What prompted you to begin the process of noticing examples of mentor texts or craft study?
Jackie: When I first started teaching, finding mentor texts proved to be difficult. While I knew what made writing strong or well-crafted, I didn’t always know what I was looking for. Instead, I would eat up a plot line, soaking in word choice (I have always loved words), but rarely did I stop to think about how an author sculpted a line or page or chapter. Finally, after struggling with structuring a piece of fiction writing, I referred back to To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Intrigued by her ability to create a scenes that showed the progression of time, I read and re-read the novel, observing her intentional moves as a writer. Gradually, I began understanding the value of mentor texts to my own writing.
The skill is not easy, and I have learned more about myself as a reader in the time I have taught than I ever did during my schooling. While reading like a writer does slow down the reading process, it also makes me appreciate the artistry of writing. It makes me aware of my own moves as a writer and how writing, like any other form of art, is about discipline, awareness, and interpretation.
Shana: I didn’t know about the concept of mentor texts, or craft studies, or imitating great writers, or even reading like a writer…until I took Penny Kittle’s UNHLit class in 2013. Everything that summer blew my mind, and I was hungry to begin looking for strong examples of real writing for my students to study, imitate, and craft. I learned about lots of authors, nonfiction writers, poets, journalists, and more while I was at UNH, and in the year following I learned to think back to my own favorites and ask my students for their recommendations when I needed more mentor texts.
Once I began thinking about writing instruction in terms of products I wanted my students to create, I learned to start searching for examples of those strong products. Sometimes I seek out a specific genre of mentor text if I want to teach a unit about narrative fiction. Other times, I find an amazing mentor text and design a unit around getting kids to create that specific genre.
Describe your process as you search for examples of mentor texts and craft studies.
Shana: I read much more slowly now. Almost all of my reading is of texts that could be used for craft study in my classroom, or books that might go well on the shelves of my classroom library. I think about writing and reading in such new ways now that I almost unconsciously note a good page for a booktalk, a beautiful line for craft study, or an interesting segment of writing for a mentor text.
To build an arsenal of texts for use in my classroom, I began to scour the award lists for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and lists of recommendations by groups like ALA, Kirkus, and more. I also value the recommendations of literacy greats in our field like Donalyn Miller, Carol Jago, and Penny Kittle. I want strong, complex writing to hand my students, so that they can absorb the craft of good writing through constant, diverse exposure.
Now, most of the mentor texts I discover are incidental–I stumble upon a lovely sentence in a book I’m reading, or I see someone tweet a link to a good article, or I’m struck by a student’s craft as I’m reading their writing. I try to give a published example, a student example, and my own example as an “in-progress” mentor text, in keeping with the recommendations of Katie Wood Ray in Wondrous Words.
Jackie: Now that I have begun practicing reading as a writer, I am more aware of the mentor texts that surround me every day. It took about a year of intentionally slowing down my reading, contemplating the craft, and thinking about where to file the piece within my units for me to develop this practice.
From Pinterest finds to articles to book excerpts to poems, I am constantly searching for pieces that will inspire and engage my students. Most of my finds feed into mini-lessons that tackle current skills with which my students struggle. For example, Many of my students grapple with the use of second person point of view and use it as a default instead of intentionally employing it to reach out to and connect with their audience. After the November Paris attacks, I found a piece that brilliantly uses second person point of view to help students develop empathy with Syrian refugees. This piece serves to not only guide them but also make them think about the intentional moves needed to connect with one’s readers.
I also look for mentor texts in classic literature and young adult reads. These short excerpts teach my students phenomenal craft while dually serving as a mini-book talk. The writing sells itself. I always have students request The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls after I use the first chapter as a mentor text for multi-scene narratives as well as a craft study for opening lines. The same goes for when I use The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt when I use a short explosion scene to discuss snapshot narratives.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss how we employ found mentor texts in our classrooms. Join the conversation in the comments–how and why do you seek out mentor texts?