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!
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.
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?