Mentor Texts and Writing Workshop

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I took a deep breath this year and decided I would use Writing Workshops as an integral part of my teaching.  I think I’m like many teachers.  I love the idea of workshops in the ELA classroom, but I give up quickly when my version of the workshop does not match the workshops that my mentors have described.  I have to accept that I am not Nancy Atwell or Linda Rief or Cris Tovani, Kylene Beers, and a host of others.  The more I tried to emulate these wonderful and inspiring teachers, the more I felt like a failure because my students–my “weeds”, as Linda Rief described some students–did not magically produce the beautiful writing that these teachers’ students seemed to produce.  I knew I had to be doing something wrong, so I returned to my “tried and true” lecture disguised as discussion method of teaching.

When I returned to secondary teaching after almost five years of college-level teaching composition to students entering the medical profession, I began reading about mentor texts.  I started researching this idea and even thought about the way my high school English teacher taught grammar.  She used mentor texts to teach us, but I don’t think Mrs. Richardson would have called them that.  She taught us the structure, let us practice by analyzing the sentences (you know, parsing them by part of speech, then part of the sentence, clause, phrase, punctuation, etc.).  Then she made us write sentences of our own to practice the conventions she taught us.  The teaching stuck.  I know I know how to punctuation compound sentences because I practiced with my own writing.

This year, I am using mentor texts, and I am loving the results.  I begin with Katy Wood Ray’s five steps of reading like a writer:

  1. Notice something about the text.
  2. Talk about it, and make a theory about the craft moves.
  3. Name the craft, even if it isn’t the technical name.
  4. Think of, and connect, to other texts using the same craft.
  5. Envision using the craft in your own writing. Give it a go! (adapted from Wondrous Words)

I’ve done three workshops with two poems and one student-written model: “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyons; ‘Time Somebody Told Me” by a student poet reprinted in Linda Rief’s first quick write book; and “On Being Asked to Select a Most Memorable Moment” in Linda Rief’s Quick Write Handbook.  Students have written each week, and this week, students began using some of the craft moves we’ve discovered.  What’s more, I am seeing that students are enjoying writing.

Oh, yes, I still have those students who only write two or three lines during the writing time, but I am confident that eventually, they will begin to write more as they become more confident and see more possibilities for writing. I am writing with students and sharing my writing, even when my pieces bring me and my students to tears.  (I wrote during our last workshop about the day my father passed away, and my voice broke when I read the piece to my students. They would have hugged me, they said, but we have to maintain social distancing in the classroom.  Danged COVID-19!)

Another resource that is informing my instruction during the mini-lessons with mentor texts is Text Structures from Poetry by Gretch Bernabei and Lara Van Prooyen.  I also have the companion Text Structures from the Masters but have not yet used this resource in my planning. Another resource that is informing my instruction is Patterns of Power by Jeff Anderson.  I have not focused yet on the conventions using this pattern of reading reading like a writer and using mentor texts as patterns for students to emulate, I am excited by the possibilities.


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I feel as though I’m taking a huge risk with my students when I use this strategy for teaching writing.  Yet I am hopeful that my students will not dread writing so much when they have models to teach them.

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