Category Archives: Mentor Texts

Maybe the Best #MentorText I’ve Found Lately

Don’t you just love to find mentor texts that make your head spin with ideas? Okay, maybe it’s just me.

But take a look at this one and see what you think:  The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now, published in the NY Times.

I’m not sure how I’ll use it yet — I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around teaching seniors everything they can possibly need to know to be successful as readers and writers beyond high school when I only have them in class one semester. (We are on accelerated block.) But this text is way cool, and I think most of my students will like it.

It’s got music and images and music started playing without me even doing anything.

It’s got analysis and commentary and reflection. It’s multi-modal!

As I begin thinking and planning for what comes next in my instruction, I’m moving this to the top of my mentor text stack.

I’d love to know your ideas on how students might write beside it. Please leave your ideas in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English at a large suburban high school in North Texas. She loves her school, her students, and adding mentor texts to her ever-growing lists of “We Could Do This to Learn That.” She’s a bit of a fanatic about matching readers to books and writers to whatever it takes to help them amplify their voices. Follow Amy @amyrass — and if you’re reading this, our team would love it if you follow this blog if you aren’t already.

3 Ways to Help Students Tell a Story They’ve Never Told

This morning, with the new audiobook release of Don Graves’ Children Want to Write (narrated by two of our teacher heroes, Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk!), I’m thinking about that true fact: children do want to write. We all do. Our minds are, after all, made for stories.

Children Want to Write (Audiobook)

But to tell our stories is a challenge in so many ways. We live in an age of distraction, many of us are often silenced by society, or we struggle to find an audience we trust.

But most of all, many of us don’t know how to tell a story if we’ve never seen a story like ours told before.

Stop and think about this concept, etched in my mind by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop with her concepts of books as windows, mirrors, and doors. I’ve spent a good deal of my planning time outside of school finding books that can act as windows, mirrors, and doors for my students to either see through, see themselves in, or walk beyond.

But I’m interested today in the way we go further with that discovery. Once you find yourself in a story, how can you tell your own? I realized years ago that I wasn’t just reading voraciously to find my own story; I was looking for a storyteller with whom I could identify: a living, breathing mentor text. I found it when I met Penny Kittle at the New Hampshire Summer Literacy Institutes, a teacher-writer-mother who counseled me on sustainable ways to balance my young children with the work of teaching well.

Until I met Penny, and was bolstered by her support and willingness to share her own story of struggling to be a mom-slash-teacher, I didn’t know how to tell my story. And until I did, I couldn’t be a living, breathing mentor text for my own students, who were thirsting to tell their own stories.

As English teachers, we are blessed to have the opportunity to be that mentor text for our students: teacher-writers who practice, every day, finding and telling stories that resonate. It’s my favorite part of this work, the joy of getting to read and write powerful stories alongside our students. We can offer space for storytelling in our classrooms in three key ways–with vibrant mentor texts, opportunities for playing with genres, and the time to tinker and devote our study to narrative.

  • A well-stocked classroom library, frequent and varied book talks, and mentor texts that flood our students with diverse voices and stories offer our students windows, mirrors, and doors through which they can discover empathy for others and themselves. Seeing a range of stories disrupts the concept of “normal” and helps students see the world in shades of grey, rather than just black and white.
  • Quickwrites and mini-lessons that allow students to play with genre offer possibilities for storytelling they may not have considered: poems, lists, fiction, memoirs, vlogs, podcasts, and multimodel texts show how we can allow the concept of story to flourish in any medium.
  • Time to write: every day, in quickwrites and in workshops, but also over time–when we devote more than just a unit, or a quarter, or a set of standards to the idea of story. We put our money where our mouths are when we return to story again and again, through concepts of argument, informative writing, or creative fiction and nonfiction.

When we offer our students these ingredients, we create a recipe for storytelling that brings authenticity, relevance, and power to our classrooms. A community of readers and writers can be transformed into a workshop of storytellers, who speak and listen through the powerful lens of narrative.

We invite you to share in the comments how you bring story into your classroom!

Shana Karnes loves to read, write, and find stories everywhere in Madison, Wisconsin alongside her two young daughters, hardworking husband, and inspiring teacher friends. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

New Learning Territories and a Growth Mindset

I’ve mentioned before that I have two new “preps” to which I’m slowly adjusting. I’ve had a tendency to shoulder forward into new experiences with mixed results.  HulkSometimes enthusiasm and energy carry me through the learning part at the beginning. Other times, I’ve made mistakes caused by my straight-line approach that could have been avoided. Perhaps I’ve trended more towards the Hulk, when a more intentional, Bruce Banner style might have served me better.

Patience, I’ve learned in my old age, is truly a virtue.

Moving into the realm of an advanced class that focuses on rhetoric is a challenge all to itself. Couple that with a move to sophomore English where students have different literacy needs than the freshman I worked with last year, and I’ve gotten myself into a situation that demands open-mindedness, near constant reflection, and growth.

While these classes appear to diverge completely in content, I would argue that they have something important in common: an environment where workshop works.  In one class we learn about building narrative, in the other we explore the rhetorical situation. For me, success lies in the “invitation.” I can’t drag them towards a greater understanding of reading and writing anymore than I can make my daughter move faster when we are headed out the door in a hurry.

Examining the structure of a Rhetorical Precis recently, I took the risk of holding back the “notes” and letting the students tell me what they thought the elements of an effective rhetorical precis might be.  I had MY notes, of course, but the students built the anchor chart that we use. Unsurprisingly, each of the three classes noticed elements that the other classes didn’t, providing me valuable data and helping me understand the learners even better.

As I shared my writing with them, I had to be vulnerable. When they asked me about my writing decisions, I needed to have answers. This held true across both levels.

Our sophomores learned about creating effective characters, and it was their search through the mentor texts that informed their understanding, and those elements found their way into the writing.

We read self-selected books and utilize reader’s/writer’s notebooks in all my classes. They may diverge in content, but the importance in those connections remains paramount.

Conferring with readers and writers dominates the time before and after mini-lessons.  The effectiveness of one-on-one instruction doesn’t change because one student might read or write better than another.

One size does not fit all, and I know that teachers deserve autonomy.  The autonomy afforded me empowers our workshop to work in two totally different environments with totally different sets of students.  Their needs, however, are the same. They need to move forward in their literacy; be better tomorrow than they were today. The skills are different, but that’s where my work comes in.

This journey can not be survived alone.

I’ve learned, in a few short weeks, that the only path to success this year runs through a few very specific places: the office of our instructional coach, the room of my department head (from whom I’m learning how to teach rhetoric), and the room in which our sophomore team gathers as we plan our units and our lessons. It’s going to take a village to raise this learner.

I remain steadfastly committed to a workshop that centers on readers and writers, and the first five weeks of this school year have only strengthened that resolve.

Many of our readers at 3 Teachers Talk have brilliant ideas, and I hope to learn from our writers and our readers.  If you want to collaborate, email me at mooreliteracy1@gmail.com.


Charles Moore loves watching his son play football for the first time ever.  He loves to read, write, and learn along side readers and writers. Check out his twitter at @ctcoach.  If you headed to ILA, come see us at 11 on Saturday October 12th for our presentation on novels in verse. Our clothing will coordinate… I promise.

Mentor Texts: Lifting Lines and Elevating Self

When working with mentor texts in notebooks, lifting a line–pulling a line or phrase or sentence for its aesthetics and using it as a launching point to generate writing–remains such an important strategy, as Ralph Fletcher notes here. Of course, we want our writers to work with parts of a text that will help them learn to not just write their ideas but to craft.  But I think these lines, these (where appropriate writer-selected) lines, can also elevate the writer somehow. These lines just might move writers in ways where they’re compelled to study themselves just as closely as the craft.  These lines can tug writers into the stratosphere. 

I felt myself lifted as I read Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change this summer (This book about how to teach social comprehension offers numerous mentor texts.). One line in particular heightened my summer reflection: “Understand that everyone’s identity is at stake.” Whoa. 

The urgency of this challenged me to think and write and think and write and ultimately create; the best lines to lift should compel writers to create! In this case, my co-coach and I worked to plan professional development for our returning teachers. In Ahmed’s words, we wanted to “make way for the voices, emotions, and experiences of others,” so we centered our time on identity–individual and the staff’s, the students’, the building’s. And then, in our efforts to use story to promote digital literacy, we used America Ferrera’s Ted Talk My Identity Is a Superpower Not an Obstacle. As staff watched, we encouraged them to respond in their notebooks, ultimately suggesting that they choose a line and reflect on how they can carry it into the year with them. 

My hope is that as staff scans their notebooks during our next professional development, they will see this line. They will consider themselves and others, identities at stake. And this line will lift them toward possibility. 

Kristin Jeschke is an English teacher turned Instructional Coach in Waukee, Iowa. After nineteen years as an English teacher, she’s currently re-imagining her identity. But she’s excited for all that’s possible.  Follow her on twitter @kajeschke.

Guest Post: I’ve been thinking about Ghosts or What I’ve learned about the power of mentors…and time by Elizabeth Oosterheert

“That version of the story–that version of my life without my husband in it–is a ghost I carry around with me. It’s always there, beneath the surface of my real life. I feel…so grateful that this big, messy, joyous life isn’t a ghost life, but mine…”
Kate Hope Day for The New York Times

Joe and Toby

Joe & Toby after a performance of the 2018 play, Merlin’s Fire

If you’re like me, when the end of the school year arrives, you entertain the ghosts of what might have been. These lingering ghosts are questions like:  What if I had spent more time conferencing with that student? What if I had found this mentor text a little sooner? What if I had done more mini-lessons about . . .

And the list goes on.

I learned a few lessons during this past year I hope will have a positive impact on EVERY facet of my readers’ and writers’ workshop for next year. My teacher’s soul already knew this, but I recognized more powerfully than ever before that the right mentor texts at the right time, combined with enough space to explore craft moves and to write about things that matter, makes all the difference.

My students love what I call food literature (thanks to @KarlaHilliard for this amazing idea!),  a writing study we do after Christmas composed entirely of reflections about food. This takes the form of food narratives, poetry, listicles, or critical reviews.

We study mentor texts, and then students choose a direction based on the ideas they’ve developed in both handwritten and digital notebooks.  After discussing many mentors, and highlighting craft observations, students list powerful descriptive words, make notes about the writer’s voice,  and practice composing complex sentences based on passages in the mentor pieces.

I encouraged my students to consider food in the context of specific flavors and seasons. 

Childhood and adolescence have unique tastes. December has a far different flavor than July. What we quickly noticed is that food literature is about so much more than what is on our plates. It’s about savoring cherished memories.

Another frame that worked well for food narrative that is also very effective for other kinds of autobiographical writing is an idea adapted from Penny Kittle that I call Then and Now:

Then I thought, but now I know. . .

When we write Then and Now snapshots, we admit that our understanding of everything from food, to sports, to relationships evolves as we age and learn how difficult it is to be a human being.

Three new mentor texts spoke powerfully to my students. One was “Carrying the Ghosts of Lives Unlived,” published in the Ties section of The New York Times, written by Kate Hope Day. While this piece is NOT about food, it is about how, in Day’s words, “There are hinge points in time when life could be one thing, or another.” My students applied  this mentor to our food study, writing about different life seasons, and how sometimes seemingly small decisions have a BIG impact.

Another New York Times piece that was very helpful to us  was “Christmas Fudge and Misremembered Snow Cream” by Rhiannon Giles.  I composed a piece for my students based on this mentor about the flavors of my childhood.  An excerpt is linked here.  Students then wrote about their own life flavors, recipes, or memorable meals.

Finally, we studied “Ode to Cheese Fries” by Jose Olivarez. What I love is that my discerning, sensitive, wondering students used that poem to create beautiful reflections on some of their fears about adolescence and daily pressures assailing them. In his poem, “Pack of Ranch Sunflower Seeds,” Toby, one of my eighth grade authors, wrote:

 

What if I’m the small seed

With a big shell

Waiting in the bag

Pleading not to be eaten up

By the mouth

Called life

And my inner seed gets revealed

And my outer shell is thrown out and trampled

By reality

 

Maybe I should chew more bubble gum

 

The rest of Toby’s poem is linked here. 

Our food study is a ghost that haunts me, because I hope that I can continue to make it more authentic. For now, though, I have to remember to be grateful for the time and the writing that was — and in the words of Mary Oliver, give thanks for my “one wild and precious life” and the students’ lives that intersect with mine every day.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte

I’ve Been Thinking…About Heroes (Or What I’ve Learned from Eighth Graders This Year) Guest Post by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Theater1

Eighth Grade Theatre Troupe members rehearse a scene from Peter Pan

Every great story has a beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order.

We are all great stories…Phil Kaye

As the first days of June open like flowers, I’m thinking about the courage, complexity, and vulnerability of the eighth graders I taught this year…and all that I learned as we wrote together, and spent time on stage.

My students suffered. They experienced everything from abuse, to the death of a parent and coach, to Stage IV cancer. It was heartrending. And it was glorious, because they used tragedy to craft some of the most beautiful, honest writing I’ve ever read from middle school students, and their wounds gave them authenticity on stage, as many of them joined my theatre troupe.

What were our favorite mentor texts?

TheaterIn  writing workshop, my students’ favorite things to compose were Spoken Word poetry and film analysis. When I asked students what their favorite mentor text was at the end of the year, most of them chose “Tony Steinberg: Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior” by Taylor Mali.

In a poem that Mali says took him three years to write, he recounts what it was like to lose a seventh grade student to cancer, and also incorporates some of his best teaching memories.

Mali masterfully employs the metaphor of the Viking ship,  their belief in Valhalla, and the importance of dying valiantly in battle.

Students selected a captivating line or  image from the poem, and wrote from that. Not surprisingly, in a year when cancer was impacting so many of my students’ families, this poem resonated with them.

Following is an excerpt from a co-authored poem written by Trevan and Hayden, after listening to and writing beside the “Tony Steinberg” mentor text:

We’ve seen cancer take more than hair.

We’ve seen it take joy,  peace, and life.

Cancer has stolen our coach’s joy,

and torn the heart of his son like a gift ripped away from a child.

Cancer

/kansər/

A disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body sometimes causing death.

Cancer can be battled, beaten like a knight in shining armor overcoming an army.

We watched it advance…

 

The Outsiders DallasIn addition to being inspired by Spoken Word poets, particularly Taylor Mali and Phil Kaye, my students enjoyed the autonomy of writing about memorable characters when we studied book and  film analysis. Our favorite mentor text for character study was “Katniss Everdeen is my Hero” by Sabaa Tahir, published in the New York Times.

In using this mentor text, students had the opportunity to borrow many excellent craft moves, such as the way that Tahir opened her commentary by explaining how she first “met” Katniss Everdeen.

Writing in front of my students, I imitated this craft move by sharing my first encounter with Dallas Winston, the toughest member of Pony’s gang, in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

Dallas Winston and I met on a summer’s day in 2002.

Countless colleagues had urged me to read The Outsiders, yet for some reason the book and I had never crossed paths. At the time, I wondered how a story written so many years ago could still resonate with teenagers. Days away from the birth of my first child, I decided to embrace stillness long enough to give the gold-dusted pages a try, reasoning that my advanced pregnancy made everything other than reading–from tying my shoes to my habit of  swimming a mile every morning–a challenge.

Resting beneath the branches of an ancient pine tree in my front yard, with only a few persistent sparrows for company, I read the book in one afternoon, ignoring everything but the words on the pages as the characters’ lives entranced me as deeply as any magic spell.

Of all the characters in Pony’s gang, it was Dallas Winston who hooked me from his first appearance. Dallas is a character of contradictions, claiming a stone cold heart,  yet lending his gun to two desperate boys and helping to shelter them in Windrixville. Scorning love, but ultimately dying for it. Dallas’ character stayed with me long after I read Pony’s last words about him. I wondered about the tough but broken hearted boy who died under a streetlight with an unloaded gun and Two Bit’s jet handled switchblade.. To some, he died a nameless hoodlum, but Pony knew the truth.  Dallas died young, reckless, and gallant, a true gentleman in a blood soaked jacket who got what he wanted.

So I could write much more about the  eighth grade heroes I taught this year. Like Dallas, they are gallant. They have broken hearts that are healing as they leave eighth grade and look forward to their high school chapters. They’ve reminded me that one is never too young to harness the healing power of the written word.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte.

Q & A: Where do you find mentor texts for informational reading and writing? #3TTworkshop

Questions AnsweredHere’s the thing:  Finding engaging mentor texts, whether to integrate current events into lesson plans or use them to teach reading and writing skills, requires us to be readers of the world.

“I don’t have time,” I hear some thinking. Yeah, well, finding the time to read ourselves is the best professional development available.

Want to engage students more in independent reading? Read a wide variety of engaging and inclusive YA literature. Want to shake up literature studies? Read more diverse and award-winning literature. Want to bring real world events into the classroom for some critical discussion? Read a whole bunch of news.

There’s no secret to finding mentors that will work. We just have to do the work to find them.

We can rely on others to help. Kelly Gallagher posts the articles of the week he uses with his students — a good resource. Moving Writers has a mentor text dropbox — also good. However, what works for some students may not work for others. We know this.

We also know our students. We know the instructional goals we have for them, and we know what they need from us in terms of interest and ability (at least we should.)

So — read more. Read with a lens that will best meet your needs and the needs of your students. Sometimes we find treasure.

For me treasured mentors, particularly for informational texts — because they often get a bad rep — are those that are not boring. (In my experience, most students think info texts are boring.) Voice, format, and style = engaging real world informational writing.

I’m sure there’s more out there, but here’s three sources I read regularly. Sometimes I pull long excerpts, sometimes paragraphs, sometimes sentences to use as mentors.

The Hustle. “Your smart, good looking friend that sends you an email each morning with all the tech and business news you need to know for the day.” You can sign up for the newsletter here. Here’s a sampling of a great piece with imbedded graphs and data: How teenage hackers became tech’s go-to bounty hunters. This is a mentor I would love to use with high school classes.

The Skimm. (I’ve shared this before.) “Making it easier for you to live smarter.” Sign up for the newsletter here. The women who started this site are all about promoting and advocating for women. I like that. Their podcast is interesting, too.

Robinhood Snacks. “Your daily dose of financial news.” I’ve been teaching myself about investing for the past couple of years, so this one just made sense to me — the newbie-tentative investor. What I like is how the writers make the information so accessible — and they post a “Snack fact of the day,” which will often work as an interesting quickwrite prompt. Sign up for the newsletter here.

What about you? Do you have favorite resources to stay in the loop of the news or to find treasured mentors for informational reading and writing? Please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen spends a little too much time reading daily newsletters and checking her most recent stock purchases. Her favorite investing apps:  Robinhood, Stash, and Acorns. Really, if she can do it, you can, too. Amy lives, writes, and loves her family in North Texas. Follow her @amyrass

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