Using Mentor Texts to Guide Writing in the ELA Classroom, by Crystal Tuminaro
2019 Delaware Writing Project
Crystal Tuminaro, Christiana High School
Over the course of my career, I have noticed a new trend in students over the last several years, a trend that is particularly disturbing as it flies in the face of the purpose of an education. Students want the right answer, and they want it immediately. They are no longer willing to attempt, or struggle through a process in order to learn, but rather seek affirmation for every question or activity before moving to the next. Maybe it’s Candy Crush or those running games in which players are rewarded after each move with a new candy bomb or invincibility mode. Maybe it’s the fear of having to erase – when did that become a thing? Maybe it stems back to pure laziness. Whatever the cause, the need to be given the right answer at every turn rather than working through a problem seems to have taken root in our classrooms.
The backlash while attempting to break this habit is enough for some teachers to simply fall into line for the sake of their own sanity and pace of the curriculum. Working through a process takes longer, but it also provides students with the chance to internalize the process and thus, hopefully, later transfer the same process to a new task! Isn’t this what education is really about? I’m not sure, outside of Jeopardy, if my students will ever need to know the main characters of The Crucible or the motives behind each of them, but I hope after high school, they will still remember the bigger ideas or “warnings” the text provides.
Our Delaware Writing Project group created a unit that included mini-lessons covering the basics of writing a thesis, collecting good evidence to support the different claims of the thesis, and drafting the introductory and concluding paragraphs, as well as stylistic elements found within the specific mentor texts collected: using rhetorical questions, parenthetical commentary, and lists of three. The mentor texts discussed the relevance of Shakespeare, Dante, and Fairy Tales for the modern reader and a collection of five texts shared different warnings provided through the Disney-Pixar animated film, Wall-E. Students found the texts engaging, and in many cases, really connected with the sarcastic undertone of several of them.
The process of using mentor texts during writing instruction is one I plan to continue using. Gone are the nights of writing my own sample essay on a different text to show students good writing! This “good writing” always fell into a specific format with a teachable formula– whether that was due to my own need to check the boxes in the rubric, or to match what I know students are seeing before and after my class, I’m not so sure. I do know all of the sample essays and outlines I provided fit a standard five paragraph format, and felt a bit stretched as I was using a different text, one we had already discussed as a class, with a topic meant for another text or set of texts. I always encouraged students to break the mold, take risks, and make their own writing decisions, but the samples provided did not do this in fear that those students who cling to a format would become lost in the assignment. Providing a variety of sample published texts for students to use as guides not only opened them to different formats and structures, but provided several opportunities to teach and practice different techniques to add style to the writing.
The planned writing unit was separate from the reading of the main text. We read and discussed the The Crucible and then began the writing component for the unit. Rather than mixing the two, we set aside a separate unit for reading and annotating the mentor texts and teaching writing through these texts, providing students a foundation and familiarity with the lessons as they had already interacted with the mentors being discussed several times prior to writing their own drafts. It was also extremely helpful that students had time over the course of the eight-day writing unit to revise their own drafts in class with peer and instructor feedback. Students were more confident in their drafts because they had several examples to refer back to and help guide them in the process. The feedback process was continuous in the classroom – students worked in pairs and small groups to check their drafts, and received ample conferencing time prior to submission of the first draft due to the structure of the unit, providing daily time to draft and edit. When I read students’ rough drafts and provided feedback, I had already reviewed most of the rubric items and could congratulate them on the growth already shown while providing feedback to further strengthen their arguments.
Overall, I felt the project was a beneficial addition to the curriculum, and found that spending the additional time focusing solely on the writing process made future writing assignments fit more seamlessly into the curriculum. Though we did not spend additional class time reviewing mentors and discussing risks and stylistic elements of these mentors, I did provide these for the following writing tasks and found that several students did use the texts to help guide their own writing for these assignments. It did take extra time to gather and vet additional sets of mentor texts, but not that much more than attempting to provide examples of parts of the writing that I attempted prior. I can also keep these sets for future use and tweak them as needed. I even found that the mentor set we created for The Crucible worked great with another text, Fahrenheit 451, as both texts provide obvious warnings to the audience! The positive feedback and the results I saw in my students’ writing was enough to convince me that writing with mentor texts is something I will be keeping in my classroom.
I’m not naïve enough to assume that adding mentor texts will remove the constant request for the right answer, but I certainly saw an improvement in students’ reluctance to look for their own answers when they had several examples of good writing in front of them. Candy Crush flashes possible moves, but that doesn’t mean the player has to choose that particular move. Mentor texts might just be the hint students need to work through the writing process without turning it into a fill-in-the-blank formula.