Tag Archives: moving writers

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!

 

Choose to Become a Classroom of Writers

Note:  I enjoy emails with questions about my teaching practice. They help me clarify my thinking, and they often lead to new posts here. This post is Part I of my response to this question:

How does your district handle classes that are very content specific? For example, I teach Honors/Pre-AP American Literature. This is a sophomore (with accelerated freshmen course) that has a pretty traditional literary movement focus, which includes several of the classics (The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, The Things They Carried). And while I feel I have made great strides over the years in terms of student driven lessons, focus on discussion and annotation, skill vs. content based assessment, the one area I continue to struggle with as I look to workshop is how to facilitate the choice. 

Do you have a similar class in your district? Are any of these texts still used as whole class works? As options within specific unit studies? Or is the year open to student choice throughout? 

First of all, while my district ELA coordinator would love for all teachers to move to readers/writers workshop, and he has introduced that idea through various means, many teachers are not there yet and some are determined not to budge. Like many other issues related to change in schools, they nod their heads and keep doing what they’ve always done. We know that sometimes this is best for kids (I’ve done the nodding and door closing, too), and sometimes it is not, which is the case when it comes to continuing to make all the choices in English classes at the expense of student readers.

My own department manager reminds me often that we have to take our movement one step at a time. This is my first year on this campus, and while most everyone is making positive and impacting change. It’s slow, and I get antsy. I’ve been doing readers/writers workshop with my students for seven years now, and I still work on refining plans, lessons, mentor text selections, mini-lessons, and more. Truly, workshop is constant motion, which I am sure, if you practice it, you already know.

Recently, I was asked, “What is the one step that will give us the most movement as we continue this transition?” I paused for a moment, and then the answer focused clearly:

Become classrooms of writers.

Many high school English classes are literature laden. All the lessons revolve around specific texts, mostly whole class novels, and sometimes teachers spend five, six or nine weeks reading and discussing that one text. Sure, they might include other instructional practices and activities, but the most common mode of writing taught is analytical (the least likely of all the modes of writing students will use in their lives after English class. Teachers, when was the last time you wrote an analytical essay for your job?).

When we move to becoming classrooms of writers, teachers realize that if we want to practice other modes, read mentor texts, model the writing process, lead revision workshops, publish our best work, and truly live the lives of writers, we simply do not have time to devote class after class time to the study of one particular book.

A mentor once told me:  “You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.”Faulkner on reading

Say I choose to create a unit where my students write narratives (I always start the year with narrative because it is builds community, and contributes so much weight to other modes of writing. See tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories.) I prepare by gathering a variety of narrative texts of various lengths. I can use passages from an assortment of books in my classroom library, or I can pull passages from popular short stories, or classic novels. [See note on this at the end.]

Some passages I will use to teach leads. Others I will use to teach how authors deal with time. I may pull out specific parts and teach effective use of dialogue or character development, setting, whatever. [Gathering a variety of texts in different genres around the same theme is another way to approach the same type of reading then writing task I describe here. I’ll write about this soon.]

First, we read like readers. We practice comprehension strategies and discuss the meaning of the text.

Next, we read like writers. We deconstruct the text and discuss how the author makes that meaning.

In my AP class, we almost always talk about these texts via a Harkness discussion. Students do the thinking and speaking after I’ve done mini-lessons and modeled answering focusing questions. I’ve learned to trust that students will discover the elements and devices that I hope they will. Sometimes I have to prod, but they rarely never get there.

The skill I need to teach determines the reading passages I select. That’s an opposite approach to how I used to plan when my teaching was driven by various pieces of literature.

And now, I have time to talk about books, allow students to select books they’d like to read, and confer with students about their reading. They read tons more than they ever did before, and they become much more effective writers. Win/Win.

cool quote memes from our friends at http://www.TeachMentorTexts.com

Watch for Part II of my response soon.
 ©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015
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