Category Archives: mentor text

The Power of Multiple Mentor Texts

Writing is hard work.  Some days the writing flows and I know how to put my words together to achieve the desired effect…but at other times I feel  stuck or confused or unsure about how to approach the writing task in front of me.

That’s where mentor texts come in.  I look for pieces written by others that do what I am trying to achieve…and study them to learn from those writers who are acting as my mentors. Sometimes I learn about structure and how to organize my ideas.  Sometimes I am inspired by word choice and craft elements.  Sometimes I notice text features and literary devices.

And for the young writers in our classroom, we work for find mentor texts to support their development as writers.  We like to use multiple texts, knowing that not all texts work for all students…and to show that not all writers approach the same kind of writing in the same way.

And sometimes the just-right mentor text sings.

Last week our students studied four poets and their poems about snow as they got ready to write poems about snowflakes.  We started with an old friend, Valerie Worth.  Her small poems are a treasure: short and rich, filled with imagery and powerful language.  And then we turned to an unusual mentor text…an “old” poem with some unfamiliar language.

On a Night of Snow

Cat, if you go outdoors you must walk in the snow.  You will come back with little white shoes on your feet, little white slippers of snow that have heels of sleet.  Stay by the fire, my Cat.  Lie still, do not go.  See how the flames are leaping and hissing low, I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite, so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet–Stay with me Cat.  Outdoors the wild winds blow.

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night.  Strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore; and more than cats move, lit by our eyes’ green light, on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar–Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might, and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

Elizabeth Coatsworth

The first response from my students was, “What?”  We reminded them to focus on what they understood about the poem rather than what they didn’t…and they picked up on the “little white shoes” right away.  Then one of our students pointed out that each of the stanzas was told from a different point of view…the first was talking to the cat, the second was the cat talking to the Mistress.  With that comment, one of our third graders, M,  couldn’t contain herself!  “Oh, now I see it!  I want to try that!”

When we went to write, she started immediately.  M had already talked about the metaphor she wanted to try on…an idea about a blank canvas to represent the whiteness of snow…when we had studied Valerie Worth’s poem the day before.

Here’s her poem:

The Snowflake Outside

Snowflake, you have no choice but to fall. So keep dancing down like a ballerina, making the world empty of color like a frustrated artist’s blank canvas. Snowflake, keep whirling magically and descend daintily onto my sleeve. From a great sky you fell.

Yes, from a great sky I fell so let me keep falling forever and ever. Don’t let me land on the frosty ground. I want to have my life forever. I want to show my style and unique ways. I don’t want to land, melt, or be unnoticed. Let me keep falling and blowing with the wild whistling wind.

M

There’s magic when the just-right mentor text provides the just-right support for the writer. You can see how M used the structure of Coatsworth’s poem as a container for her ideas, images, and feelings about snowflakes.  Before she was introduced to this poem she had already done some writing about snowflakes, thinking about movement, metaphor, and imagery.  The idea of shifting the speaker inspired her writing and gave her the shape she was looking for.

Most of the time we try to avoid mentor texts that directly address the topic/subject we are focused on.  But poems about snow are plentiful and we had many choices of mentor texts about snow…and our students have little experience with snow and snowflakes (except those they made by cutting paper) beyond what they have seen in books, movies, and photographs since it doesn’t snow where we live.

I love when a mentor text nudges a writer to try something new and stretch her wings.  And I am reminded that writers need a variety of mentor texts to learn from…rather than a single model.

What mentor texts have you used lately?

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Coming to a Close

As I wrote last week (here), beginnings and endings are challenging for young writers.  They often dive right into the heart of the writing…and then end abruptly when they come to the end of their content.  “The End” seems like a perfect ending for many of my students.

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And so…in an attempt to help our students with both beginnings and endings, we turned to some mentor texts to study and learn from.  In my work with the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), I am repeatedly asked for lists of mentor texts to use with students.  And I repeatedly remind teachers that great mentor texts are often within reach…right in their own bookshelves!

I do admit to being a bit of a book addict…constantly on the lookout for wonderful children’s books.  Books that are beautiful to look at.  Books that contain language that sings from the pages.  Books that present information in interesting and accessible ways.  And I use them as mentor texts…just like I use excerpts from text books, articles in the Scholastic News, texts from the internet…

Back to teaching conclusions…  Today we returned to the same books we used to teach introductions.  We revisited the graphic we created to remind students the importance of introductions and conclusions… (Here’s a rough sketch)

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The point of the thought bubble as a symbol for the conclusion is that we want to leave the reader thinking.  And so we studied our mentor texts with that in mind.

We started with Life in the Rain Forest, a Smart Words Reader by Scholastic.  This book concludes with an entire page that goes back to the big picture of the importance of the rain forest.  It ends with these last two sentences:

Many of the plants and animals in this book are in danger of becoming extinct.  Only by learning about rain forests can people work to protect them.

Students decided that was a “learn more” ending.  Then we turned to Let’s Go Rock Collecting by Roma Gans.  We decided that this book’s conclusion was an invitation to do something.

Rock collecting is fun.  And one of the best things about it is that you can do it anywhere. Wherever you go, try to find new rocks and add them to your collection.

In What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? by Steve Jenkins, we noticed the use of a question that asks you to apply the information learned from the text.

What would you do if something wanted to eat you?

And a Scholastic News article from the October 28th issue entitled Supersized Pumpkins offered this ending.

Now Wallace is back in the pumpkin patch working on his next record breaker.  “I have my sights set on 2,500 pounds!” he says.

We decided that conclusion made us curious about what would happen next.

With those examples in mind, students returned to their writer’s notebooks to try out their own conclusions.  With the piece they had written about animal defenses in mind, they set out to “try on” some possible conclusions.

In some ways we made this a bit hard.  We didn’t give students back the writing they had done previously about animal defenses–so they had to depend on their memory.  But then, last week when we did give back the writing we had a number of students “forget” to focus on the mini lesson and instead either copied what they had already written or continued on from where they left off.

So at the “stuck” spot, we asked students who weren’t stuck to share their early attempts at conclusions.

Here’s a few examples:

From a third grader:  “Every single animal wants to stay alive…hiss…and some animals are defending themselves right now!”

From a second grader:  “All the animals try to stay alive and use their defenses.  One might be using one right now…you never know!”

From a first grader:  “Would you play dead of something wanted to eat you?”

Another third grader:  “Have you even seen an animal use its defense?  Did it play dead? Did it run? Did it roll up in a ball?”

Another second grader:  “What do you know that I don’t about animal defenses?”

I feel like it was a good first attempt.  We’ll continue with another try with a different topic tomorrow.

So here’s what I’ve learned.  Introductions and conclusions are hard.  It takes study and practice to figure out how to make them work in our writing.  And we need to experiment to see what the possibilities are.  In our class, we plan to continue to revisit introductions and conclusions throughout the year to help our students internalize this important aspect of their writing.

I also know that there is no “magic” mentor text…and in fact, especially with things like beginnings and endings it is important for students to see that there are multiple approaches rather than a “right answer” or formula.  So I will continue to “read like a writer” and mine everything I read for its potential as a mentor text…for introductions, conclusions, language use, grammatical constructions, use of evidence and examples, and more.

What mentor text is your current favorite?  How do you use it with your student writers?

Introducing…

Beginnings and endings often confound writers.  And yet they are critical to the success of a piece of writing.  Many of the young writers I work with simply dive into their content…regardless of genre or text type.

We recently gave our students a writing performance task to inform our teaching of informational writing.  Students watched a short video about animal defenses and either read a short article on the same topic or listened to a picture book on that topic.  After reading, watching, taking notes, and answering a few questions, they were prompted to write an article describing and comparing animal defenses.  Our students were immediately engaged in the task, eagerly taking notes and excitedly writing about the animals.  It was clear that they understood the material and wrote effectively about the content.

But…many of our students dove directly into the body of their writing without any kind of introduction at all.  They started with sentences like, “The porcupine has sharp quills…” or “Puffer fish blow their bodies up so other animals can’t eat them.”

I’ve often wondered why this lack of introduction is so noticeable (not just in my class) in prompted writing and less evident in classroom products that make their way through the writing process, including the use of mentor texts and mini lessons along the way.  Does the written prompt encourage students to see the writing as an answer to a question rather than writing that stands alone?  Or is the missing step the writing response group or individual teacher conference?  Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

My teaching partner and I have thought long and hard about this phenomenon and decided that we would use our students’ prompted writing, and our analysis of it, as an opportunity to teach our students about introductions and conclusions.

In planning our introductions mini lessons, we took a careful look at non-fiction/informational texts we had read in our classroom recently.  We ended up using both texts from the performance task…a picture book and a short article.  We also used an article about pumpkins from Scholastic News that we had read as a class, a book about rock collecting, and then an unrelated book about rain forests that we had not read.  We chose all of these because they demonstrated different approaches to introductions.  With our students we noticed a “preview” introduction, one that set the stage with a context and overarching idea, an anecdote that took us right into a place, and one that used a list to get started.

We sent students off to try our a new beginning for their animal defenses piece…with varying success.  Some of our younger students actually started rewriting the same information they had already provided!  As a class, we looked at a couple of student examples and noticed what they had tried out.

Today we returned to our introduction mentor texts and reminded ourselves about the purpose of the beginning.  And then we asked students to write a short piece about the fruit trees we had been out photographing and studying yesterday.

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With beginnings fresh in mind, students began to write.  We limited the time…giving them 7 minutes of “power writing” to write their beginning and whatever else they had learned about fruit trees.

Here are a few examples;

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So here’s a second grader’s attempt, “Hey, want to know about trees?”  I’m not that crazy about the “Hey” or the simple rhetorical question…but it is an attempt at at a beginning.

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This first grader took a very formal approach, “This article is about trees.”  She made a very definite attempt to set the context and expectations for her writing.

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This third grader attempted the more complex and creative anecdote approach, “Walk carefully through the big apple orchard.  Notice everything that has happened in the trees. Sketch it out in your notebook and take a minute to write about it–hope you have fun!”

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And this second grader tried out a broad overarching idea, “Trees are amazing parts of Mother Earth.”

I feel like our students are getting the idea of the importance and variety of introductions. Tomorrow we will take another look at introductions–both from our mentor texts and from some student examples.  And then we will ask students to write another short informational piece about another topic they are familiar with…with an emphasis on the introduction.

And then next week we will shift our focus to endings…and continue to explore ways to support our students’ development of writing that includes beginnings and endings as well as rich content!

Writing is complex…and we can always work to make our writing better.  How do you support student writers?

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Ordinary

Today, out of necessity, I had to scrap a plan and invent another without notice.  For teachers, this is something that happens with some regularity and most of us pride ourselves on our flexibility. And I love it when that spontaneous plan blossoms into a wonderful learning moment.

We always have picture books at the ready to read to our class.  Some are set aside for specific purposes and lessons, others we know we want to read but are waiting for the perfect time to present itself.  Last year we read Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal–a book that our students loved.  We revisited it a number of times throughout the school year for different purposes…from mentor sentences to a situation for opinion writing.

At the end of the year, I came across a new book by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: Exclamation Point. So today, in that moment when I needed a plan at a moment’s notice, I picked up Exclamation Point, reminded my returning students (two thirds of them) that this was the author of Spoon, and started to read.  I love those moments when each student’s attention is fully engaged…and they were hooked by the bright yellow cover and the whimsical smiling exclamation point. They noticed right away that there wasn’t a title…at least not written in words. The exclamation point itself stood as the title.

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We read and discussed and noticed and connected all the way through the book.  We delighted in the words and the pictures and the message.  And we were inspired to write our own stories about punctuation.

And then later in the day we managed to get packed up and ready to go home with enough time for a book before the dismissal bell.  Overwhelmingly, students wanted me to read Spoon. It was sitting near Exclamation Point…and suddenly today became the day for a mini author study.  The second and third graders were treated to an old friend, and the first graders were anxious to get acquainted!

After reading, students volunteered their observations, connections, reactions, reflections. They had so many thoughtful comments and ideas for their own writing.  And one student pointed out that Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote about ordinary things…in wonderful ways.  We started thinking about all the ordinary things we might write about and how our writing could transform them beyond the ordinary.  They were excited to write as the dismissal bell rang today…I hope they sustain that excitement long enough to actually get to the writing.

I’ve also been noticing the power of the ordinary.  Yesterday’s post was about the transformation of an ordinary photo into something I was willing to name as art.  And today on five minute friday the prompt is ordinary.  Today in the classroom the ordinary business of reading a book because an extraordinary opportunity to notice the magic of writers and writing…and turned students into active learners making meaning for themselves.  Today I was reminded that ordinary is a state of mind, and each of us has the power to re-look and re-see the ordinary in new ways.  I love when that wonderful learning moment in the classroom means that I learn too!

Mentor Text: September Is…

As a teacher of writing, I see mentor text everywhere.  It exists in expected places–like well-written children’s literature and in less traditional places like Youtube videos, blog posts, and even billboards and advertisements.  The tricky part about using mentor text to support writers is finding the right mentor text to use in the situation at hand.  With that in mind, sharing our successes with mentor texts is a great way to help each other as we make our own classroom selections.  The 113 Mentor Texts Challenge over at SDAWP Voices attempts to do just that–create a collection of mentor texts that educators from all levels and all over are using.

Early in the school year in addition to doing some sentence level work, we also like to use mentor text to support students’ generation of whole text.  After examining a number of texts we had for consideration, we decided last week to go with a poem to support our young writers. Bobbi Katz wrote this poem called September Is that describes some qualities of the beginning of school that are easy for students to relate to.

September Is

September is

when yellow pencils

in brand new eraser hats

bravely wait on perfect points–

ready to march across miles of lines

in empty notebooks–

and

September is

when a piece of chalk

skates across the board–

swirling and looping–

until it spells your new teacher’s

name.

Bobbi Katz

As we studied this piece as a class, students noticed that the pencils were described like people…with hats and ready to march.  (They do know that is called personification) They noticed the use of swirling and looping to further describe the skating of the chalk.  They noticed that Bobbi Katz didn’t just make a list of things in school, she picked two and then went into more detail about each of them.

As students got ready to use September Is as a mentor text for their own writing, we also talked about other ideas besides September as a focus for the writing.  They were thinking about Fall Is and School Is as other possibilities.

Students began to generate ideas on that first day and then set their writing aside.  The following day we asked a couple of volunteers to share their work in progress as we noticed what they were doing well.  Students definitely were including interesting verbs and expanded descriptions.  We all then went back to work…even those who thought they were done…to consider stronger words, to add more description and detail.

And here are a couple of student-generated drafts.

“E” — a first grader — wrote this:

Fall Is

Fall is Halloween when ghosts glide through the night sky and when leaves glide off the trees.

“S” — a third grader –wrote this:

Fall Is

Fall is…

when the reddish-brown leaves are too tired of hanging hopelessly on the weak branches so they twirl and spin in the air before they carefully float right on to the cold grassy land full of new seedlings that are going to grow in the summer.

Fall is also when you scoop all of the white tear-shaped seeds out of the big round orange pumpkin and carve a face for the spooky night when ghosts haunt the night sky and children in costumes are running about trick-or-treating and scaring everybody.

I feel like my students captured fall in their writing and that Bobbi Katz supported their ideas. They were able to use her basic structure and let her strong words and images guide them to their own compelling compositions.  That’s the power of mentor text!

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Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge: #113texts

When we select books to read in our classroom we begin with well-written books about topics we want to address as part of our instruction.  Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox is a lovely, well-written book that has been around for a long time.  (Published in 1989)

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This book is about a young boy who lives next door to an old folks home and has made friends with the old people who live there.  One of his best friends–Miss Nancy, who has four names just like him, seems to be losing her memory.  When Wilfred Gordon hears this he goes to the other residents asking what a memory is.  Their responses:  something warm, as precious as gold, makes you laugh, makes you cry…prompt Wilfred Gordon to go home and find these for Miss Nancy.  He collects his interpretation of these things called memories into a basket to share with Miss Nancy.  When Miss Nancy unpacks the hen’s egg, seashells, puppet, and football she begins to tell the stories she remembers when she examines each object.

We started the school year a few weeks ago reading this book as a way of demonstrating the power of things to elicit stories and memories.  We asked students to bring in an object or artifact that represented something important or special to them and/or their families.

In addition to using this book to teach the concept of object-based thinking and writing, we also used it this week as a mentor text for writing.  We like to “mine” the books we have read for interesting sentences to help our students broaden their understanding of sentences, grammar, and conventions.  As our first mentor sentence of the school year we looked for a sentence that was accessible to our first graders and still “meaty” enough for our more accomplished writers.

We decided on this sentence:

He admired Mr. Drysdale who had a voice like a giant.

Asking our students what they noticed, we were able to identify the use of the simile (a voice like a giant), proper nouns (names), and pronouns (he).  We also talked about the verb admired as well as the basics like the use of a capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and period at the end.  After a couple of examples of how we might follow the pattern of this sentence from Mem Fox, students set off to write their own sentence following the pattern.

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Here are a couple of examples:

First grader, E, wrote: I love my bunnies because they love me.

Second grader, B, wrote: He loved his dog Milo even though he shedded on him if he brushed onto him.

Third grader, C, wrote: I admire LEGO makers who have a way of making awesome sets.

And another third grader, M, wrote: The people love to watch Emily who surfed the waves that were as tall as mountains.

You can see that not all students were including the simile…yet.  But all were able to expand a sentence similar to the way Mem Fox did in her sentence.

There are many other ways to use Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge as a mentor text.  Mentor texts are all around us, as close as those classroom bookshelves.  Take a close looks at some of your old favorite read alouds, you’ll be surprised at all the opportunities to use them as writing mentors!

Sorting Quiet

Today was a sorting and categorizing kind of day in my classroom.  Yesterday we read The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood.

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In it she describes quiet in lots of evocative ways…here’s a couple of lines:

Last one to get picked up from school quiet.  Swimming underwater quiet.  Pretending you’re invisible quiet.  Lollipop quiet.  First look at your new haircut quiet.  Sleeping sister quiet.

Then we asked our students to think about the best kinds of quiet they have experienced. They had so many wonderful ideas including things like lost in a good book quiet, waking up before everyone else quiet, playing your favorite video game quiet, watching your favorite cartoon on television quiet…  They wrote their best kind of quiet on an index card before the end of the day.

Today to help us think about sorting and categories we read Shoes, Shoes, Shoes by Ann Morris–a book about shoes from around the world used for a variety of purposes.  We thought about the categories our shoes fit into…and the ways they cross categories: school shoes, running shoes, playing shoes…  And then, in groups of four students shared their best kinds of quiet and thought about ways to group their “bests” into categories.  We asked each group of four to try to find 2 categories that their 4 index cards would fit.  They came up with lots of categories: electronics quiet, family quiet, in-the-zone quiet, playing quiet, learning quiet…

And as a class we were able to narrow their categories down to four that we will use to create a class graph of our best kinds of quiet tomorrow.  Can’t wait to see what the data tells us!

What’s your best kind of quiet?