It’s a startling reality, but many of my seniors do not know how to read like writers. I spend a good part of the beginning of a semester helping students look at how an author crafts a text.
This still surprises me.
The seniors I have in class this spring have all passed their state mandated English exams. A big chunk of these Texas state exams, both English I and English II, ask questions in the reading portion about author’s craft. (I haven’t explicitly studied the question stems in a few years, but I am guessing at least half.) In trying to get students to talk about the writer’s moves, most of my students get stuck talking about meaning.
Of course, meaning is important — but not when we are using a text to help us move as writers. In workshop lingo, we call this using mentor texts.
How do we learn to write anything well if we don’t study the work of writers who write well?
When I was first asked to write recommendation letters, I studied well-written recommendation letters. When I begin to write a grant proposal, I study how to write an effective grant proposal. When I need to write a speech, I study well-written inspiring speeches. There are solid examples for every kind of writing.
I want my students to know this. If they learn anything from me this spring, I hope it is this:
We learn how to write well by studying effective writing. To quote Kelly Gallagher: “Before you can film a dogfight, you have to know what one looks like. Before our students can write well in a given discourse, they need to see good writing in that discourse”. (Read Gallagher’s “Making the Most of Mentor Texts” for an excellent detailing of how.)
Yesterday Charles wrote about scaffolding a reading lesson. The same type of lesson, but with an eye toward reading like a writer, worked recently with my seniors.
It all started when I saw this tweet:
I thought: “Okay, this may be a relatively painless way to get my writers into writing. We will use this text as a mentor and write our own GIF guides.” (Quick change in lesson plans on the drive to work.)
First, we started with a conversation about GIFs. This NY Times Learning Lesson has some good questions. We wrote our thinking in our notebooks and shared in table groups. Then, not quite as planned, the conversation shifted to how to pronounce GIF. “Um, it’s JIFF, Mrs. Rass, the creator of them said so.”
In case you are wondering: I think the creator is wrong. But, does it really matter? I just wanted my students to use GIFs as an entry point into writing using mentors.
To help students understand how to study a text for a writer’s moves, I copied the text into a document, and removed the images, so students would focus on the language. Then I crafted a list of questions. Taking a cue from Talk Read Talk Write by Nancy Motley, I cut the questions up and gave a set to each small group. They spent the better part of a class period studying the text and using the questions as a guide.
Later, we brainstormed topics we thought would work, eliminating some that were too broad, and discussing ones that would lend well to a how-to or informational type of writing. Students then completed this document, so they could see my expectations for the writing task, and I could approve their topics.
Students talked. They wrote. I taught mini-lessons on introductions and sentence structure. Students revised. Some taught themselves how to make GIFS.
Most surprised me with their finished GIF guides. Here’s a sampling of a few. (Disregard the citing of sources — that’s still on the Need-to-Learn list.)
Students, no matter their age, will write when we give them the tools and the time they need to be successful writers.
Sure, not all of my students produced solid writing — yet. But I am hopeful. We are only a about a month into the course, and most students now have a writing success story.
That confidence matters.
For a great read on helping students write, read “Children Can Write Authentically if We Help Them” by Donald Graves.
I’d love to know the fun or interesting mentor texts you use to get your students to take a chance on writing. Please share in the comments.
Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. Go, Farmers! When she’s not skimming the news or her Twitter feed for mentor texts, she’s reading books to match with her readers or thinking about the rest she might get during spring break. Eight days, but who’s counting? Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk, and she invites you to follow this blog if you aren’t already.