My mentee Sarah, a new-to-the-district teacher in the midst of an intense co-teaching experience (where on an average day seven adults supported thirty students with an expanding continuum of needs), was filling me in on the narrative her students would be drafting. Support for students while drafting is critical. Sarah’s students would need questions answered, ideas suggested, and gentle encouragement: just-in-time support. Which is why I blurted out, “We should see if the AP Lit. kids will help!”.
Why AP Lit. kids? Why not?! By the time they reach AP Literature in our building, these students have completed two advanced English courses and a college level composition course (AP Language). Skilled, these students know what good writing looks like and how to produce it. But more than that, the AP Lit. kids could be–as Shana coined and Amy embellished on–living mentor texts.
As living mentor texts, the AP Lit. kids’ stories differ from the current story of this particular classroom and the many stories of the students in it; the AP Lit. students are further along the learning journey. No one would be comparing the writing generated by Sarah’s students to these mentors, and there’s comfort–safety–in that.
I did worry a little, though. While our AP Lit. students successfully provide feedback for writers in the advanced sophomore course, routinely mentoring them, I didn’t know how this would translate to a co-taught classroom. Would our living mentor texts help the sophomores optimize their skills and ultimately their stories as writers?
Steps of the Experience
Before escorting the seniors to Sarah’s room, I briefed them on the parameters of the narrative writing assignment. After coaching the seniors to listen, paraphrase, question, ask to look at the writing, offer suggestions, and celebrate strengths, we headed to Sarah’s classroom. Following introductions, the seniors began moving about the room, neatly engaging the sophomores in conversation about their writing, inviting them to story-tell. Of course, my worry was needless.
Reflections on the Outcome
Sarah certainly saw the power of their interactions:
“I saw my students open up so much more. Students who were nervous or uncertain about asking me questions or getting feedback were so much more willing to talk to peers. The students seemed to look up to these upperclassmen. Even if the seniors said the same thing I did as a teacher, the students took the senior’s perspective so seriously and really engaged with the process fully. Even if it was only a few minute conversations, the students really appreciated having someone who could check in with them right away. A lot of the base level questions could be answered more efficiently since there were more “experts” to share. Especially in a large class of 30 like mine was, it is hard for the teacher to get to spend quality time each student. This allowed for more contact time with each student.”
When Sarah later collected her students’ reflections on what type of feedback they found most helpful for their narrative essay, so many noted their living mentor texts.
“The AP people helped a lot. They just were there when I needed help or was stuck.”
“The peer mentors helped me see where I could transition or use better words.”
“Having an upperclassman helped me see how other people might do the essay which helped me think of new ways to write.”
“The AP students were new eyes and that helped me get over my writer’s block.”
“I liked that other students from another class saw my paper. It wasn’t pressure like a teacher grading but I still got feedback.”
Wanting to know what impact being a living mentor text had on the senior volunteers, I asked them to reflect on the experience.
Emily felt both “inspired to stop taking her English skills so lightly” and “inspired to use [her skills] to their full potential.”
Claire noted that “[the students] seemed really appreciative of [her] help, and seemed like they really wanted to talk about their writing. In helping and talking to them, [she] realized that [she does] have the ability to be a writer.”
Kyler reflected that “[t]he goal is getting students to revise and revise until they feel they’ve created something great. The smiles that came across some students’ faces when [he] told them [he] loved a part of a sentence or a comparison were fulfilling…The world of writing is something [he] really enjoy[s], and to share that joy by helping others consider the impact they can have is always a joyful experience.”
While Sarah and I loved the story of her classroom those two days, we experienced less success the next attempt. But we’ll try again. We’ll schedule the AP Lit. students more specifically, we’ll partner students according to need, we’ll invite the AP Lit. mentors to support the sophomores throughout the writing process. We’ll even explore digital mentoring through Google Docs. Sarah’s optimistic that increased access to our living mentor texts would increase confidence in her writers, helping them to grow. And, I am too.
My fellow AP and advanced teachers plan to expand the current mentoring as well. AP Lit. students and AP Lang. students will continue to guide our advanced sophomores; yet starting next fall we hope our advanced sophomores will mentor our advanced ninth graders (who are in different buildings). What a way to use writing to foster connection!
I know there are exceptional peer writing tutor programs out there. But in these times of budget cuts and burgeoning class sizes, tapping into resources like Emily, Claire, Kyler, and the others who serve without expectation of reward is powerful. Many of the students–mentors and mentees–recognized the value in the stories of others and in their own. Their perspectives on writing, on others, and on themselves shifted, ever just so slightly.
It’s a small way to change the world. Or at least grow writers.
Kristin Jeschke teaches AP Language and Composition and College Prep seniors at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She loves when her former students eagerly volunteer their services for the underclassmen yet upstream, and she loves serving as mentor to her two favorite mentees, Abbie and Sarah. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.