Delaware Writing Project

Teaching with Mentor Texts, by Kimberly Collins

By Aleta Thompson

Kimberly Collins

Caesar Rodney High School

When I was a new teacher, the atmosphere was very “every man for himself”; I remember clearly being handed a classroom key and a Teacher’s Edition of the 9th grade textbook and being expected to figure it out on my own. Several years ago, our school became one of the first to adopt the Professional Learning Communities model, an act that changed my teaching practice. Instead of being isolated, we were expected to collaborate. Though some resisted the change, many of my colleagues embraced this model, discovering very quickly that collaborating with each other was working smarter, not harder.

This intensely collaborative environment forces me to evaluate my teaching practice frequently, as my colleagues and I implement the cycle of planning, teaching, assessing, benchmarking, reteaching, re-assessing with every unit. I truly believe that engaging in the –occasionally heated–dialogue with my colleagues has made me a better teacher, and so I am always looking for more opportunities to network and collaborate.

A new opportunity arose with the Delaware Writing Project this fall. Focused on secondary writing, this was a natural fit for my current teaching assignment of AP Language and Composition. I was lucky to be paired with Quinn Jacobs of Cape Henlopen High School (who is brilliant!) and we were mentored by Diane Albanese, also of Cape (and also brilliant!). We combed through our curriculums to find something in common, and settled on the unit centered on Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

I went into the Fall Literacy Conference feeling pretty smug. After all, I used mentor texts in my classroom all the time. A lesson in hubris–I was not using them well! Sure, my students were being exposed to lots of quality writing every day in class–but they were not using these texts to learn how to become better writers themselves. My focus had been nearly exclusively on analysis of the rhetoric, and I had never used mentor texts as models for student writing in the way Rebekah O’Dell explained to us that day. I had that “a-ha” moment we want our students to have.

And so the lessons began. Unfortunately, our Delaware weather thwarted my plans, as three snow days in rapid succession followed by several “you have to use the library resources immediately before the library closes for months of state testing” days meant that our unit was both fractured and shortened. The work we did get to do together was enlightening. It was very clear in talking with my students that the model texts were interesting to them and that they appreciated the opportunity to try to write the way “real writers” do.

Will I use mentor texts again? Absolutely. As the AP Language program is undergoing a revision this year, I look forward to re-writing my curriculum to incorporate not just the rich texts my students learn to analyze but also many mentor texts to help them develop their own unique narrative voice.

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