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October 31, 2013 Using Mentor Texts to Empower Student Authors By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Like many schools, we are now using the Danielson Framework for Teaching to advance teaching and learning at my school. Grounded in a constructivist approach, we are striving for high levels of intellectual engagement among our students based on student-initiated inquiry. This is a mouthful of Danielson-speak (specifically addressing 3c, if you were wondering,) for a teacher-as-facilitator, student-centered classroom.

    Accustomed to a gradual release, I-do/we-do/you-do writing workshop model, my teaching team wanted to come up with an alternative approach that would rely less on the teacher modeling writing strategies. Instead, we wanted our students to “discover” revision strategies and then teach their “discoveries” to the class. Thankfully, we didn’t have to invent something new — a tried and true instructional approach fit the bill. By shifting the focus in our writing workshop to analyzing the craft of mentor authors, the students are able to “pick their teachers.” In fact, in my classroom my students now call authors their “writing guides.”

    Using mentor texts is an established best practice, and there are plenty of professional books that provide excellent guidance. I particularly recommend Teaching Writing With Picture Books as Models, Teaching Writing With Mentor Texts in the Primary Classroom, and Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children's Literature, K-6. Below is a snapshot of the revision work my students are doing for their personal narrative writing, along with the templates and rubrics we are using to support the students’ author-apprenticeships.



    Planning With the Common Core in Mind

    Our personal narrative unit addresses CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3 of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy, specifically that students will “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.” We wanted our students to mine their mentor texts to address the specific demands of this standard, so we focused their revision explorations on these areas:

    Common Core Standard:
    Revision Teaching Points/                                                  Mentor Text Exploration Topics:

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3a Establish a situation and introduce a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally.

    *Writing “juicy” leads

    *Describing characters

    *Narrative organizational structures

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3b Use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.


    *Internal story (feelings)

    *Describing events/actions (Showing, not telling)

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3c Use temporal words and phrases to signal event order

    *Transition words/time words

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.3d Provide a sense of closure.

    *Exploring closings/story endings

    Those standards cover a lot of ground — really too many teaching points for a single round of narrative writing! So, I read my students’ first drafts and grouped my students into revision strategy groups based on their strengths and needs. In most cases, I provided two options for revision strategies to each student, and let them individually choose their focus strategy. This ensured that they were working on developmentally appropriate strategies, but they still had a choice.

    I used this Narrative Revision Strategies Grouping Planner to organize my students into revision strategy groups.

    I provided this student-friendly checklist rubric to help my students self-assess their personal narrative drafts to choose the revision strategies they feel they most need. For their second attempt at personal narrative writing, I plan on letting students choose their own revision focus based on their self-assessment, rather than on my assessed next steps.

    Students need to be taught the difference between revising and editing. Many students default to editing without explicit instruction in the (joyous) craft of revising. This student-created chart explains the differences.


    Analyzing Mentor Leads – A Guided Process

    Before my students were ready to tackle revision strategy work in their individual small groups, the entire class practiced our mentor-author-apprenticeship approach while learning about different leads. (This was a revision area that all of my students were able to benefit from and enjoy.) We began by reading the chapter titled “Leads: Breaking the Ice,” in Ralph Fletcher’s lighthearted and accessible writing guide Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words.

    We explored the leads in several picture books and chapter books together, and we practiced as a class coming up with creatively descriptive names for each type of lead. My students took ownership for each type of lead through the process of “inventing” categorical names. Here are some of their lead labels:


    The Wednesday Surprise by Eve Bunting

    “I like surprises. But the one Grandma and I are planning for Dad’s birthday is the best surprise of all.”

    The Statement Lead

    My Father’s Hands by Joanne Ryder

    “My father’s hands are big and strong, scooping up earth and lifting a sack of seeds. Thin cracks run down my father’s fingers. Dirt fills every line and edges each nail black.”

    The Physical Description Lead

    Dad and Me in the Morning by Patricia Lakin

    “My alarm clock flashed. I shut it off and quickly sat up!”

    The Right-Into-The-Action Lead

    The Janitor’s Boy by Andrew Clements

    “Jack Rankin had a particularly sensitive nose. As he walked into school in the morning, sometimes he would pause and pull in a snoot-load of air from the flow rushing out the door.”

    The One-Odd-Trait Character Description Lead

    No Talking by Andrew Clements

    “Dave Packer was in the middle of his fourth hour of not talking.”

    The Huh? Now I’m Curious! Lead

    After we analyzed several leads together as a class, my students worked with partners and a selection of picture books to categorize mentor authors’ leads independently.

    My students kept track of the leads they discovered as they apprenticed themselves to authors using this graphic organizer.

    Finally, each pair of students chose a lead-type to teach to the class. They created charts to guide their “lessons,” we hung them as a mentor-lead gallery wall, and the students presented about their discoveries to the class. With this plethora of mentor leads to select from, my students were eager to try out some of these leads with their own writing. Of course, they had an affinity for the lead-types that they had discovered. There’s nothing better than having them teach a strategy to get students to take ownership of it!



    Revision Strategy Groups with Authors-as-Teachers

    After rehearsing how to learn from authors with our lead-revision study, my students were ready to work in small groups on a variety revision strategies. They used graphic organizers to track their observations.

    Here are the task cards we used at some of the revision strategy centers:


    Susie, a phenomenal writing teacher on my team, makes the connection between mentor texts and the students' writing very clear with this anchor chart: "Where the author did something special..."


    More Mentor Text Writing Resources

    Be sure to read fellow blogger Erin’s post about mentor texts: THE Key Ingredient to a Successful Reading or Writing Lesson. I love her “craft placemat,” and have already adapted it to use with my students.

    Here are six book lists of mentor texts to teach each of the six traits of writing.

    Without formative assessment, we are “teaching in the dark” — our teaching will rarely hit the mark. Danielle’s blog posts Assess, Plan, Teach! Part1 and Part 2 explain how to plan impactful writing lessons by analyzing student work.

    Let’s not forget the role of mentor illustrators! Scholastic has compiled a generous collection of CCSS aligned resources around popular children’s book illustrators, including video interviews, and beautifully illustrated reading posters that are FREE to download.

    My co-conspirator, aka partner teacher, Lindsey, created this "Peers as Mentors" bulletin board in her classroom.

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