If your kids are anything like the ones in my life, both at home and at school, then they love YouTube. When I ask them what they watch, they list names of YouTubers.
At first, I scoffed at this medium that seems to absorb all their energy. Then I started noticing something.
It started last summer after I kicked my three kids outside to play. They were writing in their notebooks furiously. Being my nosy self, I peered over their shoulders.
My kids, who are wonderfully, beautifully average, were planning their upcoming YouTube “projects”. They’d found an old digital camera and had been making videos (but not yet posting them anywhere). Upon further inspection, I noticed that many of these videos ideas were inspired by ones they watched endlessly on YouTube. They were using the texts they love as a way to generate ideas for their own composing. Further, they were using YouTube as a mentor text.
They reminded me that often when I use mentor texts in my own instruction, I want students to use the mentors to generate their own ideas. Whether we read The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown, or an essay about Hermione Granger in The New York Times, I want student writers to use those texts as launching pads for their own thinking around topics. I know that one of the most important things that writers do is choose topics that inspire them. I also know that doesn’t happen by accident or chance or magic. We have to teach students how to find their ideas and mentor texts can help us do that.
A few months later, my 10-year-old son started his own YouTube channel. One day I walked into his bedroom where I saw his bulletin board covered in notes. He had created a vision board about his channel where he posted a criteria list focused on what he had been noticing in other videos. Upon further inspection, I noticed he had also created a template for a video. He was making note of the patterns in the videos, his mentor texts. He paying attention to the structure of a video, to the introduction (the intro) as well as the conclusion (the outro). He also made notes about what not to do.
Jacob’s work around structure reminds us that another way of looking at mentor texts is through the eyes of organizational patterns. When we ask students to notice how something is built, we invite them to create possibilities for their own writing. I want my students to read like writers and to make choices about the way they might structure a piece of writing. Mentor texts help us create a vision for doing that and they empower students to uncover those possibilities themselves.
As Jacob’s gotten better at making these videos, I’ve noticed that he’s also gotten better at the craft within the videos. He and his younger brother Justin decided to launch a series together (of which they’ve only made one episode). When I watch just the first minute of the video, I notice the way they use their voices and gestures. I notice the way they set the stage, displaying the title. I notice how they have clearly rehearsed what they’re going to say. These are all things they’ve picked up from watching their favorite videos, from studying the mentor texts. They identified nuances that add voice and flavor to the text, and then they tried it
Their attempts at incorporating these moves reminds me that another way to consider using mentor texts is to think about the ways we can teach students to read like writers. When we teach students to hone in on the craft moves a writer makes and to think about the purpose of the moves, they can start to think on a granular level about their own writing. The next step is to try those moves out in our own writing.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR TEACHING?
As I notice the way my own kids have become immersed in these texts, I can’t help but think about how this relates to my own teaching using mentor texts. It’s not enough to show students a text and say, “Okay, now do this in your own writing.” We know that doesn’t work. Instead of becoming frustrated that kids don’t “get it,” I want to instead use mentor texts with intention.
Using mentor texts is also a process. I can’t expect for students to be able to look at a text and consider ideas, structure and craft all at once. I have to carve out time for students to be able to work through the different ways mentor texts can support them as writers. I have to teach with intention so they can write with intention.
When I consider immersing students in the kinds of writing that will help them grow as writers, I want them to have the same kind of authentic experience as my kids did. As a teacher, I also want to lean in to exploring all the ways mentor texts can look in my classroom — anything from YouTube videos to essays to infographics can help nudge writers to think about how to generate ideas, how to make choices about structure and how to develop their craft.
If you’d like to learn more about finding mentor texts, you can check out this smart Mentor Texts Are Everywhere.