources provided are terrible. This lesson was not an easy one for me. Though the unit was well designed and practical, the flawed mentors made it useless. This jaded my opinion of the project in general and my mindset was stuck in negative.
Until . . . I started the practical application with my students . . . . That changed EVERYTHING.
When I introduced the concept to my students, it was hard to gauge their initial reaction. There was a lot going on with them. I saw confusion, and intrigue, but mostly a willingness to try this “mentor thing” out. Luckily, my kids trusted me in this endeavor. We went through the process of reading like writers. We tore apart the mentor texts with questions like “What do you notice? Why did the writer do that? What is this technique called?” We discussed the hook, the claim, the transitions, the evidence, and the conclusions in genuine and analytical discussions. We turned the mentors inside out and back again. Then . . . they wrote.
Wow did they write. They wrote beautifully. They used these packets of mentor texts to guide them through the hurdles of their own writing insecurities. When they did not know what to do, I asked them, “What did you see in the mentor?” And they LOOKED. And they learned. And they wrote! The products I saw were very well constructed and I do believe that having the mentor texts as a guide, a teacher, and a safety net benefitted them in countless ways. They always had a model. They did not need to get approval for their thoughts. They were able to have the instant feedback they craved as they were writing. Many of the students felt great satisfaction in using this method and some even felt that it eliminated the boundaries of writing for them.
The biggest issue students encountered was the hesitation they felt at using the mentor as influence was the fear of copying or plagiarizing. There was also some confusion in the transfer from the mentors to their own writing. Several students felt trapped by the mentor because they thought they had to use it to model their drafts. It took my persuasion and reassurance that they did not have to use the mentor as a model, but as a guide. They could use their own personal style if they felt comfortable doing so.
Personally, I did not incorporate routine writing in a free write, “no boundaries” style. Instead, it was very, well . . . routine. I used mostly specific sentences lifted from the mentors that I thought the students would be able to adapt for their own essays. Though it was not part of my previous narrative, I know that daily routine writing encourages students to write spontaneously, without restrictions using poems, graphics, pictures, and sentence structures. I focused on sentence structures only. As I plan for next year, I want to make the routine writing part of the beginning of every class regardless of the content so student can just write.
Overall, seeing the process in action brought back my enthusiasm for the project. I hope to reflect and evaluate ways I can use the mentor method next year. I want to clarify it and find a way to push the intended vision without the constraints of time. Because we started this project with Romeo and Juliet, which is a late year unit, I was not able to see its full affect over time. I want to add routine writing to the class lessons from day one and find ways to sneak reading like a writer into our literary analysis lessons. I feel like creating a space where writing is expected and valued from the start will manifest into more abundant and rich writing from the students, while reading like writer’s will take their author’s purpose reading analysis to a new level.
I see the value in this instructional method in every way. I like using the platform to introduce more text and authentic text into the classroom. Ultimately, I hope that using this strategy will create little professional writers; writers that write with a purpose, who have an audience, rather than academic writing robots. By opening the doors to writing for the real world, students are more likely to take writing beyond the classroom and achieve more than we could ever imagine.