Why Is It So Important to Use Mentor Texts in Conferences?

Carl_Anderson

by Guest Blogger Carl Anderson– Author and 2016 Lesley University Summer Institute Featured Speaker

The act of raising children involves surrounding them with mentors throughout their childhoods.  Piano and dance teachers, soccer and baseball coaches, and, yes, teachers in schools are all mentors for children who teach them things that their parents do not have the necessary expertise or time to teach themselves.

When we use the term “mentor text,” we are referring to a text that is an example of good writing from which children can learn about the craft of writing.  By studying a mentor text, a young writer can learn about how to write a lead, how to use punctuation to create cadence and rhythm in sentences, how to structure a text, or any one of hundreds if not thousands of ways that writers choose to craft their writing.

In a real sense, it’s the author of the text who is the mentor for the child.  A sixth grader who is studying Brown Girl Dreaming is learning about how to write from Jacqueline Woodson.  Or a first grader who is studying The Snowy Day is learning how to write from Ezra Jack Keats.  Just like Odysseus’s son Telemachus’ son learned from the Odysseus’s friend Mentor when Odysseus was away during his journeys in the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, by Homer (I found out about the root of the word “mentor” from Georgia Heard in her book, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction!, students learn from the authors of every genre they study in a writing workshop.

Being familiar with mentor texts helps students with two of the key acts in composing a text.  First, when writers are starting to write a text, or a part of a text, they envision how it will go, a term I originally learned from Katie Wood Ray in her book, Wondrous Words (1999).  Writers often envision the overall structure of a text before they start writing it.  Likewise, when they write a section, a paragraph, a sentence, even the individual words that make up a sentence, they envision how these components of the text will go, too.  The root word of envisionment is, of course, vision.  For a writer to be able to “see” in her mind how a text or part of a text will go, she draws upon her knowledge of the kind of text she’s trying to write.  It’s through studying mentor texts that writers enhance their ability to imagine the many ways their own texts could go.

Revision, the part of the writing process that we usually think of as happening after writing a draft, refers to the act of making changes that improve a draft.  These changes might include adding detail to a draft, reworking a section, deleting a section, putting a section in a different place in the draft, or deciding to substitute one word for another.  Just as with the term envisionment, the root of the word revision is “vision.”  How do writers “see” in their minds how a text could be revised?  One important way is by thinking of the texts that they’ve studied, and comparing their drafts to those texts.  Ideas for how to revise a text come from that same pool of knowledge about texts that ideas for envisioning a text come from.

And once again, by studying mentor texts, writers are better able to imagine ways that a text could be revised.

Although I think it’s important to show students mentor texts when we are teaching the class a mini-lesson or a few students in a small group, I find that conferences are the place where mentor texts have the biggest impact on student learning, for several reasons:

  • In conferences, we can match a child up to a text that is at her level as a writer, and which shows the child exactly what it is I want her to learn to do right now. In a mini-lesson or small group, on the other hand, the mentor texts we show may not be exactly on each child’s level as a writer.
  • In conferences, since the mentor text is right in front of the child, he can closely study the text in a way that is harder when the text is projected onto a screen via a document camera, or onto the smart board via a laptop.
  • Conferences are more intimate than mini-lessons or small groups, and give us the chance to engage a child in a discussion about a text and how she can use what she is seeing in the text in her own writing.
  • In conferences, we are able to gauge whether or not a student understands the craft move that we’re studying in a text in a way that isn’t possible in a mini-lesson.

Finally, while we traditionally think of mentor texts as published texts—picture books, op-eds from a newspaper, short stories from a children’s magazine, etc.–they can also be texts that we have composed ourselves, or texts that have been composed by our own students.

Also, I use different kinds of texts as mentors to help students imagine the kinds of work they can do at other parts of the writing process.  For example, to help students envision what goes into keeping a successful writer’s notebook, I show them my own writer’s notebook.  I also show students my revised drafts–both paper and digital–so they can see the kinds of revision work I’ve done, such as information I’ve added in the margins.  I even show students edited drafts, so they can see the kinds of edits I make, and the symbols I use to indicate the kinds of edits I’m making.

You can hear Carl Anderson speak at our 2016 Summer Literacy Institute July 12-15, 2016. Register online at: https://www.regonline.com/Register/Checkin.aspx?EventID=1810005

 

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