Delaware Writing Project

Using “mentor” as an adjective, by Emily Reid Villa

By Aleta Thompson

Using “mentor” as an adjective by Emily Reid Villa

Lake Forest High School

As an English teacher, I have frequently used the word “mentor” as both a verb and a noun—as I took on the role of an actual teacher mentor for a new teacher this year in my department, I have wondered: “Am a supportive mentor? Am I effectively mentoring my mentee?!”

When I first signed up for the Delaware Writing Project, I didn’t know what to expect. Although I am always open to new ideas and teaching styles, I am not given many opportunities to venture outside of my own classroom and department. I was eager and motivated when I found out I was selected to take on this project. On the first day, I was ready to go! When we learned about using the word “mentor” in a different way—an adjective—I was utterly confused at first. Why would we give students more reading if they do not always read what is in the curriculum? How could showing them another document help them become better writers? How much time am I expected to put in when trying to find mentor texts?

I left the first day with more questions than answers; luckily, I received all my answers (and more) by attending a workshop by Rebekah O’Dell through the writing project. Mentor texts are really a “thing” and more importantly, they are a “thing” I could use. Rebekah showed enthusiasm and excitement, and after finally understanding how to implement her ideas, I started brainstorming. Something that piqued my interest in her workshop was the idea of “roundtable discussions.” Along with teaching English I, American Literature, and SAT Prep (verbal) at my school, I also teach a dual enrollment course offered to seniors. During the time of the workshop, we were working on argument and debate. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to test the waters with how I could implement this new strategy into my classroom.

It was October and students were impatiently awaiting Halloween and the festivities that come along with the holiday—passing out candy, helping at our school’s “Haunted Hallways” event, dressing up, and/or taking their younger siblings out trick-or-treating. I stumbled upon a roundtable discussion of favorite Halloween candy. Four contributors to “The Daily Campus” discussed Skittles, Reese’s, Kit Kats, and Heath bars. How could this possibly fit into a college classroom? It actually fit wonderfully into our argumentative unit and allowed students to practice their skills with a fun topic. Additionally, the mentor text offered several examples of things we had been working on in class—advanced punctuation (like the em dash, hyphen, semicolon, and colon), rhetorical questions, hooks, and advanced vocabulary. My students reacted favorably to this assignment and the use of the mentor text; at first, I used “mentor text” interchangeably with “exemplar” to improve their understanding of the meaning of the document. I created a rubric to go along with their own roundtable discussion where they had to use key aspects of the mentor text in their own collaborative works. Overall, I was thrilled with the results! The students were engaged, and they often told each other to refer back to the mentor text for examples (like how to correctly use a semicolon). After a successful assignment with my college class, I couldn’t wait to try this new strategy in others.

My next baby step was to use a mentor text in my SAT Prep class; in fact, we used many mentor texts, and they happened to be excerpts from the SAT passages themselves. We were currently working on punctuation, so it was easy for me to create an organizer where students located various punctuation marks used. After explaining the meaning of each punctuation mark and giving my own example, I set the students loose on mentor texts that I easily found through College Board. After they found examples of the different types of punctuation, I had them create their own examples using these punctuation marks. My students saw the benefit of knowing punctuation, because they saw the punctuation used directly in


passages they would need to read on the SAT. I was (again) pleased with the results of mentor texts, so then I felt comfortable enough to embark on my actual Delaware Writing Prompt assignment with my English I freshman classes.

With my freshmen, I not only incorporated mentor texts, but I also changed the way I did routine writing (journals) in my classroom. I always started my freshman classes with a “warm-up” of some kind, and the new approach to routine writing is one that I will use in my future classes as well. Routine writing gives students the opportunity to writeevery day in class. They responded and created poems, analyzed data, and examined pictures. The best part of this routine writing is that is led to valuable discussion. In my novel unit for the Delaware Writing Project, my students read Of Mice and Men. To build

background of what it was like in the time period, for example, I had them view a collage of various pictures from the 1930s. To take this a step further, I also showed them images from our current world. Students first wrote about the pictures, and then they were able to share and discuss the differences and similarities between the two time periods.

In addition to the new take on routine writing, I also used the technique of mentor texts with my freshmen. I wasn’t sure how they would react to this new concept, and at first there was a lot of confusion; however, after I did a fair amount of modeling and reassuring, I truly believe my students found value in using these texts. As I reflect on what it felt like to use these texts, the best way I can describe it is that it is like having another teacher in the room to help me out. There was a time in particular when I was working with a group of students and another student had a question. Instead of saying my name 10x (I’m sure you can relate!), the student only said my name once before one of her group members said to just look at the mentor text. Ding ding ding! In this moment, I realized what a valuable strategy this could be in my classroom—not just for the writing project—but as a change in my overall teaching practices.

As I think back to this experience, I am grateful I was given the opportunity to learn a fresh approach to teaching writing—it is important to show students that we are the open-minded individuals we want them to be. As teachers, we also face challenges, battle doubt, and sometimes struggle. If we want our students to try something new, we must also be willing; therefore, I challenge you to try using “mentor” as an adjective in at least one lesson you teach—the results may surprise you.


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