The Sincerest Form of Flattery, by Hillary Johnson
Using the Mentor Texts: A Look at The Sincerest Form of Flattery
By Hillary Johnson, Laurel High School
At the mere utterance of the word “essay,” high school students usually respond in one of three ways in an English classroom. There are those who will grovel—practically on hands and knees—begging to do anything else. Multiple-Choice test? Group project? Presentation? Yes, please! They usually moan and groan initially, but get it together and write something decent by the end of it. Then there are those who downright refuse to write or write the bare minimum, just to avoid a failing grade. These are usually your struggling learners. And then finally, you have the superstars of the bunch—the few and far between—who actually would prefer writing an essay over anything else. These are usually your more studious students, who perhaps already consider themselves to be writers.
I cannot begin to count the number of students who have walked in and out of my classroom over the last four years, moaning and groaning or even downright refusing to write an essay. And I always blamed myself for their dissatisfaction. Over and over again, I would ask myself an endless series of questions, which included How do I get students to move beyond the five-paragraph essay, but still write effectively? How should I revise my outline to help students improve their writing? How do I get students to enjoy writing?
My answer came in the form of the Delaware Writing Program, which took me on an incredibly nerve-racking and exciting journey of self-discovery as an educator. This program opened my eyes to new ways of teaching writing that I had never thought possible before. During my years of self-doubt and reflection, I always said that students who read more, ultimately wrote more. Ergo, let’s get students to read more, which will help them build their
vocabulary, fluency, etc. I never in my wildest dreams thought the answer would be to get students to move from simply reading to reading like writer. And then using the techniques and strategies that these paid professionals have crafted—most likely from other writers—to help guide their own writing. It was a simple, but powerful solution for an all-consuming problem.
Rebekah O’Dell’s vision made me see for the first time that those resistant writers and struggling learners—the first two types of respondents mentioned earlier when it comes to writing an essay—these are the students who would benefit from this kind of instruction. It is like watching playbacks of the championship game from the previous year and figuring out what worked and what didn’t—picking and choosing the best strategies to practice—and ultimately winning the game. In order to reach the most number of students, young writers need something to gravitate towards and latch on to when it gets difficult and/or confusing. Mentor texts gave them something to refer to without having them rely on me for the five page-outlines for a one-page paper. Or without having them rely on me for the all-knowing answer to “Am I doing this right?” OR” does this sound good?”
And while this was a difficult feat for me as the teacher—to relinquish my reins and let them productively struggle through the task at hand—in the end, I think it paid off for those resistant and struggling students. It called for more self-reliance and independence on their part, which ultimately is what all teachers want for our students. My only concern now is for the few and far between—the ones who recognize themselves as writers already. Some of those students expressed that they felt pigeon-holed or trapped by the experience because it didn’t allow them to express themselves within the style that they were used to writing, to which I responded with “well, that’s kind of the point.” It is allowing them to expand their
repertoire and use the strategies to make it their own—some were not convinced at first, but grew to understand the method and used it their advantage.
Others argued that this was basically copying, which is something they had understandably been taught to avoid. And while I tried my best to reason with them and explain that they weren’t just simply copying because they were only using a couple words— here and there to make it their own—I couldn’t convince them otherwise, that these mentor texts were models. These are the students who eventually ended up doing their own thing and writing what I would call the more stereotypical student paper, which was disheartening to read. This definitely makes me think that this process needs to eventually be taught at earlier ages to not only help students build their writing skills at an earlier age, but to also help eliminate that negative mindset toward writing and the process of writing with the mentor texts.
In addition, I would also like to see how I can use mentor texts for differentiation purposes. Even though I believe the student writing that came as a result of the Delaware Writing Project to be much more profound than it had been previously, there were still similarities in their writing that made them feel less personal and innovative as I would have liked. Based off discussions with the members of my team, we all concluded that this was most likely due to the fact that students were picking and choosing from the same mentor texts. I think it would be interesting in the future to learn more about how to better differentiate the lessons and/or mentor texts to make student writing even more adaptive. Perhaps, this just comes with more and more practice—as students are building their repertoire of skills—with different types of mentor texts; however, I definitely think it is something to consider as teachers are planning and revising during their future endeavors with the writing program.
Overall, I am glad that I embarked on this nerve-racking and exciting journey with the Delaware Writing Program. While, the planning stages weren’t easy, it definitely paid off when it came time for the implementation and the final product. Hopefully, by using the methods of Rebekah O’Dell and the lessons designed by the program, the resistant and struggling writers will become fewer and farther between as they move from just reading or just writing—to reading like a writer—to becoming a writer themselves.