Tag Archives: Mentor Texts

Mini-Lesson Monday: Great Sportswriting is Worth Two Reads

In fifth grade, I attended a writing workshop with sportswriter Paul Daugherty at the helm.  A columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, he encouraged we wee ten-year-olds to think about how we might revise more quickly and do our prewriting in our heads.  He spoke about his experiences writing half a story while watching a game unfold, sometimes being tempted to write the ending before the ending had even occurred.  At age ten, I found him eloquent, mysterious, and inspiring–I decided then that I wanted to be a journalist.

Although I dropped my journalism major after one year in college, I still enjoy Daughterty’s columns in the Enquirer and occasionally Sports Illustrated.  And as an adult, I see his process in his product.  The craft of Daugherty’s writing is one of the things that made me enjoy sportswriting, and now, strong pieces about America’s most-loved athletic pastimes are some of my favorite things to read.

So, when Tom Romano sent me this piece from the New York Times, I thought immediately of how students would love the “metaphorical, descriptive” writing “with quotes and assertions and a great final line.”

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Tom Romano’s great description of this piece in the Times.

Objectives: Identify patterns in the author’s writing to characterize his voice; find where the author cites evidence that supports his claims; infer the writer’s process; apply concepts of writer’s voice and strong argument writing to your own nonfiction pieces.

Lesson:  I’ll distribute copies of “Twitchy, Sweaty, but Triumphant” by Michael Powell for students to read, but I’ll also have the piece projected on the Smart Board so kids can see the great accompanying photography.

Because ’tis the season of moving past narrative and into nonfiction writing (in which we often harness the power of narrative, by the way) students will have already been immersed in a study of making claims supported by evidence, crafting a clear and purposeful structure, and maintaining a voice and style that defy the conventions of a five-paragraph you-know-what.  This article will serve as a mentor text that features all three, plus some insight into that long-ago lesson I learned from Paul Daugherty: the speed of a sportswriter’s process.

“We’ve been studying a variety of nonfiction pieces that have great style as well as strong claims–commentaries, columns, and speeches.  And here’s another example of those traits in this sports article.

“As you read it, look for the writer’s voice and the way the writer makes claims and supports them with evidence, as we’ve been doing throughout this unit,” I request.

We take ten minutes to read through the article, annotating quickly and noting writerly moves that jump out at us.  I model on the document camera, noting what I see–the unnamed players throughout the first paragraphs of the piece, creating a universal scene; the sheer entertainment of his vocabulary (words like gluttonous, beatnik, facsimile that you wouldn’t expect in a sports article); his unique turns of phrase.

I then ask students to share in table groups what they noticed about craft and claims.  After they share and we debrief, I return to the article.

“One of the things I find fascinating about sportswriting is how quickly it has to happen.  The turnaround is so quick–we spend a few weeks polishing pieces of this length, but these writers only have a few hours.”

(In keeping choice central to my curriculum, students always get to choose either their process, genre, or topic.  Because in this unit students are constrained to one genre–nonfiction–I will make an effort to help them choose their own topics and processes.  That’s wisdom I gleaned from Writing With Mentors.)

“I want to consider the writer’s process, and I found some good evidence of it:  let’s look at Powell’s tweets from during the game.”

I pull up Powell’s Twitter account and we scroll down to see his game-time tweets, many of which contain some of the same phrases  in the article: the Dead End Kids, the Lackawanna freight train rolling through, the pitchers being gassed.  Students notice these unique phrases immediately.

“What could you infer about Powell, given that this game ended at around 1:00 am and his piece ran at 9:00 am?”

I elicit students to share:  “He was already writing a bit during the game.”  “He writes sports all the time so he can already pull up a lot of the jargon quickly.”  “He really loves his subject, since he’s up watching the game and tweeting and having fun with it.”  “He’s knowledgeable about the history of these teams–maybe he did a lot of research beforehand or maybe he just knows it from writing about it a lot.”

Now, students have painted a picture of the piece’s author.  We can go into the reading warm, not cold.

“So, let’s read again, and consider his process this time,” I ask.  “Look now to see how his tweets–evidence of his prewriting–are in the article and what that teaches you about his process.”

We read the article again, a fresh purpose for reading helping us see the writer’s process come to life.  Once we’ve finished, we talk in table groups and then debrief as a whole class about the evidence we see of Powell’s writing process based on his tweets and what we know about sportswriters as a group.

These two reads give us three things:  another example of writer’s craft, more examples of claims with supporting evidence, and an example of process.

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I love this great photo of the Cubs’ moment of triumph from the Wall Street Journal. 

Follow-Up:  After students read this piece, there are many opportunities for follow-up.  One is to simply have them apply its writing lessons to their own nonfiction pieces.  Another is to have a lengthy conversation on writing processes, and how they can be short yet incredibly effective–students can see that prewriting doesn’t have to take the form of a web or an outline, but that it can be tweets, too.

Daugherty’s work, the now-defunct Grantland, and The New York Times sports section are some of my favorite places  to find great sportswriting.  What are some of your favorite resources for finding great nonfiction for your students? Please share in the comments!

Mini-lesson Monday: Remembering 9/11 and a study of language

Our students are too young to remember the events of 9/11. And while we are not history teachers, I do think we have a responsibility and an opportunity to help them try to make sense of the horrors of that September morning and how it impacts their lives today.

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Pvt. Hyrum Chase Rasmussen

In church yesterday, the congregation stood and sang three verses of “The Star Spangled Banner.” This song has new meaning for me since my son Hyrum joined the Army this summer. It may have new meaning for you if you’ve been following the Colin Kaepernick-taking-a-knee-event-fall-out-and-discussion. I want my students to be able to make sense of their world and one way I can help them do that is to provide them with thought-provoking pieces that help them make connections. Maybe one of these texts will help them find their own “new meaning.”

In honor of September 11, the every day people and every day heroes who lost their lives, the families who still mourn loved ones, the soldiers who valiantly died facing foes in foreign lands, and the men and women willing to serve today in a time of unrest and war, this is the lesson that I will share with my students today.

Objective:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will react to a first-hand account of 9/11 in their writer’s notebooks. They will formulate ideas on how this one story relates to our growing theme of what it means to be courageously human. Students will then analyze a text and compare the writer’s use of language to a text read previously.

Lesson:  We’ve already discussed the question, “What does it mean to be courageously human?” a phrase I borrowed from a text we read last week. (I read Chequan Lewis’ piece as a read aloud, wanting students to just listen and enjoy his use of language. Then, later we read it again and analyzed the literary and rhetorical devices he uses to create the meaning. I modeled how to annotate and asked students to write their own notes in the margins — something I will expect them to do throughout the year.)

Today I will remind students to read texts with pens in hand, noting the writer’s interesting use of language, any points of confusion, any words they don’t know, the structure of the text, and any and all devices the writer uses to craft meaning. Today’s text is the masterful piece Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote September 12, 2001.

After students have time to read, annotate, and discuss in small groups, we will come together as a class and craft an anchor chart that details the moves Pitts makes in comparison to those craft moves made by Mr. Lewis. I will charge students to model these moves in their own writing throughout the year.

Follow up:  The anchor chart will hang in the room as a reminder that writers are intentional in the moves they make as they craft meaning. Students will be expected to be intentional in their own writing as they work on various forms of writing in class and on their blogs this year.

Mini-lesson Monday: Poetic Literary Movements

This year was a balancing act. Bridging the old and the new. The curriculum I’m used to and the possibilities of workshop. Along with that came plenty of challenges, but also plenty of opportunities to improve on what I know by learning more about what my students can create with choice.

This lesson is from my American Literature class (sophomores) and occurred this past April when we were studying Realism. Students had conducted some research on what thematic and stylistic elements characterized the Realist movement in America and I turned to poetry to make the 19th Century ideas come to life.

Objective/s: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will analyze their Realism research and examples of Realist poetry in order to synthesize characteristics of the time period with original ideas in the form of Realist inspired poetry.

Lesson: Students came to class with notes they took on American Realism. I had asked them to research the major authors of the time period, famous works, common themes and stylistic elements of writing from that time, and the historical events that led to a shift away from Romanticism.

We started by taking a look at Stephen Crane’s “I Saw a Man Pursuing the Horizon.”

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I modeled for students my own analysis, suggesting the elements of Realism I saw in the poem. The clash of Romantic thought and Realist. The futility Realists saw in trying to escape reality. The simple construction of sentences and relatively plain diction.

We then talked about connections to these realist ideas today. “Many of us are Romantics,” I said, “I think I’m one. But I bet many of you are Realists too. What does that look like in your life?”

I asked students to jot down some ideas in their writer’s notebooks of everyday events that speak to these same themes…what some would call the ordinary struggles of life. As I walked around and took a look at the ideas my students were generating, several jumped out at me:

  • Watching someone get bullied and not knowing how to help
  • Dealing with the hand you’re dealt
  • Unavoidable accidents
  • The ‘you’ no one would suspect

Holy poetry material! I shared aloud several examples of ideas I saw from their notebooks and then shifted to have them look at one more example to solidify the simplicity (and power) of realist diction and images.

“Now, I am of the opinion that some of the best poetry is exceedingly simple. The raw, honest truth of life, just like some of the ideas I saw when I walked around and peeked into your notebooks. Let’s take a look at one more example of realist poetry – a modern example.” I showed students  “The End,” a poem (no author found) I discovered when searching for examples of Realism:


The End

It didn’t come with a bang

or a big explosion.

It didn’t come with an inevitable apocalypse

or an armageddon.

It didn’t come with collision

or a war.

It didn’t end with a dying sun

or a waking moon.

It didn’t end in breached dimensions

or shattered realities.

It didn’t end with entropy.

It came when Existence stopped dreaming

And fell into a deep sleep.


Students read the poem silently a few times and I asked them to write down the lines that they felt were especially impactful, powerful, and/or moving. I then read the poem out loud and we discussed our thoughts on the lines they wrote in their notebooks.

Next up was time to explore. Students took their knowledge of Realism, their explorations of realist topics, and our discussion on the power of simple construction with simple ideas and set to work on their own realist poems in their notebooks.

Follow up: After students had time to work on their poems, I had them share at their tables. Each table elected one student whose poem they thought was particularly pointed and either that student stood to read it or asked someone else at the table to read his/her work. We always talk about taking pride and ownership in our writing to build community. Sometimes this means letting someone’s enthusiasm over the work of his/her peers fuel an energetic reading of the work as well. Kids love to read the work of their peers and I can see in the faces of the authors a pride often unmatched when they read their own work.

A few class periods later, I asked them to find additional poems with Realist characteristics. We used these as mentor texts for small group discussion and to compare with our own work.
Do you sometimes have to bridge the gap between old school and workshop? How do you make the old seem new again? Please share in the comments below.

Imagining Our Ideal Bookshelves

My students are selfie experts; somehow, through practice, they have discovered the perfect angle, the right light, the exact method to fit ten people into one frame—while still managing to make their head look normal-sized.  In those fleeting snapshots, they capture the essence of who they are (or at times who they want to be), if only for a second.

I believe that the books we read can serve as small photographs of our hopes, dreams, desires, and curiosities.  They provide a  snapshot of who we were, who we are, or who we want to become.

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Julia’s highly organized ideal shelf

As a final project, my AP Literature and Composition students completed an “ideal bookshelf,” inspired by the book My Ideal Bookshelf and a quick write I completed in Penny Kittle’s summer class two years ago.  The assignment was relatively simple—create your own ideal bookshelf of the books that “represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites” (La Force xi).  Since this is an AP Literature class, I added a twist—I wanted students to stock their shelves with books that not only transformed them as a person, but also developed them as a reader.

As each student presented on their shelf, they transformed from self-assured seniors to wide-eyed children who relayed the story of the first book they had ever fallen in love with.  Many of them spoke of how they either found or developed their passion for art,

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Max’s science-based book shelf

coaching, theatre, computers, and physics through books they had found over 18 years.  The books they listed did more than just challenge them as readers; these books had the power to inspire, entertain, and heal.  As Claudia wrote about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, “I have no real idea what is so special about it, but I’m not going to question its magical powers when it does so much good for me.”

 

 

What I loved most is how these shelves found life through details; Julia’s shelf held her drawing notebook, Cam’s his favorite cookbook, and Payton’s was adorned with her grandmother’s locket, which she uses as a bookmark.  Some shelves were neat and orderly, perfectly stacked, while others, like Sammie’s were a bit more scattered.  As Sammie put it, “I don’t know what I want to do as a profession; I am still figuring it out.  That partially explains the disarray that is my bookshelf.  I couldn’t decide which would be more practical, stacking or leaning.  The result is a bookshelf with a little bit of both.”

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Sammie’s slightly scattered ideal shelf

As my seniors complete the next three weeks and begin the process of preparing for college, I want them to walk away with the writing and analytical skills we’ve honed all year, but more than anything, I want them to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place.  I want them to question why books are powerful and understand that the universality of a novel’s message can change readers.  I want them to read for knowledge and depth and challenges, but I also want them to accept that not everything needs to be analyzed, dissected or picked apart.  In fact, sometimes we read for escapism, for love, for adventure.  For many, this might be the last English class they take.  Hopefully, it is only the start of a lifetime of reflective reading and ideal bookshelves.

 

 

3 Mentor Text Mini-Lessons

I am the worst at successfully locating mentor texts when I need them (even though Amy gave me great advice on how to do so here), but I do far better at tripping over mentor texts in life and designing subsequent lessons around them.  Recently I found three mentor texts that inspired me to create mini-lessons in which my students could write beside their authors.  Their written products could be cultivated as stand-alone pieces, but because May means multigenre in my classroom, I’d envision these mini-lessons as possible genres for a longer MGP.

img_2531Mentor Text #1:  Microfiction on a Chipotle Bag

I love Chipotle for a variety of reasons (did you get your free burrito yesterday for Teacher Appreciation Week?), but one surprise I love encountering is whomever is published on my bag.  On my latest visit, I spied one of my favorite new authors on my heavenly-scented bag of burritos–MT Anderson.  This phenomenal author of Feed and Symphony for the City of the Dead is already a favorite in my classroom, so I know his work will go over well.

His story is a piece of microfiction, or a short short story, or flash fiction.  Whatever you call the genre, it’s a highly useful one for the multigenre research paper, which seeks to tell the story of its topic using a variety of genres.  This year, my students are focusing on their relationships to literature in their MGPs, and re-reading one of their favorite books from the year with an eye for telling the story of how they interacted with, learned from, and grew because of the text.

This piece of microfiction is, as a result, a great mentor text.  MT Anderson’s story leaps into the action without directly establishing setting, employs minimal but highly effective dialogue, and uses extremely precise diction.  These skills could easily be practiced during a quickwrite, which could then be revised into an MGP piece.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 7.39.17 AMMentor Text #2:  Annotations in Books

Billy Collins’ great poem “Marginalia” has always been one of my favorites, and I thought it’d be a wonderful genre for this year’s MGP.  On a re-read, there’s plenty to say in the margins, plenty to preview on the inside cover, and plenty to exclaim about after the afterword.  For the project, I asked students to purchase their own copies of their favorite books they’d read this year so they could marginalia the heck out of them.

The creation of marginalia could be done, in part, in two separate class periods–one day for the preview note at the beginning, and one day for the review note at the end, with the remaining marginalia being written while the student was re-reading at home or during independent reading time.  Many of my students relish the idea of writing in books and enjoy encountering previous readers’ marginalia, so I know they’re excited to create a new text by adding to their favorite book.

img_2536While I’ve been wanting to have students try this genre for a while, I was inspired by two mentor texts I stumbled upon–a note left in Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles, and the notes my students wrote in a copy of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which they presented to me as a gift for Baby Ruth.  (Yes, it made me sob, and it wasn’t just the postpartum hormones!)

Mentor Text #3:  Biography Picture Books

With the arrival of little Ruthie, I’ve found my taste in literature skewing to a decidedly younger set of titles.  One of my favorites is a beautiful, lyrical biography of Walt img_2535Whitman. As my students work to reflect on and engage with their favorite books, I want them thinking about the books’ authors as well–and writing about them, too.  This book is a wonderful mentor text for showing how an author came to be a writer.

Walt Whitman, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick, is a gorgeous text that tells the story of Walt Whitman’s upbringing and eventual discovery of his love for writing.  Kerley intersperses lines of his poetry into the story, and they’re paired with beautiful illustrations by Selznick.  My students could easily create short biographies focused on how their authors became interested in writing, then pair them with an illustration for a children’s book genre to add to their MGP.


What writing lessons have you designed after stumbling upon random mentor texts?  Please share!

YA Fiction That’s Funny and Full of Voice

After millions of snow days, my student teacher, Mike, and I are finally wrapping up our Siddhartha self-reflection unit and jumping into a new writing unit I’m really excited about–comedy!  We’ll study satire, sketch comedy, stand-up, commentary, and monologues for mentor texts, then work with our students to craft strong comedy writings that exemplify the skills of pacing, payoff, “punch-up,” and one other skill that I think is the most important:

Voice.

Writing voice, for me, is where humor, sarcasm, and personality come alive in a piece of writing.  “Voice,” Tom Romano writes, “is the writer’s presence on the page.”  Voice is the most elusive quality of writing to teach, I think, because it’s not really quantifiable and cannot be duplicated or imitated.  Each writer must craft his own authentic voice.

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Brainstorming the bare bones of a comedy unit

While discussing the very bare bones of our comedy unit, we brainstormed mentor texts, seed prompts, and writing skills.  After we hammered those out, Mike wondered about which books to booktalk for the unit.  “Nonfiction comedy is easy,” he said.  “Bossypants, Yes Please, Confederacy of Dunces.  But I’m not sure what to booktalk for fiction.”

“But YA fiction is so hilarious!” I exclaimed.  I started rattling off narrators who cracked me up.  Their writing voices were the perfect mentor texts for our students, who’d be focusing on crafting a humorous writing voice over the course of the unit.

“Looks like I know what I’ll be brushing up on for my weekend reading,” Mike remarked.  So here, in part, is a list of what I recommended to him–YA fiction that’s funny and full of voice.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — This novel, paired with illustrations by the narrator, is loosely based on Alexie’s own upbringing somewhere between two identities–his poor Indian self who lives on the rez, and his striving-to-succeed “white” self who attends a better school up the road.  It’s infused with Alexie’s signature wry humor even against a pretty dark plot backdrop.

49750An Abundance of Katherines by John Green — This is, to me, the funniest of Green’s novels, although all of his narrators are pretty hilarious.  Colin Singleton has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and has been dumped by all of them.  If that’s not funny enough as it is, Colin is trying to write a mathematical formula for relationships and likes to find anagrams in random places.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by e. lockhart — For me, Frankie is the female version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  Determined to subvert the male-dominated traditions at her private school, Frankie gets into all kinds of mischief, and I loved her headstrong voice.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang — This excellent graphic novel pairs multiple storylines, all of which are made hilarious primarily through dialogue and stylistic choices in Yang’s illustrations.  From antagonists so dumb they’re funny to Yang’s monkey alter ego, this is a humorous look at growing up different in America.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins — I identified so much with the quirky narrator of this novel.  Forced to change schools right before her senior year, Anna is self-deprecating, sarcastic, and delightfully bewildered when she moves to the International School of Paris.  There’s also a great cast of hilarious supporting characters here.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — I just loved Willowdean, the narrator of this terrific, important novel.  Most of her snide comments are made through internal monologues, but her interactions with her mom through dialogue are also quite funny, too.  Like Part-Time Indian, there are some heavier themes, but all in all I smiled throughout most of this book.

9464733Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — An all-girls’ Lord of the Flies, this book was fantastic for a variety of reasons.  The colorful cast of alternating narrators means there’s someone every reader can identify with, the interactions between those characters are often ridiculous and hysterical, and interwoven with it all is a series of broadcasts from a corrupt third party who are so evil it’s funny.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley — I finally read this book after it was stolen from my library countless times, and it’s hilarious from page one.  The story of a boy whose head is transplanted onto another teen’s body after he dies of cancer, Travis’ tale is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious as he tries to navigate the world five years after he last left it.  A fantastic series of supporting characters elevated the humor in this book for me, too.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews — For me, this was a more realistic version of The Fault in Our Stars.  I found Greg’s writing voice engaging and entertaining right away, and it made me read this book in one sitting.  His frequent addresses to the reader combined with his hilarious interactions with his friend Earl made Greg a favorite narrator of mine, and makes me eager for Jesse Andrews to write some more books!

Winger by Andrew Smith — All of Andrew Smith’s writings are hilarious at times, but for me Winger was the funniest.  Ryan Dean West is a scrappy fifteen-year-old making his way through freshman year at a private school, and his escapades with his rugby teammates, his crush, and his teachers made for a lot of laughs–up until I completely broke down in sobs for the last 30 pages or so of the book.  Still, Ryan Dean’s voice was so great that I couldn’t wait to devour this book’s sequel, Stand-Off.

What are some of the best-voiced YA books you’ve read that have cracked you up?  Please share in the comments!

Writing With Mentors: A Nonnegotiable of Writers Workshop

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WRITING WITH MENTORS by Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell

Reading Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell‘s Writing With Mentors is reminding me of the summer, three years ago, that I committed to making the move to readers and writers workshop.  Like my new friends in Franklin, Wisconsin, I already had many of the structures of workshop in place–I just didn’t know how to fit them all together.

As I read and wrote and thought beside the likes of Penny Kittle, Amy, Jackie, Erika, and my other UNH friends, I learned quickly which parts of my instruction to keep and tweak, and which parts to flat-out jettison.  While I felt like my reading workshop practices were solid, I knew I needed to completely rethink the way I designed writing instruction.

I wish I’d had Writing With Mentors that summer.

That summer, I learned that I shouldn’t be designing lessons around a staid form like a persuasive essay or a literary analysis.  I needed to begin thinking about having my students write authentic, interesting pieces on topics of their choice–but I didn’t know how.

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I immediately saw Gregory Pardlo’s DIGEST, full of prose poems, as a mentor text.

I learned how to read like a writer, how to look at the craft and structure of my favorite authors’ works.  I began to see mentor texts everywhere, and in fact too many places–I was exhausted by trying to keep track of everything I wanted to share with my students, and even resolved to read less as a teacher.  I wanted to offer a variety of rich mentor texts to my students without losing my mind–but I didn’t know how.

I learned that my writing process was as unique as my handwriting, and that process has value just as much as a written product does.  I wanted to restructure my unit planning, my gradebook, and my classroom routines to reflect that–but again, I didn’t know how.

Over three years, through trial and error, I’ve figured out how to reckon with a lot of those issues, but I would have known instantly had I read Writing With Mentors then.  This book succinctly showed me great writing units and products, how to plan for them, and how to select and organize current, engaging mentor texts.

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Books are at the center of my writing instruction–literally.

It reminded me that when we read–even to study the craft moves of a mentor author–we must read as readers first, for the “pleasures of story time” and to “hear the rhythms of good writing” (65).

It affirmed my habit of designing new units each year, complete with brand new mentor texts, to meet the needs of my current students and the sociopolitical climate in which we live and read and write.

It helped me cement mentor texts, alongside the writer’s notebook, conferring, and authenticity, as nonnegotiables of a successful writers workshop–because, in Allison and Rebekah’s words, “mentor texts enable complete creativity and individuality to emerge in student writing and writing instruction” (3).

And it reminded me that when students leave our classrooms, “mentor texts will always be present” (167).  When we teach students to write with mentors, they remain capable of reading like writers as they engage with print and media and other real-world texts.   Since getting my students to become lifelong readers and writers is my ultimate goal, this book is now an important mentor to me.

Writing With Mentors is the book to pick up when you put the textbook down, toss out your binders of writing rubrics, or throw up your hands when you read your 94th crappy plagiarized paper in a row.  If you’re seeking to rejuvenate, organize, and revamp your writing instruction, don’t undergo three years of trial and error like I did…let Allison and Rebekah help you write, more happily, successfully, and authentically, with mentors.

Have you read Writing With Mentors?  Share your feedback in the comments!

 

Integrating Reading & Writing Instruction: Craft Studies & Mentor Texts

This is a continuation of our post from yesterday.

#3TTWorkshopWhat are you reading now, and/or what are your latest finds that could be strong mentor texts?  

Jackie:  For fun, I am currently reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and for AP Literature, I am currently reading Othello.  I read Ready Player One as a departure from my typical YA reads.  I was never a gamer or 80s enthusiast, so I wanted to “challenge” myself by choosing a new genre.  Ernest Cline brilliantly writes action pieces.  Somehow he manages to translate the video game structure into a novel AND make it interesting for non-gamers like me; I am planning to use an excerpt to discuss movement of time either when we work on our multi-genre project this year or our fictional writing next year.  

Most recently, my CP freshmen read the picture book The Promise by Nicola Davies as a mentor for our narrative fiction unit.  In my academic freshman classes, we recently completed process papers based on The Compound by S.A. Bodeen.  Mentors for these included “What you will need in class today” by Matthew Foley and “Instructions for a bad day” by Shane Koyczan.  Students used each as a mentor text by which to craft their own poems and then eventually built them into unique survival guides ranging from “How to survive a zombie apocalypse” to “How to survive a friend’s breakup.”  As Shana said yesterday, I like pairing professional work with my own to show them the messy process of writing, so prior to class I get a head start on my own piece and then I continue developing it while projecting my writer’s notebook on the board at the beginning of workshop time.    

img_1056-1Shana:  I just finished the beautiful Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  I love it as a mentor text because it’s a bit multigenre, and it’s an engaging YA love story, AND it’s gorgeously written.  With tons of parallel structure and a short-chapter format, it’s a quick read but one that lends itself to lots of frequent re-reading.  I’ll use this text for craft studies at the sentence and paragraph level to teach things like repetition, parallel structure, and varied sentence structure.

Another book I just read was Caitlin Doughty’s memoir Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Other Lessons from the Crematory, which I usually booktalk with Mary Roach’s Stiff.  This tale of Caitlin’s experiences working in a crematory will be useful for my students to analyze at the chapter level, during which she employs narrative to blend her adult experiences in the crematory with the formative experiences of her youth in order to make a claim about the nature of human life and death.  It’s a powerful example of the use of narrative within nonfiction.

I also recently read Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, which tells the story of a high school senior who falls and loses all memory of everything after sixth grade.  As a result, most of her life story is revealed through dialogue with other characters, so this will be a fantastic mentor text at the whole-text level–how can we craft a short story that uses dialogue to reveal movement through time, a character’s background, or a character’s personality traits–all without that dialogue being spoken by that character?

 

How will you integrate your current reads into your practice?

Shana:  I like to share this article about noticing beautiful writing with my students.  We use it as the basis for two sections in our notebook–“Quotes & Craft Study” and “Wondrous Words.”  I like to break down with my students why a particular line or paragraph or chapter in a piece of writing is so powerful–at the word level, the structural level, the punctuation level.  When we read like writers, we can notice all of those details and begin to imitate them in our own writing.  

img_1057My students asked for more craft study and grammar instruction in their midterm exams.  With our new notebook setups, I’m hoping to create a routine for the wordplay we’ll need to constantly return to in order to strengthen our use of punctuation, specific diction, sentence structures, and other craft moves.  I want to employ more “triple-plays,” as Penny Kittle calls them–books that act as a booktalk, a quickwrite, and a craft study mini-lesson.  For example, I’ll take the chunk of Everything, Everything pictured at right and make copies of it for my students to glue into their notebooks.  Beneath it, we’ll imitate the parallel structure of the sentences, and the exercise will serve to teach parallelism, talk up the book itself, and be a quickwrite we’ll call “it could be.”

Jackie:  Inspired by a course we took this summer with Tom Newkirk, my colleague and I are putting together a superhero unit for our academic Freshman English classes.  The unit will involve both a persuasive essay and a comic strip students make about a hero in their life.  In turn, I’ve been skimming comics and graphic novels to find inspiration for students.  

In this unit, students will practice storyboarding their own comics while studying the use of craft like onomatopoeia, movement of time, and internal and external dialogue.  My hope is that these building blocks will provide a foundation for us to further discuss the use of colors to portray goodness and evil within a comic (or novel) as well as the use of framing or perspective in the pieces as well.

Please join the conversation–how do you approach the study of craft with your student writers?

Finding Mentor Texts & Craft Studies

#3TTWorkshop MemeWhat 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.

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The page I’ll booktalk from Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

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?

 

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

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Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

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