Tag Archives: #113texts

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?

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!

Condor’s Egg: #113texts

Jonathan London is probably best known in children’s book circles as the author of the Froggy books, but he has many wonderful books that are varied in content and well written.  I mentioned Dream Weaver a couple of days ago as my contribution to the #113texts Mentor Text Challenge.  Today I want to tell you a bit about Condor’s Egg by Jonathan London.

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Condor’s Egg is a realistic story about a family of California Condors in the wild.  As is typical with London, the language is lyrical and carefully chosen.  His use of verbs evokes movement and creates a sense of action.  And as an added bonus, there is factual information about California Condors at the end of the book as well as a guide to using the book with children.

During the 2012-13 school year, after reading the book as part of our study of birds, we used a number of sentences from this book as mentor sentences for our students to study and then to replicate with their own content.

Here’s one sentence we studied: Circling, he rides the warm air, higher than the tops of the clouds. This is a tricky construction with the main part of the sentence between the parentheses where extra information is often deposited.

T (a second grader) created this sentence–a close approximation:  Roaring, they start their engines, then the drivers shoot off the starting line.

J (another second grader) came up with this one:  Building, Steve builds a square house, nice and safe!

Here’s one from a first grader (Okay–I know it’s not fair–this is a talented writer!): Running, she goes through the house as fast as she can, trying to get away from the pretend monster.

And here’s one more second grader: Diving, she is determined to catch it, landing on the dusty floor of the canyon.

We used many sentences from this book and explored creating our own sentences following the pattern of London’s sentences.  By doing this my students had opportunities to try out new sentence structures, which later showed up in their own writing.

I was thinking about the Jonathan London titles that I use…here’s a few:

  • Dream Weaver
  • Condor’s Egg
  • Puddles
  • The Waterfall
  • Like Butter on Pancakes

How have you used London’s books?  What titles do you like?

Dream Weaver: a Mentor Text

Sometimes it is the simplest books that pack a powerful punch.  When I started to consider a recommendation for the #113texts Mentor Text Challenge so many books came to mind.  I expect to add more than one!

dream weaver

Dream Weaver by Jonathan London is one of those simple books with beautiful language.  The verbs create an orchestra of sound and movement.

A sudden wind, and the trees hum, the branches creak, and Yellow Spider’s web shimmers, like wind across a pond.  But she hangs on and you stay with her.  The whole world is in these leaves.

Besides the language, there are two other features of the book that I love.  One is the way the books uses the space on the page and draws you in close to feel the insect view and then pulls back to give a human perspective.  I also love that the back of the book includes facts about spiders.  (The fiction/non-fiction mix is one of my favorites!)

This year we used this book as one of several to teach beginnings.  Here’s the text of the first page:

Nestled in the soft earth beside the path, you see a little yellow spider.

This beginning takes the reader directly to the “place” in the book.  Our students wrote a piece where they highlighted the qualities of our local community–exploring ways to share their opinions with evidence from their own experience.  But like most young writers, they are still working to build effective beginnings.  So they studied this beginning from Jonathan London and many tried their hand at making this structure work in their own writing.  (Nestled did become a favorite word in our class!)

Here’s a couple of examples from students:

“B” , a second grader wrote this opening

Nestled between the blue beach and the desert there’s a small town called Cardiff-by-the Sea

Okay–I’m not sure that the beach and desert are quite close enough to “nestle” this little town, but she definitely got the idea!

“K”, a third grader tried this version where the setting is revealed in a similar way without using the word “nestled.”

A little town called Cardiff lies between two other towns in Southern California: Encinitas and Del Mar.

There are many ways to use this book as a mentor text.  I highly recommend it, especially for students in grades K-3.  I’d love to know how you’ve used this book (or others like it)!